Friday, March 16, 2007

I recently got back from a 5-day trip to Armenia with Paige, Nicholas, Lyssa, Ariana and Seth. It was an awesome vacation and left us Georgian volunteers a little envious of our neighbor to the South. Overall, the country seemed poorer then Georgia, but the capital city of Yerevan was much wealthier and safer then Tbilisi, and more importantly, possessed much better restaurants and beer. I’m sad to admit that I didn’t eat much Armenian food, choosing instead to dine at various Syrian, Mexican and Lebanese restaurants.

Anyone who has traveled with me knows I’m lead primarily by my stomach and I’m afraid that I’m more impressed with good hummus then old churches. However, Armenia had many more comforts then just fantastic food. Particularly welcome was the lack of drunk men leering at the American girls. There were still plenty of shady cab drivers, stray dogs and garbage, but overall Yerevan was a real vacation from good old Georgia.

Since none of us know Russian or Armenian we had to make due with hand gestures and grunts, something I proved more talented at then my companions. My Georgian is famously bad amongst my friends and I do quite a bit of my communicating in this way on a daily basis. Also, as I learned from traveling with my father, if you want to order chicken at the restaurant, but don’t know the word, you can always cluck and flap your arms like wings. It’s not as good as being fluent in the local language, but it is effective.

Thanks to air pollution and Soviet-era architecture, Yerevan is not the most beautiful city in the world. However, it rests in the shadow of Mr. Ararat, a gigantic snow covered volcano that supposedly provided a resting place for Noah’s Arc. The clouds hid it most of the days, so I couldn’t get a good photo, but if you have the time to Google it I’m sure you will find some incredible pictures.

While there, we visited the Armenian Genocide Museum, a very informative and depressing tour through the 20th century’s first holocaust (1.5 million systematically killed by the Turks and Kurds). Turkey continues to deny the whole event and it’s soured relations between the two countries.

We visited a museum near the statue of Mother Armenia that focused on the recent war with Azerbaijan. Unfortunately nothing was in English so we left without much understanding of the conflict.

We also visited the Garni Temple, built in honor of Helios, the Roman god of the sun. The taxi ride through the country lead us through villages seriously damaged by recent earthquakes. Coupled with all the Soviet-era relics we were constantly reminded of the various tragedies that have befallen poor Armenia.

To lighten the mood we toured a local brandy distillery. We walked through rows of oak barrels in which brandy was ageing. They showed us one barrel that they will open when Armenia and Azerbaijan sign a peace treaty. It’s the only barrel they hope to open before it gets the chance to age properly. Eventually we made it to the tasting room, where we sampled 3, 10 and 20 year old brandy. Amateurs that we were, I think we astutely managed to taste the complexities of each and walked away with a pretty good buzz.

While visiting the Echmiadzin, the Vatican for the Armenian Apostolic Church, we failed to sneak in with a tour group that got to see the pagan fire temple in the basement, but we still saw some impressive religious relics, although there was no sign of the spear that pierced Jesus’ side during the crucifixion, something that was promised in Lonely Planet.

We also visited Geghard Monastery, a very old Church built into the side of a canyon. The stone carvings were a blend of Christian and pagan symbols and I found myself impressed with the artistic depictions of animals interspersed with crosses.

There was a spring inside that is said to keep one from ageing. I find that stuff pretty hokey, but as I’d just turned 31 a few days before I figured it couldn’t hurt, so I splashed some on my face. Time will tell.

We spent one night hanging out with some Armenian Peace Corps Volunteers, who played good hosts to us and we got to discuss the similarities and differences between our two countries and programs. One volunteer was from East Texas who had lived in Seattle 10 years before coming to Peace Corps so Paige and I pestered her with questions.

On the last day we went to the National Art Museum, which boasts the third best art collection in the former Soviet Union. Much of it was obtained by looting during the Soviet withdrawal from Germany during WWII and there were some big names in the gallery. Unfortunately, we were the only guests and the staff decided to call it a day early, so we were ushered out of room after room by impatient workers. It was like a chase scene from a Scooby Doo cartoon, as we sped from one room to another, racing against the staff that was locking doors behind us as fast as they could. It’s hard to see 7 floors of art in 45 minutes, especially with the sun glare reflecting off the protective glass on the paintings, while in others the lights were off completely. We left in a bitter mood and, as the photo below shows, Seth gave it the big thumbs down.

The final night we had more Mexican food and margaritas, and then retreated to a bar called “Texas.” We had heard that Armenia was even more socially conservative then Georgia so were surprised to find ourselves beside a table of boisterous lesbians. The other tables took no notice of it and the women danced together without a seeming care in the world. It felt like any bar in Seattle and it was reassuring to see such tolerance in the Caucuses. The only prejudice proved to be against poor Paige, as the neighboring table slighted Texas, an odd insult considering the name of the bar.

The next day we took a series of taxis and minibuses back home and spoke of falafel and enchiladas. It was a great trip.


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