Armenia Trip Fulfills a Lifelong Dream

I have always held a soft spot in my heart for Armenia. Ever since I was young growing up in the AYF and Armenian School, it’s always been my ambition to visit the land of Noah, Haik, Sassoonsti David and others who have shaped this cradle of civilization. At the age of 65, three months away from retirement I finally got my wish. Just prior to departure, I received an e-mail from a veteran tourist who has made Armenia his second home. "You’ll ask yourself two questions, he volunteered. "One, what took you so long to get there, and two, when will you be going back?" First, I’ll tell you what took so long. It’s probably the same reasons why others haven’t taken the junket. School, job, family and home commitmen’s have intervened. Complacency if you want to call it that. You get settled in your ways and Armenia is the furthest trip from your mind. It wasn’t until a group of us from Merrimack Valley (MA) decided to take the journey together did reality finally settle in. The fact we were all together as long-time friends made the initiative that much more appealing. If anyone deserves any credit for bringing the entourage together, it goes to Steve and Angele Dulgarian of Chelmsford, a couple veteran tourists who have made 10 trips to Armenia and two others to Historic Armenia. Both acted as travel guides in their own way and were never short of information when it came to pointing out the sights. The mere mention of Hayastan brings suggestions from the outside. It’s our homeland but it is also a place full of contradictions, said one commentator. So take your time forming impressions. I was told to wear comfortable shoes and keep an open mind. A journalist told me not to write anything except journal entries and another cautioned me against taking a surplus of pictures. Keep it as a vacation, not a work study program, one remarked. They said to visit Karabakh no matter what and especially see the capital city of Stepanagert to feel an immediate kinship with Armenia’s who have been in the land for millennia and not like us vagabond diasporans. Take in the culture and enjoy the outdoor and indoor concerts, it was recommended. Visit the Zatik Orphanage. You will not believe how uplifting it is and attend service in St. Katolike Church, Yerevan’s oldest–across from the Ani Hotelwith its great choir. The Hover Choir also came highly recommended as did the Armenian Chess Academy and the village of Gogaran, above Spitak in the earthquake zone. I was also informedthat Watertown activist Josh Tevekelian is godfather to half that village and he could set me up with more stories than a notepad could fill. Above all, it was stated, don’t hesitate to speak English. This wasn’t Beirut or Haleb. We are not victims anymore. We are building our state with the resources of a worldwide nation. Before I left, people dropped off packages and money to deliver in Yerevan, along with a list of recommended restauran’s, travel guides and interpreters in case I wished to venture off on my own, homes to visit, and other points of interest like The Armenia Tree Project. The orientation I had in the weeks prior resembled a crash course from the Travel Institute of Armenia. No point in reviewing every iota of my itinerary but over the two weeks that followed, we visited nine communities, met hundreds of folks, exercised my household Armenian with no communication barriers, and encountered numerous surprises. * I found out that a group from India had come to Yerevan as part of a cultural exchange from that country to perform at the 15th anniversary of Armenian Independence. * The number of non-Armenian groups who embarked upon the land to explore Western culture was pronounced. We met a busload from Italy and another from England not to mention the Orient connection. * Far Easterners were coming here in vast numbers to study engineering at the University of Yerevan. A guy named Ling I met on the plane would have been right at home in Shusi but his favorite Armenian food was dolgma and lamejan. * Other countries were found enjoying and expressing their own love for our traditions and I found that encouraging. * The churches and monasteries we would visit over 12 days could have given me a ticket to Heaven. Each one had its own personality. Three of my favorites were Etchmiadzin, Noravank and Gandzasar, each shrouded with antiquity and wonder. * At Ambert, I encountered a 70-year-old mountaineer with a pet pig named Bedros. AtHaghpat, I gave a beggar a dollar and found him minutes later purchasing a candle to pray for his loved ones. * Vagabonds roamed freely. Those who sold their wares for a price got the most attention as opposed to the beggars who offered nothing for a handout. * Maggie Mikaelian and Shahe Bilemdjian brought along their elderly moms from California so they could see their beloved Hairenik for the first time. One of their observations was the feeling of unity. * Met while casually walking the streets of Yerevan was John Mr. Tufts Baronian of Medford, MA, who was there with another group, despite some health issues.Also, playwright Hrant Markarian of New York City who was there working on abook about Armenian theater. And Armen Topouzian of West Bloomfield, Mich., who has been to Armenia 15 times since 1997 to help the schoolchildren, especially at ARS Soseh Myrig School in Stepanagert. * Girairand Volga Karapetian of Glendale, Calif., donated $50,000 toward the construction of a school gymnasium in Yerevan and handle all the renovations. Nothing pleases them more than to see children utilizing the facility that was dedicated to a 39-year-old daughter Nairi who died of leukemia. * Quick observations and impressions from a first-timer. Outside of Yerevan, there is little economic structure but peasants appear complacent. The way Armenian women treat their children is commendable. Most all are dressed appropriately. Little to no obesity. Hardly any outside fitness, either. People don’t jog or walk like home. Sanitary conditions need to improve on the outskirts if tourism is meant to prosper. What makes me sad is when people complain about corruption–and it’s evident. That’s reality! The best way to be entertained is to sit at a sidewalk cafe and watch the people drift by. Beauty abounds! * Most gut-wrenching experience was at Khor-Vrap. I photographed a cute lamb on a lease and momen’s later he was led to the cutting table. Now, every time I eat shish kebab, I shall think of this scene. * The dream lives on. Days after my return, visions of Armenia kept popping into my head with flashbacks. A song, A photograph. Sunday Badarak. Simple conversations with my friends. When will I return? That was the other question posed earlier. Well, a photography colleague and I will embark upon Armenia in two short years. I shall be well retired by then and who knows? A tossup between Yerevan and Miami as a second home would offer me no contest.

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