Flying over the Caucasus mountain range at the crack of dawn, breath taken away by the beauty I was beholding from the window seat. This was the moment I realized that my journey to Armenia was finally happening and that it was so close that I could almost taste it. About half an hour later the plane glided past Mount Aragats and touched down in Zvartnots International Airport, making June 11, 2019, the first day of my life I got to spend in my ancestral homeland.
Bear with me if I am making this sound over-the-top, but coming here has been too special for me to tone down the enthusiasm I am still feeling 10 weeks later.
A little over a year ago I didn't even know about Birthright Armenia, but that's not too surprising. You can say that even as an Armenian American from Los Angeles, I was rather out of touch with my roots. I spoke Armenian at home, enjoyed all our wonderful dishes and attended the bacchanals that are Armenian weddings. When you're born into an ethnicity, these are the sorts of cultural connections you make passively because your family serves them to you on a silver platter. But it's different when you actively seek something deeper for yourself: a full immersion through service and exploration.
Because I focus mostly on the health sciences back home, I wanted to do something different for service in Armenia, so I decided to volunteer in the arts. I figured this way I could take a break from my regular routine and cater to my favorite pastime. One of my job sites, PATMI Cultural NGO seeks to preserve culture and history by converting stories collected from the village of Meghradzor into artwork. My work mainly involved translating such stories and preparing them for online publication. What I enjoyed the most was my participation in the organization's annual summer camp. I taught local kids illustration and painted my very first mural with them. At my other job site, a business in Yerevan called In Art Studio, I helped mostly children create works of ceramic art while learning the craft myself. In retrospect, I am content with my experience volunteering at these two job sites thanks to the variety of my tasks ranging from language translation to art creation.
As far as exploration goes, there are the that Birthright Armenia arranges for you. As fun and essential as they are, you should also tailor your own. Of the ones I planned with small groups of fellow volunteers, perhaps the most meaningful to me was our day trip to Vanadzor.
No summary of my first Armenian experience is complete without mention of my pilgrimage to this third largest city of Armenia and the origin of my family. Here I explored a place that is much quieter than the bustling Yerevan. I passed by the institute where my mother earned her teaching degree in mathematics. And I got the chance to see my parents' old house and meet people in that neighborhood who still live there and remember us. I felt honored to bridge the gap between my immediate family and the friends and relatives they last saw almost 30 years ago when there were no smartphones, Whatsapp, Facebook, Viber, or other means of long-distance communication. They can now easily keep in touch.
Now for a brief overview of Birthright Armenia. Through this , you will see the country through a unique pair of . You will engage with locals in their homes where you will be treated with unparalleled hospitality. (To my host-mom, Lyalya, you absolutely rocked! Thank you for giving me such a comfortable atmosphere to live in.) You will hone your with teachers and fellow volunteers in language classes twice a week. (Thank you, Mane and Tikin Anahit, for your patience and expertise.) You will visit many places and take part in exciting activities, some which are not typically on an Armenian tourism guide. (Great choices, Hayk, and thanks for the laughs!) You will work with a that is constantly gauging your satisfaction with every aspect of your experience and is ready to take action if you are not 100% happy. (Gohar, Sevan, Ruzanna, and Lusine, I am looking at you.) And I can't conclude this paragraph without giving a special shout-out to the sanctity of the international friendships you will make here. After all, it's the people who make the experience. Now if I ever find myself in Russia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Australia, France, or other parts of the USA, I will know that I have friends I can reach out to. (You all know who you are.)
Choosing to was unusual for me because it was one of the most spontaneous decisions I've ever made. And being in a different country with volunteers from all over the world, you need to be flexible, so spontaneity was something I came to adopt while in Armenia. Embrace the unexpected. By definition, you never know what it can bring. For the people I met in Vanadzor, for example, it randomly brought a new piece of the Kechechyan family back to the city, even if just for a day.
Now as the date of my return flight back to Los Angeles creeps nearer and nearer, I am finally seeing for myself that 10 weeks were just not enough time. I know from past experience that I can be prone to homesickness, so I played it safe and kept my stay here at a minimum. But you do change! And maybe it's something in the air, food, or the water from Armenia's super convenient pulpulaks, but I felt the healthiest and most energetic I have felt in a long time here. So the change is not just mental; it can also be physical.
My biggest regret is that I can't stay longer. I go back to school next month and resume life in the States. But the experience Birthright Armenia has given me is one for the books, and I will never look at my Armenian-ness the same way again or take it for granted. I will remember my time here as the most exciting endeavor of my 25-year-old life.
Gayane Maria Kechechyan