Sherman Oaks, CA, United States
The big three day Birthright excursion to the mountainous Meghri, the southernmost city in Armenia, is just around the corner! As others are packing there luggage’s simply for a meager three day excursion, there I was packing for what I thought was going to be a two week volunteering experience in Kapan. The idea was to get a little taste of the southernmost province of Armenia while being able to volunteer with an awesome organization called ARK Ecological NGO. Leaving everything behind and embarking on a journey more or less alone. Little did I know that two weeks were going to be too little and what an incredible experience this adventure would be.
As our three day excursion came to a close in Meghri, we made our way to ARK’s campground in Kapan in what I thought was going to be where I part ways with the rest of the group and was going to be the place I call home for the next two weeks. I unloaded my luggage and everyone looked out in surprise. Where is Varak going? What is Varak doing? As I was saying goodbye, the Birthright Program Coordinator, Gohar, persuades me to come to Goris with the group, eat lunch and then hitch a ride back to Kapan. And this is how my adventure commences: hitching a ride back to Kapan from Goris with two sisters in order to meet the lovely couple of Armen and Siranush, whose organization I would be working with for the next two weeks.
As I woke up early next morning, I felt a calm sense of joy as I stepped out into the campground, gazed at the majestic Khustup Mountain and took a deep breathe of the crisp, cool air. I felt as if I had previously been here. That this had been a long lost place of refuge for me. A perfect place for me to rejuvenate my soul while in solitude, away from any commotion-filled and overbearing city. Away from everything that I had grown accustomed to and into an unknown world full of intrigue and adventure.
I began my first morning as I began every morning in Kapan: an early morning hike to a neighboring village. Through traveling through the rugged terrain, furthering my knowledge of the region and meeting locals, I was able to gain an appreciation of the region and live out a healthy lifestyle. These are two very important aspects of my life which I take with me everywhere I travel.
After the morning hike, I’d commence gardening in the permaculture garden located just outside my doorstep. A garden filled with a wide range of trees, bushes and flowers which were waiting for springtime in order to bloom. In the meantime there I was tending its needs, ensuring that it would reach its beautiful bloom in spring while it brought peace and clarity to my mind.
The next stage to my daily routine was to work on various projects with ARK’s project director Armen at his home/office who would work endlessly throughout the day. ARK Ecological NGO is a non-profit NGO promoting sustainable development and implementing solutions that provide social, economic, and environmental benefits to the region. The main project which I was working on was establishing a marketing strategy on how to sell goods and services to tourists for ARK’s beneficiaries. ARK has set up a community that sells their unique goods and services to tourists. Goods and services range from rug-making classes to the selling of dried fruits and spirits to xachkar making classes. This project is thus providing job to locals in the Kapan community and is attempting to develop ecotourism within the region.
I would also help write grants for future ARK projects. Projects like creating a tourist website, scouting, mapping and marking hiking trails and collecting stories, traditions and legends of the region. All these projects attempt to develop the ecotourism within the region.
Lastly Armen and I would work on gardening at his campsite located in the village of Arajadzor. In a remote village lying on the slope of a mountain, we planted over a hundred trees and cleared the path to the garden. During our break time, I would lie on a hammock gazing out to the mountains and greenery while enjoying a cup of coffee with Armen while discussing various topics and issues revolving around Armenia. Blissfulness. This break time convinced me to stay in Kapan for an additional two more weeks.
Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday night was yoga night. This is where I would rejuvenate my mind and body and was the place where I found a great friend and an amazing soul by the name of Anoush. Once Anoush found out I was living alone she invited me to stay with her and her two kids at her house. The next two weeks I felt a peculiar feeling of being part of a family and truly connecting with a local, establishing a lifelong friendship.
Too far removed to participate in weekly Birthright excursions, I would have my own solo excursions. I would walk to local attractions by foot, bringing plastic bags to each site in order to clean the trash left behind. From reenacting and envisioning the battles that occurred at the 4th century Baghaberd Fortress to enjoying lunch and conversation with the priest of the beautiful Vahanvank to horse back riding through the old Anapat village to catching the breathtaking sunset at Halidzor Fortresses.
The wildest of adventures came during the first snow day in Kapan. I woke up in the morning, took a look outside and Kapan was packed in with snow. A marvelous sight! I quickly put on my snow gear and rushed outside to be in the snow. I decided it would be a good idea to take a stroll in the snow. A stroll quickly turned into a 35 kilometer, 7 hour steep hike in an attempt to reach Khustup Mountain. Unable to see anything through the heavy snowfall and thick fog, I ended up lost and quickly trying to descend down the mountain. Walking for hours with no sense of direction and only following the power lines. Finally! A road! I quickly ran towards the road and followed it down, ending up on the opposite side of the city.
My four weeks in Kapan were filled with adventure, friendship and a sense of accomplishment. These four weeks felt like a lifetime and there seemed to be no conception of time. It has been a journey within a grander journey of self discovery and a journey that has provided me a greater understanding of my wants and desires.