That’s how I felt in April with my second visit to Armenia–a pilgrimage that took me to remote villages where people lived off the sweat of the earth and historic sites that were far removed from the ordinary tourist.
In essence, I saw the real Armenia, a country still struggling with liberation 18 years after segregating from the Soviet Union and an economic structure that is far from being substantial. Jobs continue to remain at a premium in the major cities, compounded by the absence of technology.
Twenty miles outside the capital city of Yerevan, people were herding sheep and harvesting an abundant crop to survive. Bad as it was in some villages, children were well maintained and educated, the population remained buoyant, and generations kept the spirit of their ancestry locked inside their hearts.
In 2006, with a tour group from my church, we joined a celebration marking the 15th anniversary of Armenian Independence in Republic Square that pulled no stops when it came to showcasing the nation’s military and memorializing those who fought and died for freedom. A crowd estimated at 100,000 took part in that observance.
We saw the traditional sites, made the customary stops, and the cohesion with a group certainly proved memorable. We still rekindle the joy.
On this occasion, the trip was made with one other (Joe Dagdigian) who made Armenia his second home when he and his wife Lisa purchased an apartment in the capital city. Dagdigian was partially raised in Haverhill and now makes Harvard (MA) his residence.
The itinerary took us across the land to Nagorno-Karabagh some 225 miles from the mainland, crossing one village after another and exploring churches and monasteries along the route with a help of a hired driver.
With a roadmap, compass and GPS at our disposal, we spent three weeks exploring the sites — in most cases letting fate become our guide.
Among the highlights and observations:
- Joining a crowd estimated a 1 million for the 94th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24th at the memorial in Yerevan.
- Touring the music institute at Gyumri and seeing young talent unfold in an area that was rocked by an earthquake in 1988 that claimed thousands of lives.
- Visiting an orphanage called Zatig where children were well nurtured. Upon seeing a camera, they wanted to be photographed — perhaps for adoption.
- The hospitality offered by strangers in desolate places, including an abandoned church which lay in ruins that dates back a thousand years.
- Some of the best and healthiest food on the planet. Obesity is not a factor in Armenia like it is here. Only one fast-food restaurant has gained entry into Yerevan– a Kentucky Fried Chicken. But a good cup of American coffee was nowhere to be found.
- Of course, the rate of exchange with the American dollar being worth nearly four times its amount. Because it was so inexpensive, you wound up spending more for gifts and restaurant fares, not to mention charitable handouts.
- The number of repatriates we encountered– those who left their native lands to settle in Armenia for reasons of heritage and culture.
- The ability to exercise a foreign language with people of your own kind — a language that dates back to the fifth century and still active today, despite its dialects.
- As with any visit to a Third World country, we returned all the better for the experience, anxious to share our pictures and stories, inheriting a deep respect for the fatherland but at the same time, showing our gratitude for America.
It was good to return home.
Photo Credit: Tom Vartabedian