BY PAUL CHADERJIAN
Once there was and there was not …
It’s a picture perfect Sunday morning in Tatev, a serene and remote corner of Southern Armenia.
The beauty of this place is so stunning that you have to remind that you are not looking at a computer-generated Hollywood backdrop or an image on an HD screen.
This is the real deal. This is the Armenia many will soon discover and want to experience.
Sitting in the morning sun, on a green hill across the gorge from the majestic Tatev Monastery Complex is 16-year-old Seryoja. Next to him on the ground is a pick axe, and he’s carrying a burlap sack.
He sits in contemplation, looking across the Vorotan Valley, its green hills, trees, pastures, the rushing white waters below, and the snow-streaked mountains on the distant horizon towards Karabakh.
This Tatev-native says he comes to this very same spot every day on his way back home from his family’s plot of farm.
Seryoja says it’s a great place to be alone, replay the dialogue he’s had with his family and friends, ponder life’s questions, and dream.
What do you dream about, I ask.
Hawaii, he says.
I ask him why Hawaii, and he says he’s seen the islands on the map. Places in the middle of an ocean, isolated, so far away, fascinate him.
I want to tell him that he is also in a fascinating, far-away place. I want to tell him that I know with all of my heart that no Hawaiian could ever compete with the uncanny hospitality, love, and soulfulness of the 500-plus villagers here.
I tell him that he will see Hawaii one day, and all he has to do is believe he will see it.
Seryoja and the people of Tatev are the salt of the earth, and they open their homes to tourists, Armenian and non-Armenian, who have come to experience their patch of heaven on earth.
Their faces are bright, glowing. Their eyes are a piercing blue like the sky.
Their hearts and hearths are open. The air they breathe is fresh, the food they eat tastes richer, and even the sheep and chicken roaming the unpaved streets and the cows and pigs fenced in at nearby orchards are amazing to look at.
For the tourist coming to the region to experience the natural wonders, historic landmarks, and the seven local villages, Tatev’s Information Center is the place to start.
Zarine and her children run the newly-built center on the way to the monastery. They also operate one of the Bed & Breakfasts (hatz oo gatz) in the village.
Zarine is the chef, industrious, working non-stop in the kitchen, on her farm, at their B&B. Her daughter Anna is the Italian-educated tour guide, interpreter, and self-assured modern Armenian women.
Zarine’s son, Artur, is the reserved, quiet, and well-mannered man of the house. He manages the office and makes sure visitors have internet access.
For 3,500 AMD/night ($10), visitors can find a clean, well-lit place to stay in this village. There are some five registered B&B’s now, which were once the dream of Zarine’s late husband, the village doctor. He had envisioned the creation of a village fund that would help create a visitor’s center and direct tourists to area homes that would house them, thus creating a new source of revenue.
There had been a cheese factory in the village during the Soviet Era, and it had generated some income in addition to farming. The village doctor knew that B&B’s could be a great way to attract those who came to see the monastery for the day and had nowhere to stay or eat.
The late doctor’s prescription for his village became a reality a few years ago with the opening of the Information Center a few steps up the road from the Tatev Monastery. Here, one can look at maps, ask questions, find a place to sleep and eat, and run into fellow travelers from all around the world. A phone call to +37493 84-56-32 can get you a room at any of the registered B&B’s.
On the evening we arrived, Marc from Brussels had come to use the computer. He had just arrived in Tatev, seeking refuge and quiet after a week in Yerevan. A friend’s wedding was what had brought him to Armenia, and Marc had figured a small village like Tatev would be the ideal place to get away from it all.
After writing an e-mail home to tell his parents he was doing well, Zarine served him tea and gatta (sweet bread) and helped make a random European a friend to those sipping tea on the patio of the Information Center.
Marc had taken a $10 cab ride from Yerevan to Goris and spent another two bucks for a bus ride from Goris to Tatev. The bus driver, Gago, had told him about his B&B, and that’s where Marc was going to stay and eat his three daily meals. The cost? $25 bucks-a-day.
Another B&B, Jon and Lena’s, comes with a wonderful love story. The homeowner is the spunky local math teacher, whose daughter Lena met a young diasporan named Jon, when he was part of the Land & Culture mission to Tatev in 1997. The couple exchanged letters and phone calls for several years until Jon returned to spend a few weeks in Armenia in 1999. Their wedding a year later took place at the Tatev Monastery.
As a way to give back to the village, Jon and Lena, now living in the US, invested some money so that Lena’s mom, Tamara, could remodel her home near the school and accommodate guests. Since the opening of Jon & Lena’s, Tamara and her family have welcomed 119 groups from the US, UK, Switzerland, and Japan.
For tourists like Marc, traveling off the beaten path, hiking, cycling, and hitchhiking are both adventuresome and safe to do in Armenia. Marc’s plans included seeing the Devil’s Bridge, a natural bridge over the Vorotan’s rushing white waters. At Devil’s Bridge are also two natural pools of hot spring water. Locals and tourists go for a dip for the healing affects of mineral baths.
Beyond the mineral baths and serenity of the region, the most refreshing experience is the hospitality of total strangers with whom you at once will feel connected.
Armenia’s villagers are warm, generous, and the food they will serve is organic, fresh, and from their own farms.
The yogurts, honey, jams, cheeses, and butter are all homemade, the breads are baked daily in a local tonir (a below-ground oven), the greens are freshly picked tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, and mints of all sorts.
For travelers looking to silence the noise of the world and the chaos of the mind, one night under the starry sky of Tatev is the answer.
The only noise here is the sound of the wind, the chirping of the birds, and perhaps the distant chime of a church bell.
There are no airplanes overhead, no cars or the constant hum of highways. There are no sirens or construction drills, save for the work being completed on the world’s longest aerial tramway station near the monastery.
There are only the sounds of nature here and the laughter of children echoing from far away.
It is only when humans are away from their home in a place like this village that our senses become sharper and our perceptions more aware.
With heightened awareness, we have the ability to be more present and experience the whole of life and our total self — distanced from the past and unconcerned about the future.
The stillness outside mystically creates a stillness inside.
In the here and now, we are given a chance to realize who we are and define the true nature and soul of our people.
We are a good people, a kind, giving people. Hospitable. Caring. Loving. Simple.
We share what we have even when it’s not a lot. We respect ourselves and each other.
We don’t judge and dismiss but acknowledge and accept. We share experiences, laugh, tell stories and express our joy and respect through our abundant tables of food.
We are each a creation of God and a part of God.
Now is the time we must collectively reflect and reacquaint ourselves with our roots and find out what’s truly in our hearts.
Who are we and whose are we?
Our rural Homeland is where we can find the answers, our true selves, and our true home.
Tatev and other villages are our turning and returning point in the modern-day Armenian experience.
Tatev is where we can find the seat of our Armenian soul.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.