This was a weird week. There are a lot of things changing at once, and I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed.
The first big change was the weather. Last weekend, the temperature was still in the low 90s. This weekend, we’ve been in the mid-60s. That. Is. Crazy. I wore shorts and a tank top at the end of last week. This week, I’m wearing pants and a fleece and am sleeping with the windows closed and all of the blankets we have piled on top of me. Okay, that’s a small exaggeration, but it’s a substantial change which I completely wasn’t ready for.
Next, my job went to like a full-on architecture position this week. That’s not a bad thing, just kind of funny. To give you a little more info about the project we’re working on, one of the big challenges that refugees face is finding employment. An even bigger challenge is finding employment that pays a living wage. A lot of people here were given apartments after the fall of the Soviet Union, so they don’t have to worry about paying rent. Refugees, on the other hand, don’t have that benefit, so they need to find higher-paying jobs than most of the people living here because they have a huge extra expense each month. The national average monthly salary is a little less than $400. Rent eats up half of that, if not more, and that’s not even in a central location.
Aleppo-NGO’s plan is to make cuisine center that manufactures frozen Middle Eastern food for sale in grocery stores plus has a little dine-in/carry out component. It will employ refugees from Syria, train them to work in the service industry here and develop management skills, and pay them wages that are higher than the market rate. From there, people can find other jobs, start their own businesses, etc, but it’s a way for them to get some experience and management training and get used to the logistics of running a business in Armenia.
They have the property, and now they’re fundraising and applying for different grants to pay for the construction and furnishing costs. I spent the first half of the week developing some possible floor plans for the report and the second half creating some graphics using the 3D model I started last week. It’s been fun to get to do something different and feel like I’m contributing in a way that is really taking advantage of my skills. Larkitect is taking the world by storm.
Finally, this is the last week that a lot of my friends are going to be here. We had a pretty solid crew of 5 of us who met in Gyumri and moved to Yerevan basically at the same time: Shant, Carineh, Gagik, Talene, and me. Shant has been gone for a couple weeks now, Carineh just left this morning, Gagik was supposed to leave last Friday night, and Talene will be in Armenia for a couple more weeks but is going to be sightseeing with her cousin which means she’s basically gone. The whole “Gagik was supposed to leave” thing is because he decided to change his ticket and stay another month! So that’s something at least. It’s still going to be pretty rough without the others though. My other good friend, Arin, leaves on Tuesday. That means I’ve been forced to try to branch out and make more friends. Ugh. It’s overwhelming because there are so many volunteers, and how do you even start going through 100 people to find the ones you get along with?
I told everyone that they’re all required to find me one replacement friend before they leave. That’s only fair, right? They came through pretty well actually. I’ve met some people in the last couple of weeks who seem cool, so now I just need to do the whole “beginning of friendship effort” thing. Exhausting.
I think I’m going to be okay, though. Plus, it’s only three more weeks until my family comes to visit me!!! Yup, that’s right! My parents and my brother are coming for about 8 days at the end of October, and I’m super excited about it. We’re going to have so much fun!
There was another cool Birthright excursion a couple weeks ago, so I made another exception to my usual “avoid large groups” rule and signed up. That rule exists for a reason, and I knew that I would be subjecting myself to inevitable irritation by going… but bikes were involved, and I love bikes more than I hate large groups.
Side note: If you’re wondering about why I have that rule, it’s for a lot of reasons. When it comes to traveling, large groups are always late and can never make decisions and there’s always someone who’s unhappy for some reason or who is out of sync with the rest of the group. It’s better, in my opinion, to limit your group sizes and save yourself the stress. Plus, in general, I’m not really the type of person who thrives in large groups. I’m much better one-on-one or in settings where I can talk to each person and actually get to know them. Too many new people or things going on at the same time completely stresses me out.
Anyway, the excursion was biking to Etchmiadzin. I was almost convinced at “biking” until I thought about the fact that it would be 50 people on bikes, and so many people are terrible at biking. I wasn’t exactly interested in having someone who hadn’t ridden a bike in 10 years swerving into me and knocking me over. Somehow, I was convinced to go anyway, and my game plan was to stick to the front of the pack.
For the most part, it worked. There was one dicey second when a girl next to me swerved into a (parked) car and then swerved back out into the street, towards me. Thankfully, there was no collision, but I got away from her as quickly as possible and sped my way to the front.
I forget that a lot of other people don’t really bike that often or that far. The ride was 20 km (about 12.5 miles) on almost completely flat ground, and for me, that was nothing. I used to bike 8.5 miles one way to get to work every day. Especially considering the speed we were going for most of the ride, I probably could have gone for 100 miles. At least. We were moving at about 6.5 miles per hour which is less than half the speed that I’d ride to work. Anyway, afterward, people were talking about how far and difficult the ride was, and I was baffled. I wanted so badly to ride back so that I could do the ride at a normal speed, but I wasn’t allowed, even though two of the BR staff members said they would go with me. Bummer.
Once we made it to Vagharshapat, the town where Etchmiadzin is, we went to 4 out of the 5 churches in town. This is the same place where Sarah and I went on our “day of a million churches”. There were weddings in progress at 3 of the 4 churches (that’s Armenia on a Saturday for you). It was cool going back to Etchmiadzin because I still love the ceiling there. Even though there are these weird 3D baby heads randomly on the ceiling that I think are supposed to be angel heads but are mostly just creepy.
They should have just hired me as the tour guide for this trip because telling that story about Saint Gayane and Saint Hripsime is one of my most favorite things. Maybe I can have a career in Armenian folklore storytelling? I hear there’s a big demand for that. Anyway, I won’t tell it again because we’ve already been there and done that, but in case you missed it, you can check out my post about visiting Etchmiadzin with Sarah HERE.
Along with my move to Yerevan came a new job! I got an email about a month before moving that asked what kind of job I wanted to do. I had no idea. I hate that question because it’s like, “Name the job that you would ideally like to have, but we’re not going to give you any ideas about what options are available.” Okayyy… Instead of giving a direct answer, I sent back a list of a couple thoughts. I said that I like doing anything creative or active, I wanted to work for a non-profit (because if they’re making money, they should be paying someone rather than benefitting from my free labor), I didn’t want to teach, and I didn’t want to work with kids (I’ve had enough of that for now).
After a couple of options got sent my way, I agreed to work for Aleppo-NGO (you can check out their website HERE). It’s a non-profit that works with Syrian refugees in Armenia. When I was trying to decide if I wanted to work for them and was browsing their website, I was amazed by how much they have going on. I kind of wondered if it was all for real, and the answer is yes. They organize something like eleven different programs and work with 1,800 families. Like what. It seemed to me that they could probably use some help, so I said, “okay!” and that was that.
My first day in Yerevan, I went with another girl, Rachel, for what was effectively an interview. She is a fine artist, and they matched her with Aleppo-NGO to run art classes. My job description is “content writer”, but I told them that I’ll do whatever they need. I had a really good feeling after that first meeting. We met with a man and a woman, Sarkis and Hayasa, and they actually seemed like they cared that we were going to work with them! I know that sounds stupid, but sometimes volunteers don’t feel like they’re being useful. I didn’t get the feeling that I was going to have that problem. Sarkis even had our resumes printed out and asked us questions about them! Talk about prepared! Maybe that all sounds basic, but it’s not something I’ve come to expect here.
I’ve been there for a couple of weeks now, and I love it. I get to do all things that I think are super fun! My first week was spent going through their press releases from the last few months and editing them for grammar/making them sound like normal English. Those are all written in Armenian and then translated, so sometimes things come out weird on the other end. Also, fun fact: Armenians love to use adjectives, so instead of just saying “the youth went on a walk through the city on Sunday”, it’s more like “the excited youth went on a relaxing and informative walk through the beautiful city last Sunday, a serene and perfectly pleasant and wonderful day”. I feel like I’m an adjective hater because I take probably 90% of them out, but I’m all about using them if it makes sense and doesn’t just add unnecessary fluff.
I also have gotten to do some writing! I wrote an article (that’s still in progress, but it’ll hopefully be finished soon). It’s nothing too exciting, just writing up an interview that they did, but I had fun doing it anyway.
The most unexpected task has been some architecture-related work. Yup, that’s right! Lark-itect is back in action! They have a funding proposal going out for a project, and they asked if I could make some graphics for the report! I’m working on putting together a potential floor plan for the space they’re renovating for the project, plus I started a 3D model on Friday. I’m using a computer program for the 3D model that I haven’t used in probably 6 years (Google Sketch-up), so that’s been interesting. It’s good practice!
Anyway, I’ll write more about what they do in another post. They have so many projects going on that I could easily write a book about them. For now though, I’ll just say that I am super happy to be there, and I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile. It’s nice to feel that way.
My first weekend in Yerevan, I decided to go on the Birthright excursion because the description said hiking, and the location seemed too far out of the way for us to easily get there on our own. The trip was to Smbataberd, a fortress in the Vayots Dzor Province. That’s south of Yerevan by a couple of hours and is right at the beginning of the skinny tail of Armenia.
Here’s your history lesson of the day: The first mention of the fortress came in the 5th century when it was used in the Vardanak War. They think (“they” being whatever people study and come up with these things) that it was built up much more in the 9th and 10th centuries when it was used by the Syunik princes. Unlike a lot of the fortresses we’ve visited here, this one actually saw a lot of action throughout history. They think that it was involved in some attacks again during the 11th century, built up even more and attacked again in the 13th century, and finally was abandoned in the 17th. Who knows how much of that is accurate, but it’s probably safe to conclude that it’s old and has had its ups and downs through the years.
There’s one story floating around about how it was ultimately defeated. The water to the fortress used to come from a nearby monastery, Tsakhats Kar, through an underground clay pipe. The attackers did the classic “thirsty horse sniffs out water pipeline” trick to cut off the water to the fortress and eventually capture it.
I had no idea what to expect and was pleasantly surprised. I had never heard of this fortress before, and after being there, I would say that it’s waaay underrated. To start, it was much bigger than I expected. The walls enclose an area of about 65,000 square meters and are around 2-3 meters thick and 10 meters high. There are a bunch of round guard towers along the walls, and everything on the exterior is in decently good shape, especially considering the age of the ruins. They’ve done some preservation work, pouring concrete on the tops of the walls to keep them from crumbling further and making it possible to walk on them. I thought the whole thing was super cool.
Most of the interior buildings are much worse off. You can still make out their ruins though, and the keep is kind of intact. Even without the fortress being awesome, the views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are worth the trip. I seriously don’t know why more people don’t go there.
We walked up and it took a couple of hours, but I think it would have gone pretty quickly with a smaller group. Also, there are tire tracks that lead all the way to the top, so with the right car (or with a normal car and an Armenian driving it), you could easily drive there. It gets a strong recommendation from me! You would definitely need a private car to take you there because it’s not super close to any public transit routes (at least not that I could find… which means nothing because Armenia public transit and the internet have a complicated relationship), but like I said, I thought it was great. Honestly, it’s probably one of my favorite places I’ve visited so far in Armenia.
At the end of August, my time in Gyumri wrapped up for good, and I got ready to move to Yerevan. Lucky for me, a bunch of my friends were moving at the same time, but it was still kind of a bittersweet feeling.
Back when I got my location assignment pre-Armenia and found out that I was going to be outside of Yerevan for two months, I was a little disappointed. I hadn’t heard much about the other cities in Armenia, but I knew that compared to Yerevan, they were very small. I had no idea what to expect, but whatever expectations I did have were far exceeded by what I found in Gyumri. The people were nice. The city was definitely big enough to be called a city, but it was small enough for me to quickly feel comfortable there. The marshrutkas would stop anywhere to pick you up and anywhere to drop you off (apparently you actually need to go to a bus stop in Yerevan… what’s up with that??). It felt like a city you could really live in. Sometimes, Yerevan feels too busy and too big and too chaotic. Gyumri feels like home.
At the same time though, being in Gyumri for an extended period of time could start to feel a little claustrophobic. I was excited to move to Yerevan to experience something new, but I was sad to leave behind all of the things that had become familiar. I knew my way around. I saw familiar faces along my normal route. I knew what to expect from people.
My first couple of days in Yerevan were overwhelming. I felt like small town girl in the big city. It was like the classic “country girl moves to New York and her head almost explodes because it’s so different from what she knew back at home in Nowheresville” movie storyline. Yeah, that one. Meanwhile though, the country girl was ME, despite the fact that I’ve lived in a city that’s bigger than Yerevan.
For at least a week, anytime someone asked me how I was liking Yerevan, my first response was always, “there are just so many people! And so many cars!” And picture me saying that with disgust in my voice.
I’ve also found that I’ll go to the ends of the earth to defend Gyumri. People who aren’t from Armenia but think they know lots of things about the country love to say ridiculous things about what they think Gyumri is like. (Maybe people from Armenia do this too, but I wouldn’t know because I haven’t heard it.) Here are some examples:
Person who has probably never left Yerevan (usually another volunteer or other foreigner): Isn’t Gyumri just like one street?
Me: Umm… no. It’s like an actual city. With multiple streets. And something like 120,000 people.
Person: There’s like nothing to do in Gyumri, right?
Me: What are you talking about? You’ll probably have trouble if you’re trying to hit the clubs at 4AM, but people live there, so there are things to do.
Person: Wait, there’s a ________ in GYUMRI? (Fill in the blank with anything that people wouldn’t expect to see in a five-person village because apparently that’s what people think is happening in Gyumri. This question is almost always asked about something so basic that you want to smack yourself in the face.)
Me: Yes… it IS a city, after all.
Person: Everyone just moves to Yerevan because there aren’t any good jobs in Gyumri.
Me (first let me just say… this one really annoys me because yes, a lot of people move to Yerevan because there are more opportunities, but there are also a lot of talented and capable people in Gyumri who are working hard to build up Armenia and Gyumri): Actually, did you know that there’s a technology center in Gyumri where a bunch of different technology startups have offices? (<– this is a thing that no one ever knows)
Just to make things clear, I lived in an apartment that had walls and a roof and running water and everything. And electricity! And internet! And furniture! We didn’t all live in straw huts along a dirt road. The roads are paved (sometimes poorly, but hey, gotta start somewhere). I’m not going to say that Gyumri is perfect or even close, but it has plenty of good mixed in with the bad.
Anyway, now I’m in Yerevan for the rest of my time here. I’m sure I’ll adjust to the icky big-city air and the tons of people everywhere and the higher prices and the cars driving like they’re trying to kill you as you cross the street. It’ll be great.
In general, my friends and I aren’t very big on going to the planned Birthright excursions. They happen every weekend, but since I’ve been here, I’ve only been on two… make that three with the one I’m going to talk about now. In general, the excursions never run on schedule, there are too many people, and we usually want to do something more adventurous than whatever they have planned. We made an exception this weekend because the excursion description mentioned hiking and because we had heard that the destination, Lastiver, was super cool.
Lastiver part of a wildlife preserve, Ijevan State Reserve, in the north-ish eastern part of the country. There’s a river with a bunch of little waterfalls, caves, and best of all, trees. We have gone on so many hikes since I’ve been here, and every time, it’s like we’re wandering through the desert. Zero trees, zero shade, zero shelter from the meltingly hot sun. I’m a forest kind of person… forests and mountains, and even better, forested mountains.
Well, I was in luck with this hike. Almost the entire thing was through the trees and nice and shady. It felt a little bit like I was back at home which was comforting because sometimes it’s just nice to see something familiar. The end point was a campground by the river, and by “campground” I mean that they have these little cabins that you can stay in overnight and it’s really not very rustic at all.
When we got there, the announcement was made that we had an hour to swim or hang out until lunch was ready. I, of course, wanted to spend my time exploring. The water was FRIGID which means I wasn’t too interested in swimming, so I started walking upstream. Clearly, my friends and I are all on the same page because Shant and Carineh were right there with me, doing the same thing even though we hadn’t talked about it. We got a little farther upstream and found some of our other friends, Karen, Gagik, and his cousin, Anjela. I thought it was pretty funny how all of my favorite people ended up in the same place without any plans. I guess that’s how you know that you have things in common!
The upstream “hike” we ended up doing is probably one of my favorite things I’ve done so far in Armenia. It was another one of those fun, brain challenge hikes because there was a river and a bunch of rocks, and I wasn’t interested in getting wet. That meant that we had to be creative and do a lot of jumping from rock to rock. Our group got split up as Karen, Carineh, Gagik, and Anjela gave up on staying dry and started wading through the river, and Shant and I kept hopping from place to place. Ahh it was so fun.
One of my favorite feelings is when I’ve been consistently exercising and I feel like I have good control of my body, like balance and coordination-wise, and I get to do something that puts those to the test. This experience was definitely a balance and coordination challenge, but I felt like I was in control and could trust my legs to do what they were supposed to do. I was jumping from rock to rock without getting tired or worrying for a second that I was misjudging the distances or that I wasn’t capable of making it. I don’t know how else to describe that feeling besides just saying that it’s awesome, and you feel like your body is doing what it was made to do.
Anyway, by the time we decided to turn around and go back, lunch was long over. We made it back to the group, and I felt like we were castaways making it back to civilization. Who knows what everyone else spent their day doing, but I’m convinced that ours was the best.
The next day, Shant and I decided to make the trek out to see the Marmashen, a group of churches about 10 kilometers from where we live in Gyumri. There were originally five churches, only three are still standing, and they haven’t even found the foundations of the last one. I successfully called a taxi to take us there, and we spent some time wandering around, checking out the sights, and eating snacks (obviously, because we never go anywhere without snacks). It seemed like a cool place for locals because there was a picnic area, and people were going hard with their barbecue. After we were finished wandering, Shant really wanted to walk back to Gyumri, so off we went.
I know, I know this all sounds ridiculous. I’m convinced that we’re (“we” being my friend group here) literally incapable as a group of doing anything in a normal way. At Lastiver, literally no one else from the Birthright group walked so far upstream. All of us were just naturally drawn to it. Here, who in their right mind decides to walk 10 km home when you could just call a taxi? I guess that means we aren’t quite in our right minds.
To make things more ridiculous, we decided to ignore all of the roads. Instead, we took random paths through the fields that looked like they were leading in the right direction. I wish I had some sort of fitness tracker or something because I promise you that we walked FAR more than 10 kilometers while trying to take “the most direct route”. Ha.
Our wanderings took us through some cow pastures and old ruins that looked like one of our archaeology sites, over a river, into the village of Marmashen (where people looked at us like we were actual space aliens), and out into some fields. There, we were summoned by a random farmer named Hamlet. He spoke no English, of course, and so we entered into the usual conversation of hand motions and sporadic Armenian words. He wanted us to come back to his house to eat dinner and spend the night. When we told him that we were walking to Gyumri and had come from Marmashen the church (it’s not that close to the town), he looked at us like we were literally insane and offered to call his friend who has a car to take us home. People usually don’t understand walking somewhere just for the sake of walking. We finally managed to pull ourselves away, and off we went, back into the fields.
The rest of the walk was interesting. There are a bunch of abandoned, half-collapsed buildings outside of Gyumri. I thought that they were from the earthquake, but apparently maybe they’re from after? I don’t know, either way, they’re super eerie. Then, there are buildings that seem like they should be abandoned, but upon closer inspection, there are people living in them. We walked briskly by those. Then, there are the massive craters in the ground where there used to be a building and now there’s just a foundation. I don’t know what everything out there is from, but it was certainly an interesting walk.
We made it back to our neighborhood just as it was getting too dark to see anything. Thank goodness because I was starting to panic a little bit. Since we didn’t follow any roads, if it got dark before we made it home, we would have taken forever. We got ice cream to celebrate our survival, and ice cream fixes all problems, so now I have nothing but happy memories of the day. No, but actually, it was really fun, and I think that I can safely say that no one has EVER had a Marmashen experience like ours (because seriously… who walks??).
This week has been a struggle. I think it’s a combination of things, but they’re all adding up to me being in a funk. For one thing, I STILL have an eye infection. It’s the one I think I got from Vardavar, and if you’re thinking this is quite a long time for me to have the same infection, you are correct. I went through the first treatment of antibiotic eye drops, wore my glasses for a whole two weeks during that time (which I absolutely HATE having to do), and then went back to the doctor at the end to see if my eyes were healed and if I could start wearing my contacts again. She said yes, and I was thrilled.
Fast forward ONE day of contact wearing, and my eyes felt terrible, aka definitely NOT healed. Back to glasses. I went to a different doctor because I lost all faith in the first one, and she said I had another infection. I personally think I have the same infection, but that makes no difference. She tried to tell me that the infection came from my contacts… unlikely. I used a new pair, and I’ve never had an issue with this type of lenses before. I think that not many people wear contacts here, so they blame everything on the fact that you’re putting something unnatural in your eyes.
Now, here I am, going through ANOTHER round of antibiotic eye drop treatment. This time, I’m going to wait at least a week after finishing my drops before I count my eyes as healed and even consider putting lenses back in. So I think it’s kind of reasonable for me to be a little grumpy because having sick eyes impacts literally every waking moment of my day. Besides already feeling like I can barely see in glasses (not because the prescription is wrong but because I have no peripheral vision with them), I am horrible at keeping them clean, so that plus extra dust in the air here/at my archaeology job means I’m constantly looking through translucent glasses instead of transparent ones. I just feel like I’m living in the clouds a bit… like I’m not completely present because I can’t see clearly.
If I separate my eye grumpiness from the situation, I guess this hasn’t been a bad week. My class is still going well and still stressing me out, but next week I’ll have a break from the stress at least. We finished going over different AutoCAD commands during Monday’s class, and yesterday we talked about space planning and the project. I constantly think about how much easier it would be to teach this class in a language I can speak or even just kind of speak. I would happily teach another class in Spanish. Needing a translator makes it so much harder to do everything. For space planning, we talked about the example of a school building. What kinds of rooms does a school need? How big do those rooms need to be? What rooms should be next to each other?
For their projects, they’re all supposed to draw their dream houses… or simplified dream houses. I told them that the best way for them to get better at using AutoCAD is by practicing, so they should make their houses whatever they need to be to challenge themselves. They’ll have all of Monday’s class to work, and then after about half of Thursday’s class, I’m going to make them all come up and give mini-presentations about their houses. I want each person to basically give the class a tour so that I can understand what they drew and why.
My big outside-of-class project for next week is going to be trying to figure out how to use the laser cutter. I have a week to work out the details, so I’m feeling nice and anxious about that. A big part of me was hoping that all of the students would forget about that part of the class, but someone mentioned it today, so I guess that means we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist (assuming I can figure it out). I’ve been phoning a friend (my Peru friend Debbie) to try to understand how the whole thing should work… keep your fingers crossed for me! I’m going to need all the help I can get.
I am completely wiped. I feel like all of my Armenia posts have started with a statement to that effect, but that’s because it’s true all the time! My schedule here is at a constant sprint. It reminds me of when I was in college and felt like I had somewhere to be at every second of every day.
On the bright side, I am happy with my crazy schedule. Probably the low point of every week is teaching my AutoCAD class, but even that really isn’t so bad. I think I’m just at the point of exhaustion with teaching. My other job, though, is awesome!! Remember how I talked about how I heard that an archaeology job exists in Gyumri? It does! And I’m doing it!
During the month of August each year, the archaeology institute here does a dig! They’re working 5 days a week, but I only join for Tuesdays and Wednesdays because of my other job and community service Fridays. It’s exhausting work, but I wish I could be with them every day because I’m having a lot of fun. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let me go back to the beginning…
During my first weekend at Birthright, I heard a rumor that there used to be an archaeology placement in Gyumri, and I immediately emailed Sona, our jobsite coordinator, to see if it was true. She said yes, and after contacting them, she told me that they do a dig during August and were willing to take me! Eek!!
We went to a meeting with the guy in charge, and he told us that on August 1st, there would be a sort of kick-off meeting that I should come to, and the work would start on the 2nd. When he found out that I don’t speak Armenian, he basically said, “well, you will!” and then told me not to be afraid to talk even if I might mess up.
Sona sent me to the August 1st meeting with Liana, my translator for class. The “meeting” was exactly the chaos that I should have expected and consisted of too many people in one room all talking about different things in a million languages except for English. There is a German couple who comes each year for the digs, plus there were some other people who I still don’t know who they were, plus there were the locals who are working the digs. So by “a million languages”, I mean Armenian, German, and French. But either way, it was all things that I didn’t understand.
It was announced to all people in attendance that no one should speak to me in English. Great. I mean, it is great to be forced to learn, but at the same time, I’m not trying to mess something up because I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing. Liana was silenced anytime she tried to translate for me, and instead I was given all of the instructions in Armenian (thankfully, at a slow speed). She gave me a summary after we left, and I actually did get most of it on my own! We leave at 8 each day (which is VERY early by Armenia standards… Karen called one of his marshrutka driver friends to make sure that they’re even running that early. Luckily, the one I take starts running at 7). I have to wear pants and long sleeves, and I should bring a hat, lunch, and lots of water. We went on a surprisingly difficult quest to find me a long sleeve shirt, and after rejecting far too many with weird/awkward English phrases on them, we located a plain white, fake Louis Vitton long sleeve. Better than nothing.
On the first day, I made it to the office without any trouble, and off we went! We headed to a site that had already been partially excavated, and the day was spent removing weeds. It wasn’t the most thrilling work, but I enjoyed being outside and having something active to do rather than sitting at a desk. The sun got to be brutal, and I was happy to be covered up so completely. I had a bandana that I used to shield my cheeks and neck, so literally the only part of my body that was exposed was my face. I found out that a couple of the girls can speak some English because they whispered some words to me to let me know what we were doing. Thank goodness. I’m fine with being spoken to in Armenian most of the time, but for instructions, I’d really rather be sure.
This week was pretty exhausting. We were doing some actual digging, so I spent two days shoveling and hauling bucketfuls of dirt. That plus the hot sun is more than enough to make you want to lay down and sleep forever. I have no idea how everyone else is doing that 5 days a week! Though it is a lot of fun, and the people are all awesome. They all try to speak to me in Armenian and are patient when I don’t understand what they’re asking. I’m definitely improving though! Besides the practice I get there, I really like the language class that I’m in now, and I’m getting more and more comfortable with putting sentences together and speaking.
They think that the sites we’re working on now are from the 5th or 6th century BC. Whoa, right? Everyone is amazing at spotting artifacts in the dirt while digging, and I’m getting better at it too. The constant question – rock or ceramic? They also were pulling out things that looked like wooden tools, and it took me almost an entire day to realize that they were actually bones. Yeah, I know that it doesn’t make sense for wooden tools to last 20 some centuries without disintegrating, but I just let myself go with my first thought. Then I was kind of freaked out thinking they were human bones, but the German woman said that they’re probably all animal bones. Phew. Less weird. We found some that were jawbones though and still had teeth! Creepy.
By the end of the week, I was spotting and pulling things out of the dirt too. I’m like a real archaeologist! Not really, I know there’s a lot more to it than that, but it’s fun to pretend. Larkaeologist. Hehehehe. (Lara/Lark-izing words will never get old for me.) I also upped our digging efficiency by taking on the role of bucket mover. I went into the hole and placed buckets for the diggers to put dirt into, removed/replaced them when they were full, and lifted them out of the hole for dirt dumpers to take away (these are all, obviously, the technical terms for the different jobs). My goal was to have no lag time between when a bucket was filled and a new bucket was put in place for the diggers to use. It was a fun challenge to keep myself entertained, and I think everyone noticed how much more smoothly the process went. Before that, the diggers were dealing with the buckets themselves, and it was super inefficient. It was cool to feel like I actually improved something rather than just being another body doing physical labor.
Anyway, so far this job is everything I hoped it would be. Like I said, I kind of wish that I could just work with them every day instead of having to teach too, but that’s not possible, so I’ll have to just be happy with the time I have there!
Last weekend’s adventure was hiking the northern peak of Mount Aragats! Aragats was created by a volcanic eruption and is now a huge crater surrounded by four peaks. They’re creatively named the northern, southern, eastern, and western peaks, and the northern peak is the highest point in Armenia at an elevation of 4,091 meters (13,420 feet).
It has also been an important symbol for Armenians since the pre-Christian days and has pagan and Christian shrines scattered around. Many of them are hidden, and according to the legends, some are hidden using methods more magical than simple camouflage. Remember our friend St. Gregory? The one who lived in a pit for years and helped to convert the Armenian king to Christianity in 301AD? Well, he was a VERY busy guy because he also used to climb Aragats pray and at night was guided by a lantern “hanging from heaven”. The lantern supposedly still appears on the mountain, but only the worthy can see it.
When Sarah and I went on that tour in Yerevan, the tour guide talked about how he and some friends hiked the northern peak, and from that moment, I decided that I was going to do it if I got the chance. I didn’t know at the time if I would find any friends who liked to hike, but I was hoping! Sure enough, about a week into being in Gyumri, I heard about a group forming to hike it, and I signed myself up. I was worried because I hadn’t really planned on doing any serious hiking while here, so I didn’t bring my hiking boots. It was hard to find any real information online about the hike, but from the people we talked to and the information we got from the guide, it sounded like boots would be a good idea. I ended up being the absolute luckiest because a friend was coming to visit Armenia the week before the hike, and she brought my boots with her! I’m telling you, if you ever do this hike, boots or hiking shoes with a hard sole and waterproofing are essential! We even hiked it at the time of year when there’s the least snow, but it doesn’t matter. Trust me.
We set out from Gyumri at 4:15AM, and yes, that was as miserable as it sounds. My host mom was sure that I was saying the wrong number when I told her when I had to leave the house and then told me to have fun and that she would still be sleeping. The drive to Kari Lake, the spot where the hikes start, takes a little more than 2 hours from Gyumri, and it took us even longer because the taxi drivers needed to take a couple smoke breaks, we hit an animal on the way, and we got stuck behind some farm equipment. Off to a good start.
The hike is supposed to take like 8-16 hours or something like that. We were shooting for finishing it in 10, but I had no idea what to expect. Thankfully, we had a guide, so we didn’t really have to know much. I totally didn’t realize how much hiking you have to do to just to make it to the base of the north peak. We set out from the lake, walked past the southern peak, and crossed into the crater through the low-ish point between the western and southern peaks. When I realized that all of the hiking up we had done wasn’t even the beginning of the hike to the peak, I was horrified. We had to hike down into the crater before hiking all the way up again. It took us three hours just to make it to the base of the northern peak.
After a break, we started to make our way up. The terrain was basically all rocks. Little rocks and medium sized rocks with sporadic plants. The lack of much plant growth and dirt to hold the rocks in place meant that every step was a potential rock slide. Perfect. This is where the recommendation to bring hiking poles started to make sense. You should bring hiking poles. It’s certainly possible without them but I would estimate approximately 10000x easier/less terrifying with them.
The first half of the hike up to the peak isn’t really that bad. It’s steep, but you can find paths where the rocks aren’t as unstable, and the only part of me that was getting tired was my calves. We stopped to take a break in the least comfortable location (imagine like a 45-degree slope with sharp rocks poking into you) before starting the second half. From that point on, it was way worse. The inclines were steeper, the rocks were smaller and less secure, and the drop offs were mildly terrifying. I’m not afraid of heights, but I am afraid of rock sliding down the side of a mountain. I’m not a fan of feeling like I can’t trust my feet to stay where I put them, so I started going extra slowly. The other people in my group must be half mountain goat because none of them seemed to be that bothered by it (though I’m sure that’s partly because if they were nervous, they just didn’t show it). I let them go ahead of me because, in that kind of situation, I don’t like feeling rushed or like I’m holding people up. I knew that I would make it to the top, it was just a question of the speed at which that would take place.
I think it took us something like 3 hours to make it to the top. Everyone else could have probably done it in 2-1/2 or less, but I was definitely the weakest link in that situation. Fear is a really interesting thing. There are so many things that I’m not afraid of, and there are a lot of similar situations where I would be completely fine. I think that in that case, it was a combination of having a couple foot slips that freaked me out, not wanting to slow down the group (though that happened anyway), and feeling a little unbalanced because of the altitude. I never had the thought that I couldn’t do it or that I should turn around; I just needed to do it my own way and to go at my own pace.
The view from the top was awesome, and the feeling of making it there was even better. I chose to ignore the fact that I was also going to have to make it back down because I didn’t want to spoil the moment. We sat at the top, ate some snacks, and enjoyed the views of the other Aragats peaks and the surrounding landscape until the guide insisted that we start heading back down.
I took my place at the back of the group to avoid slowing anyone down, and the guide came over and offered me his hand. I knew that I could make it down without any help, so the choice was really just between 1) insisting on doing it myself, slowing down the group even more, and feeling terrified the entire descent and 2) accepting some help, moving at a reasonable speed, and feeling slightly at ease. I’m all about doing things for myself, but there’s also no shame in accepting help when it’s offered. I took his hand, and he basically dragged me down the mountain.
At the bottom, we had to decide how we wanted to get back to the lake. The “fastest” option won, but fastest definitely didn’t mean easiest… in this case, it meant steepest. There’s nothing worse than finishing climbing the mountain that you came to climb just to realize that you need to climb two more mountains to get home. We went up and down FOUR times on the hike. The actual northern peak part of the hike was definitely challenging, but if that was all you had to do, it wouldn’t be bad at all. We spent more than half of the total hike time going to and coming from the base of the mountain!
We had one river, two more aggressive uphill climbs, three snow patches, and seemingly endless wildflower spotted fields to make it through before the end of the hike. For all of that though, I was fine mentally. It was just something about the sliding rocks on the north peak that got me into a funk.
When we made it back to the lake, I wanted nothing more than to go to sleep. The whole hike took us about 11 hours and 20 minutes, including our million breaks and my pokiness on the way to the peak. All things considered, I thought that was pretty good. We loaded back into the cabs and made our way down the windy roads down the mountain and home to Gyumri. I got home a little after 10PM and went immediately to bed. I must have looked a mess because my host mom didn’t even try to force feed me when I said I just wanted to sleep.
All in all, I’m glad I did it, and even more, I’m glad that I never have to do it again.
P.S. If you ever find yourself planning to hike the northern peak, talk to me. Hiking boots. Hiking poles. Late summer. Lots of water.
Normal life over the last couple of weeks has been hectic, to say the least. I still feel a bit like I’m a chicken running around with its head cut off, but now at least I don’t feel like I’m also precariously close to falling off a cliff. So that’s an improvement, however slight.
The final count of students signed up for my architecture/AutoCAD/laser cutter class was 18, and on the first day, we had 10 actually show up, and their ages ranged from 15-25. I thought that was a perfect number. I met with Liana, my translator, before the class, and we went over what I was going to talk about so that she was prepared. I still am getting used to the whole translator thing, but I’m lucky to have someone translating who wants to do a good job. The translators are volunteers too, so their motivation is just wanting to practice and learn. Liana is just as determined as I am to make this a class that people are interested in. It’s nice to feel like I’m not the only one who cares.
We spent our first class doing a mini architecture history/around the world architecture tour. I had such a hard time putting that together because there is SO much you can include in an architecture history lesson. That’s the biggest challenge for this class in general. We don’t have THAT much time, so I have to decide what is really important for the students to understand and what can be skimmed over. I did a little bit of history and then tried to show them how different parts of the world developed different architectural styles.
We then moved into talking about all of the people involved with creating a building today. Honestly, I have no idea how the construction process works here, so I just based it off of how things happen in the US. If they actually decide to go into this field, they’ll figure it out. That was my segue into my personal favorite team building activity, paper towers. You split the group up into teams of three or four and give them a long piece of tape, scissors, and 4 or 5 pieces of computer paper. The goal is to build the tallest free-standing tower possible in a set amount of time. I’ve done this in three countries now, and it never ceases to amaze me how everyone comes up with something completely different. Also, it doesn’t matter how old or young the students are. Someone always ends up with a tower that blows away the competition, and someone always builds something that immediately collapses.
We also started talking about the types of drawings that an architect makes: plans, elevations, and sections. We did a couple of activities with that over the three classes, including my personal favorite one where they drew a plan of the outdoor courtyard. I gave them all graph paper and told them that the scale was one step = one square. So they all had to walk around the courtyard measuring distances with footsteps. It was good because we didn’t need a tape measure, and I always think it’s better to have people doing something weird/interesting because it’s more likely to keep their interest than just sitting in one place for two hours. Next week, we’re moving into computer work. I think the students are all probably happy about that because it means they can stop doing my bizarre activities, and I am too because that means I can start using online tutorials to help me rather than having to make it all up from scratch. You have no idea how long it takes me to prep for classes when I’m starting from zero.
Last week was also my final week working at the startup company! It was interesting working there, but I can’t say I’m too sad to go because next week starts my archaeology volunteer placement! I’m really excited about this. Sona, the Birthright job site coordinator, took me last week to meet with the archaeology people. Apparently, there’s a German group coming for the month of August, and they do a big archaeology dig each year. They showed us a drone video of the site from last year. It was awesome! I’m going to be joining them two days each week, and I definitely need to go buy a long sleeve so that I don’t get fried from being outside in the sun all day. Ah!! I can’t wait! Hopefully it’s as cool as I think it’s going to be.
On the language front, my Armenian is slowly improving. I got promoted to the next Armenian class, but that’s mostly because I already knew how to read and not because my Armenian is any good. I have a lot of vocabulary to learn before I’m caught up with the people in this new class. There’s no use knowing 15 tenses to conjugate verbs in if you don’t know the right verbs. I am way better than before though. I sometimes will go to my host mom with a well-practiced sentence, and I’ll say it so well that she then overestimates my abilities and asks a follow-up question. Most of the time, I understand what she’s asking, but I just don’t have the words to answer her. So I do the mouth open and close like I really have something to say, and the words just won’t come out. I’m like a fish. In response, she usually just smiles, shakes her head, and says, “Ah, Lara jan” (Lara jan means “dear Lara”. People use “jan” all the time as a kind of term of endearment). At least she’s patient.
Anyway, I’m hoping that I’ll have more time to practice my Armenian now that we’re moving into the software part of the class I’m teaching. I really do think that the prep is going to be much easier now.
Goal for this week: feel like a chicken with a head (baby steps). That sounds reasonable, right?