Noor D Varjabedian
Falls Church, VA, USA
With ten minutes to midnight, large fluffy snowflakes started to fall from the sky. We all looked upwards; smiling, mouths open taking in the magical moment. I couldn’t help but smile. It seemed so perfect. Here I was in Yerevan on New Year’s day with friends I had made from all around the world. The clock hit 12 and we all started to cheer, congratulate each other, kisses and hugs were exchanged, and cheap Armenian bubbly was popped. New Year’s day made me realize that I had spent half of 2018 in Armenia. How quickly time had passed without me even realizing it.
From my orientation group, four of us had chosen to spend our summer months in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city. Naturally, when you are thrown into something new, you stick with the people thrown in with you: two from LA, one from Moscow, plus me from DC. We decided to grab lunch together at Ponchik Monchik on our second day in the new city. When I first arrived in Armenia my language skills weren’t enough to hold a two-way conversation with a non-English speaker. This being said, it was slightly embarrassing grabbing lunch with fluent Armenian speakers as I wished I could speak as effortlessly in our mother tongue. After we finished our coffees and ponchiks, I decided it would be good for me to practice my Armenian with our waitress. I kindly asked her, “hashish@ ge perek?” She looked at me with wide eyes and a look of confusion. My new friends started to laugh and this is when I realized I had used the wrong word. “Hashish” is a drug made from the cannabis plant. What I had meant to say is “hashiv” which translates to “check” or “bill.” And this is how I never forgot how to ask for the check.
One day I discovered two small kittens living outside of my homestay. One had black and white spots of fur while its sibling had brown stripes. I noticed them running around often and coming back to their mother at home base, a patch of grass and dirt near the bottom of my apartment stairs. I admired them often as they were the cutest little things and I couldn't help but fall in love. I quickly noticed that the brown kitten was missing an eye, I had guessed from some type of injury, perhaps explaining why it wouldn’t react as quickly as its sibling did when I approached them. I told my host mother about the kittens as I knew she cared for animals as I did. One morning as I headed out the door I explained to her how I wanted to buy food for them. I headed down the first flight of stairs, still in conversation with my host mom when I saw the little brown kitten at the bottom of the second flight. I got excited but then slowly became aware of the state it was in. My facial expression quickly changed and my host mother ran down to see the little brown kitty motionless on the cold cement, surrounded by dark red splatters of its own blood. We both let out a gasp. She told me to leave for work or I’d be late. On the mashutka ride to my jobsite I felt that I was in a daze. What had happened to the kitten didn’t make sense. Even though it had one eye, cats are very quick on their feet and I found it impossible to believe it had fallen from the stairs on its own. The splatters proved it had happened with force, definitely not the doing of a neighborhood dog. I came to the depressing conclusion that a human had performed this act, as much as I didn’t want to accept it. People can be cruel, and often don’t know how to treat others that are different from themselves. After my work day was done I headed home to find that the small kitten had been removed and the spot of blood cleaned. I headed up the stairs, noticing a dash of red on the cement that must have gone unnoticed by whoever took on the task of cleaning the mess. My host mom was waiting for me. We began to converse and she said, “you know, once one bad thing occurs, two others come after it.” Armenians have lots of sayings like this, making them easy to brush aside. This time, it was proven to be true. But that’s enough sadness for one story.
I had always known about Mt. Ararat. A national symbol, where Noah’s Ark allegedly landed, and the mountain my father climbed back in 1987. The days you see the mountain with your own eyes are happy days. I have this dream that I will climb it one day, just as my dad did. For now, I admire it from afar and occupy myself with smaller, one-day hikes. Planning these hikes were perfect while living in Gyumri as we didn’t always have big city activities to attend. Mt. Aragats is the mountain you can clearly see from Gyumri. Snow capped, four peaked, and with the highest summit in Armenia, it was the perfect adventure for a day off. We started by taking a taxi to the lake at the bottom of the mountain. The cold wind surprised us upon our arrival but we were eager to start our hike. After washing our tomatoes, cucumbers, and grapes in the lake water, we started the climb. Taking our time with the incline, we enjoyed our view of vast green patches and mountainous backdrops. The funny thing about hiking up a mountain is that the top always seems closer than it actually is. I’m not sure if it was the fact that we started this adventure late, and by the time we were climbing up other hikers were headed down, or if we were just fatigued, but we settled on the idea that we didn’t need to make it to the top. The view all along the hike was more or less the same, what was reaching the top going to change? It’s a good thing we decided it would be worth it because what we saw on the other side of the mountain was completely unexpected; this is what made the rest of the hike over rocky terrain to the top worth it: streaks of dark and light browns, patches of crisp white snow, a haze of clouds floating above, and at the way bottom small little specks -- hikers making their way. It’s moments like this that make a person realize just how small they are in this world. It’s also moments like this that make me realize Armenia will always take my breath away.
Women are amazing, that’s always been a fact. Living in Armenia has only confirmed that fact. From my first days in Gyumri, noticing that many women work multiple jobs to provide for themselves or their family, to my last weeks in the village of Verin Bazmaberd where women make sure there is always food on the table, I am constantly amazed. Birthright gives you the option to stay with a family in a village for a week. Not many volunteers take advantage of this opportunity but this is when I stayed with Nelly, an extraordinary woman. I had met her once before, on my very first excursion with Birthright. She hosts the volunteers for one big “kef” where there’s plenty of food for all of us to eat. Eight and a half months later I see her again and she tells me that “kef” takes her three whole days to prepare for. Days like those she has her good neighborhood friend Lusine come and help her, but on any regular day she works on her own. The things you image of a stereotypical village might actually be true. Livestock: cows, chickens, sheep, and lamb. In the warmer months a garden and fruit trees to care for. No gas stove or gas heating system for the colder months. Everything is handmade from the cheese to the bread to the canned veggies and jams. And yes, you poop in an outhouse. All these things require enormous amounts of labor and hard work. Nelly is married and has two sons but it is unacceptable for them to help with housework simply because they are men. In the days I stayed with her I realized she was always on her feet, tending to the animals, prepping that night’s dinner, washing dishes or ironing everyone’s clothes. I tried to help as much as I could but sometimes I had to just sit back and watch with amazement.
Every day in Armenia brings unexpected surprises. For a newcomer sometimes this can be stressful. The packed mashutkas, the nonexistent concept of lines and personal space, or certain things simply not going how you had planned. For me, this used to be hard. I’m a huge planner. I am the type of person who likes looking at a calendar and planning things weeks in advance. In Armenia, I have learned that last minute plans are often the way to go. You slowly learn that planning trips across the country a day beforehand will suffice, and frankly it might be what works best. It seems like the only thing people plan for is being late. I guess this mentality of “not planning” has slowly become a part of me. My original plan was to stay in Armenia six months, head back to the U.S. and then find a job. Month by month it became obvious that this six month stay would be extended. With no return ticket purchased, it became easy to “go with the flow” and take advantage of opportunities that opened up for me in Armenia. I am about to complete my first month at my new job, something I didn’t expect to ever accomplish when I first arrived. After having the realization that what people often think is a far fetched way of life can easily become a reality, I take things as they come.