Sarah A Stites,
Reston, VA, USA
I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say – there probably aren’t many tourists that come through little Keti. Even still, the stares were unnerving.
As I opened the case of beverages in the village’s small food shop, I could feel the other patrons’ eyes taking me in from red baseball cap to sunburned, dusty legs. I was 2/3 of the way through my first and long-awaited solo hike, and I’d learned several things about Armenian culture by this point. 1) Women don’t hike alone. 2) Walking without a firm destination (when outside of a city) is a peculiar concept. Saying that you are going on a “hike” is confusing, as Armenia is also called “Hayk.” 3) People are persistent. 4) Staring is unabashed.
However, I was also reminded of the immense natural splendor of the country. As I walked the 12-mile round trip, I was struck by the bucolic beauty of the villages and grazing livestock.
When I reached the base of the peaks, the fields of multi-hued wildflowers simply took my breath away (every color in the rainbow was well represented.) The flora was fascinating, and I immensely enjoyed the range of sensory delights, from catching the plants’ fragrance in the breeze to feeling their petals, stems, and bristles and examining their intricacies up close.
Indeed, the whole week seemed more colorful and sensorially stimulating than usual (last week’s rainbow must have been portentious). I had the privilege of watching Armenian lavash being made, and I smelled the delightful scents of cinnamon and sugar stewing for three days as Armine made my favorite dessert of preserved walnuts – iynkues moraba. I also helped to prepare black currant and apricot compote, a popular Armenian drink which preserves summer bounty into a juice saved for cold winter months.
Speaking of such subjects, I still find it hard to believe that part of my job at Herbs & Honey is sampling and taking pretty photographs of tasty food & drinks and accompanying them with punny captions on social media.
Besides the food photography, preparation is half the fun. On Wednesday evening, I joined in the festivity of a dolma-making party, replete with dancing and singing. All twenty Gyumri birthright-ers gathered together to make heaping vats of stuffed cabbage and grape leaves under one of the host mother’s instruction.
It was an Armenian party at its finest, lasting long into the night. After the meal, I took on the task of preparing coffee for the guests, making sure the small jezve pots did not boil over. I’m becoming a pro at catching the surch as it races to bubble over, which is the proper Armenian way.
The following day, a contingent of Catholic clergy from Lebanon and Australia paid Emili Aregak a visit. Mikael, our center’s resident baker, was tickled pink to prepare his famous sweet bread as a small repast for the guests. They were tickled pink to eat it.
I and Nicole, my Peace Corps colleague, felt honored to be included when the clergy expressed their deep appreciation for the Center’s work. I must say, it feels wonderful to be contributing to this wonderful cause; simultaneously, I long for the day when the Armenian people can become more self-sufficient, and outside aid is not so necessary to support the work of organizations like Aregak. I believe that day is coming, and after the recent Velvet Revolution, I think the Armenian people do too.
On that same note, I couldn’t shake the feeling of discomfort I had while working to paint the walls of a small village school kitchen. After all, Armenia is a country where many people are without employment. But besides my concerns about our provision of such aid, my cohort and I had blast adding color and theme to the plain white walls we had painted a couple weeks earlier.
In the intervening time, an artist had sketched a food-themed mural on the walls. This past Friday, we enjoyed making them come alive. I gave life to a tart, some jam, and a pizza. Naturally, music and dancing accompanied these efforts.
As a fitting end to the colorful week, Nicole and I traveled to the neighboring city of Vanadzor, where we met with her Peace Corps friends Phillip and John. Caritas, the mother organization of Emili Aregak, was hosting a color festival as a fundraiser. For two bucks each, the four of us purchased a trifecta of colored powders and doused each other and other participants liberally.
To clean up, we and many others jumped in the city square fountain (a la the famous swimming pool scene from It’s a Wonderful Life).
Although there are plenty of exciting events that happen during the course of each week, my most cherished moments are my evening walks with Armine. We people-watch and laugh over the tsiran (apricot) vendor’s sullen attitude. We joke about the shat aghmakott schuner (many noisy dogs) and vat pohotsner (bad roads) and we amicably disagree about the uzhegh kami (I love the strong wind, she doesn’t).
It’s a time where I am so incredibly thankful for the joy she brings me and the patience she has for my jokes… that take a long time to deliver, as I stumble over each word. But some are short and sweet, and classically Armenian, like our conversation at 10:30 pm this evening.
“Du sovats es, Sarah jaan?” [Are you hungry, Sarah jaan?]
“Hima? Che.” [Now? No.]
“Yete du sovats es, ka hats.” [If you are, there is bread.]
“Merci. Shat lavash.” [A pun on shat lav (very good) and lavash (Armenian flatbread pictured below).]