As an Armenian born and raised in the USA, I can say that I feel as strongly about my Armenian heritage as I do about being American. From the language we speak to the people and communities we interact with, my family and I include Armenian culture into our everyday lives, preserving our ancient culture and heritage. I have been to Armenia a couple times before as a tourist and have seen all the highlights, popular tourist sights, and historic ruins and places. However, I wanted to really immerse myself into the Armenian culture and experience how the native, indigenous Armenian people live and feel in different parts of Armenia, and volunteering was the perfect opportunity for this. That’s when I discovered Birthright Armenia (BRA), an organization dedicated to helping diaspora Armenians discover themselves and learn about their identity, history, culture, and heritage by bringing them back to their homeland. BRA takes the volunteers on weekly excursions to all of the important sites, teaching them about Armenia’s ancient history, culture, heritage, and as well as allowing them to witness the natural beauty of Armenia. Through BRA, I decided to volunteer in Armenia for around 7 months in the Fall, Winter, and Spring – chosen purposely to be different from my previous two visits which were in the summer time.
During my volunteering time in Armenia I have had the desire to stay and work in different regions, and through BRA’s flexibility and accommodation my wishes were made possible. The first few months I spent in Yerevan, then moved to Gyumri, the second largest city in Armenia, for a couple of months, and then Kapan. Why Kapan? About a month into my time in Armenia, BRA arranged an excursion to the southern reaches of Armenia and Syunik province. Kapan, and another smaller city called Meghri, were among the places visited. It was during this time when I discovered the beauty of this region and knew I wanted to return.
Spring was taking its first breaths when I arrived in Kapan, and it was beautiful. The entire region was a vast sea of green, except for patches of purple, due to a small purple-colored wildflower called ‘manushak.’ As time went on, the area only continued to grow more and more unbelievably gorgeous. Besides the brightly-colored tulips which were blooming, flowers from a wide range of tree species, many being fruit-producing, also added to the beauty: the white from the plum trees, soft pink from the apricot trees, and yellow from the cornelian-cherry trees made it more like a painting.
The view from my homestay was also amazing: On top of having a super green garden right in front, in which our neighbors and locals seeded, planted, and maintained, there was a clear view of Mount Khustup, the burial place of Armenian national hero Garegin Nzhdeh. If the weather was good, and the sun was out, my host-mother and I would often sit out on the balcony, either eating lunch or just to talk. My host-mother was very nice, and often prepared delicious traditional Armenian dishes for us. During the first month or so in Kapan, I put on some weight, not only because there is no such thing as being “full” in an Armenian household but also because it took me some time to figure out when to cut off my intake. The evenings were also the most “irresistible” part of the day. Before dinner, we usually sit down to drink a surdj (traditional Armenian coffee), where she would bring out a wide range of her own baked pastries. During this time, we would turn on the television to begin watching the same three TV series which we followed regularly. Shortly after coffee, we would have dinner. We would talk more, either arguing about and discussing where the show will go next or sharing life stories. I remember she would share stories, and photos, of the days when she was younger. She explained how during the early years of her marriage, her husband passed away and that she had to raise three kids alone, but also how they have traveled to many places and have had a good life.
Easter, one of the largest celebrated holidays in Armenia, was also quite nice in Kapan. Before going out to enjoy the festivities, my host-mother and I drank some surdj and played zadig, a traditional game played on Easter. Afterwards, I went out and walked around the city: Live music filled the streets, dancing brought everybody together, and the children kept busy with games and other fun attractions – overall it was a very lively day. The day after Easter, however, is dedicated to visiting the graves and “spending time” with lost relatives and loved-ones. I joined my host-mother and her family and drove up to the village of Geghanush to visit my host-mother’s husband’s grave. After they placed their flowers and payed their respects, we spent some time there weeding and cleaning his burial site. Before returning back, I visited the local church; a church dating back to ancient medieval times. The entire Syunik region, and country, is rich with many cultural and historical gems such as this.
I couldn’t spend all my time wandering around exploring though – I came here to volunteer and work. Luckily my homestay was situated in downtown Kapan, the center of the city. Most places which I would need to go at any time, including the mall, stores, and restaurants were no more than a five-minute walk away. Moreover, my jobsite placement was no more than a three-minute walk away: Super convenient!
The organization which I volunteered at in Kapan was the ARK Ecological NGO, focused on the development and promotion of ecotourism in Southern Armenia. One of the projects in which ARK was working on was the development and implementation of permaculture in agriculture around the Syunik province and Southern Armenia. Two camps/gardens existed under ARK: one in Kapan, and one in the nearby village of Arajadzor. I normally went to the Kapan campsite to work, since it was closer. The campsite was filled with a plethora of different types of trees, bushes, and plants: Cornelian cherry, walnut, apple, pear, blackberry, etc.…However, unfortunately, fruits had yet to ripen that time of year. I went to maintain the garden in other ways: trimming trees (to stimulate lateral growth), maintaining the campsite/garden, seeding, etc.…Besides physical work, there was much intellectual work which needed to happen too. Grants and other legal paperwork were necessary to fund the projects and move forward. Still in a developmental phase, there was always work that needed to be done at ARK.
Projects and activities related more to the tourism aspect of ARK are those which have given me more interesting and enjoyable experiences working at ARK and being in Kapan in general. Sometimes I, and other members of ARK, would go and explore other regions of the Kapan municipality and Syunik province. On these “expeditions,” we would search for trails which could be used to guide backpackers to Kapan. These trails were already-existing routes used by locals and ran through the Syunik province from village to village. Backpackers and tourists would be able to use these trails to lead them to Kapan where they would be able to experience traditional Armenian culture and taste authentic Armenian cuisine.
During my time in Kapan, I helped tourists have a more enjoyable experience in Kapan: aiding with communication and language barriers, facilitating with any local purchasing, guiding them to historical and cultural attractions, etc. There was an instance where from a restaurant, some tourists call me in need of assistance. “Hi André, how are you? Can you ask the waiter what vegetarian options they have? Actually, can you just order for us please?” So, on the phone from the couch at home, I go back and forth talking to them and the waiter as a translator. In the end I assured them that whatever they ordered it would be worth it. Food and product in Kapan were amazing, everything being local, organic, fresh, and often homemade. There was another instance where a tourist wanted to buy some honey and other local product to take home with them. I facilitated their meeting and any transactions which occurred. Although not officially part of my work description, there were many instances such as this where I aided in local-tourist interaction, and it was personally a very rewarding experience for me.
Besides aiding others, I have also bought homemade product from locals. Home-made Armenian vodka, locally called oghi, is, in my opinion, the best in the world. When locals distill it at home, it’s delicious: odorless and has the taste of the fruit which it was pulled from, which often are fruits rarely found in the United States. I knew I needed to bring some back with me before I left Kapan. So, with the assistance of ARK and my host family, I was able to purchase some bottles of oghi - I tried to get multiple as I do not know the next time I will return to acquire more.
My time spent in Kapan was rewarding in so many ways. The experiences I had working, living, and interacting with people left an indelible impression on me. My time there taught me an incredible amount on how local life is and was able to see, and even experience, it. During my time in Kapan, I befriended a local family living in a village nearby. Actually, a pretty large family: three brothers (two married with children), a sister, and their parents. These friends of mine were incredibly welcoming, warm, and fun people. Some days, I used to hire a taxi to go visit them. Other days, they came to the city and we spent time there. It would not appear as if they had anything to hide. However, as I later found out, this family has a dark secret: there used to be a fourth brother.
In Armenia, there is a mandatory military draft, and when young men turn eighteen years old, they are sent to the military. This young man was posted on the border of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Republic of Artsakh) and Azerbaijan. Peacefully maintaining his post, guarding the border, he was unethically and dishonorably shot and killed by Azeri soldiers. At the young age of nineteen, his life was ended short. I have only heard of such wild acts in the news; Azeri soldiers using Armenian soldiers as target practice, during the current ceasefire. Hearing about it first-hand from a victim’s family was something completely different. The very first time that I heard it from them, emotions just took over my mind and body. As an outsider to them and feeling like that, I cannot even IMAGINE what these great people are going through. Unfortunately, this is not the only case of this kind of atrocious act being committed. Annually, there are many similar cases of this happening. Unacceptable, unethical, unforgivable – I hope peaceful solutions will one day be worked out between these neighboring countries, so such atrocities would finally end.
Kapan had given me the richest experience out of all the locations I had worked and lived in Armenia, and it is an experience I will not forget. And although it was hard to leave Kapan, I could not help but to look forward to my time even more down south in the next city, which most definitely did not disappoint.
Meghri is a small city/town in the very south of Armenia, right next to the border of Iran. It is a very mountainous area – shielded by mountains on all sides. That is one of the reasons it is so special. The city sits down in the valley, where the weather is almost tropical. Being one of the hottest places in Armenia, and containing plenty of water, Meghri can be considered the fruit capital of Armenia. Due to its unique location, not only do fruits and crops develop richer and better in Meghri than other locations, but there is a wider diversity of flora found there as well. The blooming trees and plants sprinkle the immensely green valley with their beautiful colorful flowers, while higher up the mountains, although might look barren to the naked eye, a plethora of unique small shrubs and plants thrive, some of which are locally used. One specifically is a wild, altitude-dependent, mountainous plant known in Armenian as bokhi “Բոխի” (Cachys trifida; no common name exists in English). I remember when my host father, Gevorg, make his weekly not-so-easy trek to collect them during my stay, often hiking miles into the mountains, regardless of weather and dangerous terrain, to harvest it. On top of that, it takes hours to prepare bokhi, including the need to boil it multiple times. Supposedly, it is very good for you though, having many health benefits.
Besides bokhi, my host family had an immense variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and crops which they ate – all grown fresh in their garden. Their garden was huge, and was a forest of fruit trees: fig, pomegranate, cherry, apple, mulberry – and all intertwined with vines of grapes and kiwi. Any open space which remained had rows of herbs growing happily – lettuce, parsley, garlic, etcetera. Located just beside the main river of the city, there was no shortage of water. My host family was very nice, allowing me to come with them most of the time they went to the garden. They spent hours there, and while I insisted on helping them garden, most of the time they just told me to go report how the fruits tasted. I would go back to the house full, still having to eat dinner – half of which we carried back with us. Most of the time, we would spend the time to walk back, other times we would drive back. Either way it took the same amount of time – 10 minutes by foot, or 4 minutes driving plus 6 minutes turning on the car. Although the car was old – its condition sometimes stressing me out a little bit – in the end, it was reliable. He used it for everything (not that he had much of a choice): going to work, off-roading in search of bokhi, to the village, and taking me to work.
During my time in Meghri, I was volunteering and interning at the intercity Meghri Medical Center and its ambulance station, which was located between Meghri and the nearby city of Agarak (about 10 km from Meghri). In the morning, if Gevorg did not drive me to the medical center, the on-shift ambulance driver would stop by and pick me up from my house on their way: it was simple, no complications arose as everybody in the city knew each other. The medical center was of decent size, although the ambulance office within it was only one small room. The reason I wanted to volunteer there is for a few reasons: I wanted to volunteer somewhere that had to do something with my field (biology), it would expose me to medical experiences which would help me decide if medical school was right for me, and, I wanted to see the differences in health care between the USA and Armenia. Meghri and Agarak (the cities which the medical center serviced) being small cities, usually the ambulance station would not get many calls during business hours. During these slow times, other hospital doctors would allow me to go and shadow their work, including surgeries which they allowed me to observe the procedure from within the operation room. After the hospital closed in the evening, the ambulance was the primary method of illness treatment at night, and thus the number of calls would increase dramatically. This being said, please note that 1) the medical center served the two cities of Meghri and Agarak, as well as all surrounding villages (which may or may not be nearby) 2) at any time, there was only one ambulance active (driver working 24 hours), and 3) Armenia being a developing country, the quality of infrastructure was questionable, if not then nonexistent, and the ambulances weren’t exactly of up-to-date with regard to medical technology. To compensate, however, Armenians know how to relax and have a good time. When we got back from calls and during slow hours, we would often make sourdj and chill out. Sometimes they would also invite me to enjoy lunch with them in the medical center. Other times, I would just skip lunch and wait for dinner which would usually be a large meal.
Unique, delicious, homemade meals – dolma, fish, rice, basturma (salted meat) – and drinks – cognac, vodka, juices – completely covering the table. This was dinner most nights. Why do I say most nights? Because the rest of the days we had dinner at their childhood home in the nearby village of Vahravar (Վահրավար) where they grew up. When we decided to go to the village, we would pick up a few kilos of fresh meat from the butcher nearby and bring some vegetables and juice with us. Everything else was already there. When we got there, Gevorg’s brother, Grigor, and his wife would have already been there for a little bit setting up, including having begun the vodka distillation process already (though he did this all day for many days), as there was A LOT of vodka needed to be distilled.
Besides a few pounds, Kapan and Meghri (Armenia overall really) gave me amazing memories from an experience of a lifetime to take back home with me. The neighbor’s rooster’s early morning wake-up call, overgrowing forests and nature’s start of land repossession, connections I made, and the way of life are some of the things which will be missed. Of course, none of my experiences would have been possible without the accommodations, flexibility, and assistance of BRA. Thus, I am super grateful for their aid in making my time in the Syunik region and Armenia enjoyable and possible.
Besides Meghri being as sweet as its name (Meghri derived from the Armenian word Meghre “Մեղր” meaning honey), it appears the entire Syunik region has a magical touch to it, warming the heart with its warm weather, warm people, and natural beauty.