When I was told about the possibility of volunteering in Gyumri, I accepted that without thinking. I had only heard very little about it by then, just that it was the second city in the country (just like mine!) and that people there were very friendly and fun. That pretty information made me want to see it by myself.
First time in Armenia, unable to say more than a few words and understanding nothing when they spoke to me in Armenian, after a few hours in Yerevan I arrived in Gyumri, where the family that was going to host me was waiting for me with dolma. An excellent and tasty way to start my journey.
With Birthright the agenda was tight: 6 hours working as a volunteer (in my case splited into three jobs), Armenian classes twice a week, havaks and forums (weekly meetings to learn and share about the Armenian culture, its history, the political situation, etc.); and excursions on weekends. This plus to the other things that we found to do with others volunteers when we got together, and one of the things that I liked the most: spending time with my host family, where a little 4-year-old sister always waited for me to play with, a gorgeous few-months baby seemed to like my children's songs in Spanish, my young “hosts dad and mum” (both younger than me) were always willing to chat and have some tea with me and my host grandpa was always worried that I was having a great time.
Going back to the city stuff, one of the things I think is an advantage is the fact that its smaller size promotes meetings: on the way to the office, at lunch or when going back to 58 (the neighborhood where most of volunteers lives), one usually bump into several friends, exchange a few words, go somewhere together or simply say hello and follow the path.
From the time I spent there, I would like to highlight some points of my experience in Gyumri and share some of the things I have learned.
Instruction n# 1: how to buy a shampoo
I had just arrived at night and the next morning, returning to my house after an activity I went to a small shop to buy shampoo, hair conditioner, and some other things. It seemed easy, but no, the labels of all the products were in Russian, not even in Armenian, and I could not know which one of them could be what I was looking for. So not to end up buying a cream, a soap or anything else I didn’t need, I asked one of the women who worked there whether she could help me, and two of them approached. We found the shampoo, but the hair conditioner was missing and with my ignorance of the language we were not understanding each other, until at some point I said "bueno", and being very surprised they asked me if I spoke Spanish. They told me that her grandmother was in Seville, and one of them immediately called her on the phone and handed it to me. Then I spoke with the lady and she, from the cell phone, translated everything into the two languages so that they knew what to offer to me and I knew what to buy. Over time and in other shops, and without "the wildcard helping call", I always met friendly people willing to try to understand me. In that sense, I really liked when the time to buy something came because, in addition to meeting people, it was a good way to practice the language I was learning so far.
Instruction n# 2: Keys to travel by Marshrutka
The marshrutka is the most common public transport. Named with a Russian word, it is a traffic which has a fixed route from the morning to approximately 20:30. There are also some larger buses, but there are less of them and they are less frequent. Some of the things I learned going by marshrutka every day were: 1) you pay 100 drams, before going down and not when going up; 2) the seats are shared, if you are standing it is very likely that they will make you a little place in the seat and invite you to sit by them, shouting you "nestík"; 3) Who is sitting carries the wallet or bags of the person who is standing; 4) It is frowned upon to sit on the floor, so even if one is tired it is better to remain to stand with your neck bent because the height of the ceiling does not allow you to stretch; 5) No matter how much I practiced the first days, I never remembered how to say that it was my stop when the time came; 6) You are not supposed to talk a lot, and if you do, you’d better do it in a low voice ... unless you want to cause that the driver turns up the volume of the music and a passenger begins to complain about both noises; 7) the front seats next to the driver are always used by men; although in the lasts months several female volunteers proposed themselves to challenge that unwritten rule, making a trip in that place became almost a "thing to do before leaving Gyumri".
Instruction n# 3: how to drink less than three coffees per day: "the 'chem uzum' challenge"
Armenians prepare a delicious coffee and drink it at various times of the day. At breakfast time, when starting the labor journey, after lunch, when meeting, when visiting someone, or just whenever. In that sense I found a resemblance to Argentinian mate: besides the drinking, there is a social component: we take a few minutes to share a cup and share some time.
But here coffee also comes with chocolates, fruits or other things to eat and, for me, as I'm more mate-drinker and I only like coffee on some cold days, for the first weeks I felt like I was having too much caffeine. Talking about that with a friend we exchanged some feelings and he made me see something that I had not thought about: sometimes it was better to accept the cup and grab only some chocolates, rather than to say no and get the coffee anyway and much more food than one could eat. Another friend commented me that her sister had named him "the 'chem uzum' (In Armenian: I don’t want) deal”, and I like to think about it like “the chem uzum challenge”, which is to explain that we no longer want to eat or drink anymore, several times before we see that we ended up with a cup of coffee in one hand and something to eat in the other, thanking the person who smilingly had just invited us.
Up to here, I summed up only a few pieces of what for me was the every-day incredible experience of living in Gyumri. Certainly, the only instruction I could give is that there should not be any instruction. The city is there, and people are very predisposed if one approaches with an open heart. For those who are thinking about going my only recommendation would be to enjoy everything you can, to be devoted at work, to take the time to know the streets and the small corners of the city, also knowing their people and sharing the moments with them, which can also turn to be a way of knowing oneself.