BY TAMAR KEVONIAN
Juan was dressed all in white with an arm band of our flag’s colors when Arthur introduced us at the Armenian Music Awards. He is a member of the band Los Armenios and was visiting from Buenos Aires.
“But I am going to Argentina in a few weeks,” I told him.
“Let me know when you are arriving in Buenos Aires,” he said in his Spanish accented Armenian. Shortly before departing on the trip, I did as he requested and quickly received a reply which said “I will pick you up from the airport.”
My travel companion, Ara, and I were returning north from El Calafate in Patagonia where we had spent two days exploring the glaciers of Argentina. The town of El Calafate was hastily settled by the Argentinean government a few decades ago in a race against Chile to stake a claim to the territory. Perito Moreno National Park, at the foot of the Andes Mountains, is home to several glaciers some of which can be explored up close. We had opted for a one night cruise on Lake Argentina on a small boat that brought us to within a few hundred yards of the face of the glaciers for an up close and personal experience. There were only eight tourists (along with 5 crew members) on the little boat and we quickly became friendly despite our language barrier since they were all Italian.
That evening the boat anchored in a small cove created centuries ago by a receding glacier. The entire region was privately owned until the 1930’s when the government created the national park. The retreating estanza (ranch) owners inadvertently left behind some horses and cattle which have since multiplied and adapted to the mountainous region. Later that night, we could hear their distinctive call in the darkness as the sound reverberated through the mountains and floated above the lake towards our tiny boat. This far south, the sky never fully darkened and twilight reigned till morning. Waking up early to the soft lapping of the water against the hull of the boat and a view of the snow capped Andean peaks in the distance as an iceberg floated by the porthole of my room, I realized that the thirteen passengers on our tiny boat were the only people in a hundred mile radius. Serene and beautiful, it was easy to imagine the world without the distinctive imprint of human progress – until the “moo” of a protective bull shook me out of my reverie.
I was fully in thrall of Patagonia since its topography reminded me of my favorite desert drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, low lying scrub with colorfully patterned red cliffs and wide open expanse of sky. I longingly watched it disappear below us as the airplane headed back to Buenos Aires.
“Do you think he’ll be there?” asked Ara referring to Juan’s promise of greeting us at the airport. His skepticism was well founded. Our stop prior to El Calafate was in Piriapolis, a quiet beach town on the coast of Uruguay. The two countries – Argentina and Uruguay – are separated by a sixteen mile stretch of the Plata River and we had decided to take advantage of it proximity to greet the new year on it’s famed beaches. While researching hotels in the area, Ara had discovered the identity of the owner of one of the hotels in one of the towns under consideration. “He’s Armenian,” he insisted and that tipped the scales in Piriapolis’ favor, bypassing the much glitzier and well known Punta Del Este. Unfortunately Waldemar wasn’t as impressed with our reasoning as we were of his existence. His parents hailed from Marash in Eastern Turkey and he was born and raised in Piriapolis but did not speak or understand a word of Armenian. In my inadequate Spanish I told our story and although polite and gracious, Waldemar did not display any additional courtesies that most of Armenians have learned to expect from one another and extend instinctively.
“Of course he’ll be there,” I responded to ease Ara’s uneasiness. Juan had sent several emails confirming his intent. It was late Tuesday night when we arrived and the skies had unleashed a torrent of rain and lighting on the city. We finally landed, claimed our luggage and headed towards the waiting area in anticipation of the answer to the question “Is he there?”
The glass doors slid open and standing there was Juan with his mop of hair falling across his forehead covering his left eye, a black and white umbrella in one hand had and a luggage cart in the other. Ara and I exchanged glances that where heavy with signs of relief.
“Parev (hello),” he said as he came forward to greet us. Although I’d met him briefly and Ara not at all, we were like old friends meeting for a reunion. He bundled us into his car and off we went to the hotel.
“How’s Levon and Gabriel?” I asked referring to his closest friends who were with him in Los Angeles and with who he shares a love of music.
“They are waiting for us.” And indeed they were at the parrilla (grill) next to the hotel. Soon our table was laden with grilled meats and bottles as the conversation flowed as easily as the wine. Making new friends and eating good food was the appropriate way to spend Khetoumi Kisher (Armenian Christmas eve).
“So we go to church tomorrow?” I asked and all three Argentineans laughed. Coming into an unfamiliar city, Ara and I were excited about our good fortune of being in Buenos Aires on a major Armenian holiday – it would be the fastest and easiest way to familiarize ourselves with one of the largest and well known communities in South America.
“I have to go to work,” Juan said.
“Me too,” Gabriel said quickly chimed in.
Only Levon remained silent, looking away hoping to avoid answering the question.
We attended church the next day, a large and beautiful one located on Armenia Street, across from several building housing a multitude of Armenian organizations, restaurants and a theatre. Shortly after we arrived Levon walked in sheepishly, his hair pointing every which way, and sat next to us on the pew: he’d just rolled out of bed. It was a beautiful service but, alas, sparsely attended.
With only a few minutes remaining three young men dressed in t-shirts and cargo shorts slid into the row in front of us. “Tourists,” I thought as I noticed their sandals. Sure enough, the last Hayr Mer (Our Father) was sung indicating the end of the service and the young man on the right with the word “ARMENIA” emblazoned on his shirt turned around and introduced himself. He was visiting from England, along with his friend Gary, and was there to visit his friend Mikey who he’d met in New York during a summer internship four years ago.
We invited them to join us as we went in search of the Genocide memorial at the other end of the street in a busy intersection of a residential neighborhood. Even though we hailed from different corners of the globe, it was evident that we all faced the same challenges of identity, struggles against acculturation, and the desire to explore the world while maintaining contact with the things that make us unique.
Off we went, six Armenian in search of a miniature replica of Dzidzernagapert on Armenian Christmas Day while on vacation in Buenos Aires after a lunch of empanadas, pizza and beer. It was the most fitting celebration and its simplicity and spontaneity evoked the spirit of the holiday and the essence of what the Diaspora is all about: instant connection, camaraderie, and understanding no matter which corner of the globe its members might find themselves.