- The Genocide
The days are passing by in seconds and I can’t really wrap my head around the fact that we are ending our Armenian adventure in less than two weeks. The flight is booked for the 1st of december and we are now in the phase of puzzling together all the things we still haven’t done and farewell-dinners, parties and shopping for the things we want to bring back home. Somehow it feels like we haven’t done anything at all the last months because there are just so much left we want to do. Yesterday we decided to tick of one of the less joyful yet most important visits on our list – the Genocide museum.
For those of you who do not know what I’m talking about – I understand you. I have to admit that before me and Leo met I had never heard of the Armenian genocide, which I shamefully learned is the second largest genocide where it is estimated that over one million people were murdered by the Ottoman Empire before and during World War I. I was both ashamed and a bit shocked to learn that I had not heard about this, especially since I really like history (both when in school but also afterwards) and I even went to a high school that had courses focusing mainly on the build up to WWI and WWII. But the sad part is that I wasn’t the only one – many more people in my surroundings that I find very knowledgeable had not heard of it either. This is the very issue of the Armenian genocide, that very few countries have acknowledged it and some (especially Turkish government) proclaims it is a made up story and denies it ever happened.
The Genocide museum, and also the part of the Genocide in the National History Museum, with its evidence of what has happened can actually give some understanding to the people refusing to acknowledge what has happened. The facts gave me goosebumps (not the good kind) and nausea just for being human and I get it, life must be much easier thinking that mankind could never do such a thing. But the evidence are too many, too varied, too sick to even begin thinking someone had just made it up.
The thing that got me the most after visiting the museum, was to learn how the murders had happened. Having visited museums and both concentration and death camps of the Holocaust, I couldn’t help not to compare the two atrocities. The murders from the holocaust were made in an optimised, cold industrial way to enable as many deaths as possible with as little effort as possible. Just a few men were needed to kill thousands. The creativity in how they invented new methods to do it sickens me, but not in the same way as the murders of the Armenian genocide. The systematic thinking weren’t as developed (thank god probably) so each murder was individual and personal. It was more like an eye for an eye, meaning it was so many more people carrying out the deed, and in the ways they did it.. You could read how pregnant women wereu used as target practice, how women were tied to the tail of their horses and dragged after the horse, and more obscene methods I don’t even tried to remember. Reading about this absurd creativity of murder and thinking about how individuals came up with this with their victims infront of them – it got me question humanity in new ways even though I already do it for so many other despicable events.
A “fun” fact is that some of the Turkish decision makers during the Armenian genocide later moved on (unpunished) to Germany and helped Hitler designing the holocaust procedures.
I am in no way saying that one genocide is worse than the other, just that they differ and it scares me to see that we can be completely without empathy in so many different, horrible ways. And then deny it all and go on without learning a thing.
- Day 4 – Artsakh trip
Alright, you’ve endured 3 out of 4 days of our Artsakh trip, now’s the time for the last days report. As Emma previously mentioned (and experienced), people were dropping like flies. First it was one person with an upset stomach, followed by someone who threw up, followed by more people feeling ill, followed by more sick people. The day was full of unexpected moments, like the fact that when we we’re supposed to go home to Yerevan, the bus was 45 minutes late, first we thought that we’d somehow missed the bus? But it all became clear once it finally arrived.
The reason being that during the bus route to pick everyone up they had to stop for people to throw up some more. Entering the bus was in a very overly dramatic way like entering a hospital tent during the peak of the Spanish flu. People lying down in their seats, others being more quiet than usual, which was most noticeable in our Lebanese party friends. I was left with three very distinct feelings:
- I felt so sorry for people having to endure the long bus ride home while feeling sick
- I’m so thankful that I seem to have an iron stomach, because I was feeling totally fine
- A bit of poison might not be such a bad idea to be able to get a quiet bus ride in the future
We the healthy few
The day however for the iron stomach early birds, including myself, got up early and went on a short hike to the top of a canyon near Shushi to experience some more of the breathtaking beauty that is this country. It was a beautiful morning just enjoying the views and reflecting everything we’ve experienced during the last days. I would also like to mention what Emma said about day 3; the speeches and the way people opened up their hearts and shared their thoughts was so heartwarming. I’ll probably sound like an old granddad, but I couldn’t help but think how proud I was of everyone.
After the hike we went back and were finally on the way to the last visit before we headed home towards Yerevan, Gyumri and Vanadzor. A place called Gandzasar monastery. I like making pointless references to things and I’m going to do it once again here, because you know…it’s my blog (50% mine at least).
Back in Roman times whenever a General achieved a major victory they, together with their army would be invited to Rome for a victory parade. While the crowd was cheering on and the victorious general was celebrating just about the highest honor possible, there was a slave with him in his chariot. The slave’s sole purpose was to recite “Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento Mori”. Which translates to “Look behind. Remember you are mortal, remember you must die”. One of the purposes of this was to remind the generals not only of his mortality of course, but about humility.
Phew, now that we’re done with that long background, that’s exactly how I feel visiting all these monasteries in places I can only imagine were very hard to reach, let alone build upon and maintain afterwards. I’m just humbled by the sheer stubbornness and will of our ancestors to build these things before the invention of modern comforts.
There and back again
After a few hours at the monastery it was time to head back, people were still feeling worse and worse and the ride home took even longer due to sudden stops so our fellow volunteers could throw up a bit more before finally arriving in Yerevan. You could probably remake Hansel and Gretel with the bodily fluids left by our buses from Shushi to Yerevan, but a few days of rest made everyone feel better.
I can’t say I’ve been on many trips that left me with this much food for thought as the four days in Artsakh. It’s just not the type of trip I’ve chosen before. It was an eye opening, humbling trip that I’m very happy to have experienced. Even though there was many sad stories, I can’t say that’s the main thing I’m taking with me home. It’s the ever present generosity, the closeness to a laughter and the stubbornness of the people there, determined to not just be victims of their circumstances, but to make the best of things.
In my own opinion there are a lot of things most of us take for granted, some problems who might not be as bad if put into perspective of what other people are going through, and some hardships that are beatable with the right mindset and some stubbornness. For me, this is something this trip has given me.
- Day 3 – Artsakh trip
I can only agree with Leo in his last post about the intensity and humbling experiences in Artsakh, being one of the most intense weekends I have had in my life both time wise and emotionally. The second day was everything Leo described and so much more to it that cannot be described, and therefore it was a bit relieving to know that on our third day we would get slightly less war-related experiences. But the intensity, humility and bittersweetness was present day three too, just in slightly different ways.
It started with a bus ride to a small village (more; gathering of houses) from where we set course to hike along the Janapar trail. Having around 80-90 volunteers hiking in the forest on a narrow trail actually went smoother than I had anticipated, and we had a great guide who showed us safe ways through winding forests and beautiful landscapes. We arrived at a village just in time for lunch, that the staff and local villagers had prepared for us. We sat down and listened to the thank you speech for the locals who had made all the food and waited patiently for the applauses and whistles to fade out (it can be a never ending story with our Lebanese volunteers, but we love them anyway). Then, finally, we got to eat. In front of us was fresh veggies, savoury blinchikis, cooked hen, pickles, dolmas and of course bread. Not to forget the homemade cakes and baklavas. It was nothing less than a typical Armenian feast.
Next on the agenda was a wine mob in Stepanakert. Little had been told about what it actually was, more than that is was going to be a lot of fun. And it was. We were divided into groups of 4-5 people, handed a bottle of wine and then the challenge was to finish the bottle of wine together with a local. So we just went into the nearest apartment building and started to knock doors. Behind the second door, a man in his 40is opened and he seemed to have heard about this before (AVC & Birthright do it every trip to Artsakh). We were immediately invited to sit down and in a split second the table was set with more wine than we came with, brandy, tea/coffee, fruits, cookies and sweetbreads, bread and cheese. The man and his mother sat down with us and luckily we had some Armenian speakers in the group that translated the conversation to us who didn’t know Armenian. His mother, a very old little auntie, sat next to me and persisted on speaking with me, though she didn’t know a word of english. When we didn’t eat enough of what they had put infront of us, she gently slapped my arm, pointed energetically on the food and stared me down until I took a bite of something. Then she smiled, continued to tell me something in Armenian and I pretended to understand. I did got some translated however; she had been beaten as a child and had a rough childhood but now she was happy with her two sons being grown up with kids of their own. It was heartwarming and humbling to hear that families have found their happiness and can see the positive side of things despite everything happening around them.
Our final stop for the day was at a person named Saro’s house; who has invited all the volunteers for a kef (Armenian dinner party) at his house each time Birghtright & AVC been in Artsakh. Setting up dinner for 90 people might sound impossible, but as so many times before, the Armenians lived up to the Swedish saying “finns det hjärterum finns det stjärterum”; which literally means if there’s space in the heart there is space for the ass. 90 volunteers squeezed in at long tables at Saro’s house and we got a huge dinner of khorovats, lavash and wine. And when the dinner had started, so did the toasts. It is usually expected that everyone make a toast during Armenian dinner, and this kef was no exception. The toasts started with Birthright staff expressing their tremendous gratitude to Saro’s family, the people of Artsakh and the kids that where fighting at the borders which was very touching, and it was just the beginning. One touching speech after the other, being more emotional for each speech, not leaving anyone unmoved and it felt like the whole room was crying at one point.
Unfortunately, I did not get to hear all toasts. I had had a bad feeling in my stomach since the wine mob (not because of the wine), and it just got worse during the kef. I sneaked out from the great hall, only to find a bunch of other volunteers out in the hallway who all were feeling just as bad. It appeared that a large share of us had got food poisoning from the lunch, and one by one we went under. I managed to get an early ride home to our host mom, who acted like the saint she is and helped me while I spent the rest of the evening in the bathroom. My stomach made sure to put a very bitter ending of an otherwise sweet day, but at least I will never forget this day of our time here in Armenia.
- Day 2 – Artsakh trip
It’s not every day a trip or a post about said trip gets you banned from entering a country. That is however the case with going to Artsakh and then trying to enter Azerbaijan. Although I probably wouldn’t make it into Azerbaijan regardless with my very schizophrenic passport (Swedish passport, Armenian name, Iranian birthplace). As usual I’d like to say sorry for the long blogging break, I’ve been suffering from a combination of sickness, impression overload and a focus on editing drone videos for a while. Also welcome to all the new viewers to the blog! It’s so nice seeing people from all over the world reading about our time in Armenia.
If I’d summarize the 4 day trip to Artsakh in three words it would be: Intense, Humbling and Bittersweet.
Intense since we were on a tight schedule for all four days. Emma’s post on day 1 features an early morning depature from Yerevan, a visit to Tatev, which is still to date one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in my life. and finally reaching our homestays in Shushi. Day 2, 3 and 4 followed the same pattern with very packed days, and in retrospect it was totally necessary to be able to experience as much as possible from Artsakh. I’d like to give a major shoutout to Birthright Armenia and Armenian Volunteer Corps for planning this, it’s an impressive feat.
My day 2 started a bit differently than most other volunteers, I had the pleasure of helping my volunteering buddyette Marie shoot some drone photage of Shushi in the early morning. There are areas of the town which are still devestated and abandoned from the war of 1988 – 1994. Thankfully most of my peers, friends and myself have little experience of war-torn nations or locations so it was in many ways an eye opener for me. I’ve grown up hearing and reading about the war, in the same way I’ve heard my parents stories of growing up in Iran during the Iran – Iraq war and missile strikes in Teheran, but it’s one thing to hear about it and read about it, a different one to actually see it for yourself.
The first stop together with the other volunteers was to the Fallen Soldier museum, a museum for the local Artsakh soldiers who fell in the conflict in 1988 – 1994, and the soldiers who’ve died in border skrimishes and the 4 day war of 2016. It was the most intimate and sad visit to any museum I’ve been to. Not cause of the scale of casualties, but because it was such a small place, where all the walls were covered with pictures and names of the soldiers, as well as the curator of the museum being a veteran of the war himself.
Hearing him talk about the events of the war, the desperation in their resistance early on and the personal stories of some of the soldiers just made it all so much more real. It’s not every day one quotes Joseph Stalin, but one of his more famous quotes is “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic”. This museum was all about tragedies. The curator himself said he knew about 40% of the roughly 3000 local casualties, amongst these his brothers, one who was planning his wedding before he was killed. For me personally what made me the most sad, was the bittersweet duty he held. On one hand he’s a keeper of their sacrifices, their hardships and their deaths, but at the same time he’s also a reminder of their lives, their songs and their happyness in the face of adversity. I felt for him as he’s talking about his friends, his brothers during every tour every day. I have the utmost respect and admiration for him and the burden he’s taken upon himself.
After the museum we got a chance to visit two military bases, and to be honest I’m glad we got the see the tragedy that is war before going somewhere that could possibly be a more glorified side of things. Not that the soldiers gave any impression of glorifying the conflict but more because you can easily forget the purpose of these bases, of the equipment etc. It’s easy to see a tank as a “cool” piece of machinery and forget that it’s a weapon of desctruction and death. We also got the eat lunch with the soldiers, and again this was for me a humbling experience. Without going into right or wrong these kids, which they honestly are, these 18-20 year old kids are serving in a conflict which might not be resolved in our life times. It gave a very personal touch to the conflict.
We did other things during this day, we wen’t to the Tatik Papik monument, we had some free time which was appreciated to be able to enjoy the company of good friends, we got to meet the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Artsakh Republic. But these events kind of dwarf in the presence of what I started talking about. They were fun but I don’t want to take away the focus from the more serious events of the day, which means this post will end kind of abruptly. The people of Artsakh all know someone who gave their life, who served, who’s currently serving or in other ways are affected by the tragic war. I will also say that it’s not just tragic from a Armenian point of view, Azeri family’s were also displaced, killed and wounded in the conflict. It’s just something that’s an open scar for both Armenian and Azeri people. I won’t go into the politics but I feel for the people on both sides who’ve been harmed in this 30 year old conflict.
- Day 1 – Artsakh Trip
Okay – heads up for very long posts. You better go and get yourself a cup of coffee or tea before starting to read this. Last weekend we spent four days in Artsakh together with AVC and Birthright and around 90 other volunteers – an amazing trip that is unfortunately is going to bore you all because it is just too much to write about it. But before I start telling about the trip it is necessary to tell you a little bit about the area itself, so that you can understand some of the depths of the things we have experienced.
Artsakh (or, Nagorno-Karabach as some still call it) is an area between the south-east border of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Internationally accepted as a part of Azerbaijan, but declared as an autonomous republic of Artsakh where most of the population being Armenians, the currency is Armenian dram, the passport they travel with are Armenian. It is the heart of a conflict between the two countries, who fights over who is the rightful “owner” of the region. The fight has been ongoing the last century, but fully sparked by the fall of the Soviet union – when the population of Artsakh region then governed by Azerbaijan tried to break free and unite with Armenian. A war broke out in the beginning of the 90’s and ended in 1994 when the two countries declared a cease fire, but a peace treaty has never been reached. The conflict sustains and has resulted in active border protection and casualties on both sides upon to today.
Since we have only heard the Armenian version of the conflict I am not sure what is the honest truth, I believe that regardless of how much people here like to stay objective in the matter they are still Armenians. What I do know is that Artsakh population view themselves as Armenians, and that Armenia protects the region as its own. There have been significant actions of the Azeris that implies a desire for ethnical cleansing of Armenian population that are hard to ignore. It all builds up to an understanding of Armenia’s relation to Artsakh, geopolitics, the fragility of the state, and the incredible force and ability to move on.
Because despite the current situation of unresolved conflict, the region is doing what it can to restore itself from war times. It has a fully functioning government with trade deals with other countries, the capital of the region is Stepanakert, and the region is known for its incredible beauty and landscapes. The trip to Artsakh with Birthright and AVC is the most memorable one you could do while you’re volunteering. So says the staff and so say also all the volunteers that already been on it. They do it twice a year and we were lucky to go during fall, as apparently the nature is even more beautiful now. So, finally, let me tell you about our first day.
The first day began with a drive past the border to Nakhchivan region (you see it as the “Azer”-marked area in the map above), the border to Azerbaijan territory southwest of Armenia. A few hundred meters away we could see the hill that has been built to protect the people from bomb shells and sniper fire but the area is very calm at the moment. Luckily. We continued our way to Tatev, still at official Armenian ground. Tatev is considered the queen of monasteries in Armenia and it is not hard to understand why. It resides on the very edge of a cliff overlooking a huge gorge, and to reach it you either have to drive up a steep mountain road or you can take, some unexpectedly, the worlds longest rope way up to the top. Of course, our route went via rope way. So a few butterflies, screams and beautiful landscape views later we were at the top, I was happy to put my feet on solid ground again reminding myself that being afraid of heights is not ideal when travelling around in Armenia.
Tatev monastery was interesting but not as impressive as the views around it, a fact that seem to be true for most monasteries because they are placed in these amazing landscape. For those being religious it was a significant experiences, and apparently people of this christian belief travel to this monastery from all over to get a blessing by the priests who still work there today. That was impressive, that it is still in use, and it is true for many of the hundred years old monasteries over the country. The religious practice is very strong in the whole country.
After having taking in as much as we could of the views from Tatev we continued to the Artsakh border, passing it without any further ado, and stopped first at a smaller village just on the other side of the border. I don’t remember the name of it, and when I try to find it on Google maps I realise that all the names in Artsakh region (which is not even marked) is in Azerbaijani. So never mind. There we met with a returning diasporan from Los Angeles, who worked as Chief of Staff of the community and also had a private fund investing in the region to help it back on its feet. He answered many interesting questions on both private, regional, national and international level and shared with us his vision and hope for the area. It was really interesting to hear how much effort they put into this without knowing if the conflict will be resolved, or if the Azeris will again start a war or how the geopolitics will affect them. But I understand it at the same time, how would you ever otherwise be able to go on if you did not believed in and hoped for a peaceful future.
After that we finally made our last drive up to Shushi, the city where we where to spend our upcoming three nights in Artsakh together with host families. We were divided into groups of 2-5 people and taken to our family stays. I got the opportunity to stay with only new people I had never met before the trip; two french girls and an American woman that did her eighth or tenth volunteering with AVC(!). She comes back every year to do a couple of months of volunteering and see it as her retreat and recharge of batteries before going back home to US where she has her family and business. We four got to meet our host mom Elina who was a lovely lady with such a warm smile and gentle care for all of us. She had prepared a typical Armenian dinner with dolma, rice, chicken, all kinds of breads, pickles, sallads, vegetables on the side. It was impossible to eat it all but we did taste the dolma to not upset her too much before we all went to bed, sleeping like logs after a very long day. Oh, and we slept even better since lovely Elina had put in an extra heater in our room and turned it on, so it would be warm and nice for us when we went to bed. It was only one of all the small gestures that she did for us that just made me fall asleep convinced that we had got the best host stay.
- Volunteers & wines in Areni
As our moms were here the last week there hasn’t been much time to sit at home and blog so here comes a late post about a weekend trip before our moms arrived. A trip filled with volunteers, wines and great food (as you may notice is becoming somewhat of a standard here).
It started on a saturday for which AVC & Birthright had planned an excursion to the area around Areni. Areni is the name of a famous grape used for wine in Armenia, and it is also a village where archaeologists found a cave with one of the worlds oldest winery (just around 6000 years BC) and the worlds oldest leather shoe (around 5,500 years BC and it is so cool with shoe strings and all). The history of Armenia in general is fascinating, being one of the worlds oldest countries with developed sophisticated cultures already thousands of years BC. As a reference for those in Sweden, our renowned Viking age for example, was around 6000 years later than the shoe was made. Anyway, back to our excursion.
The landscape on our way to Areni was amazing with deep gorges and fascinating rock formations, something that unfortunately wasn’t caught on photo to share here. You simply just have to go there. We stopped by the cave where the findings have been made, I got slight claustrophobic, we got a short information session in the caves and found out that only some ten percent had yet been discovered. One can only imagine what they might find further in the cave.
After the visit we arrived for some lunch in a backyard covered in lushy beautiful grape leaves, and it was a real proof of the extraordinary Armenian hospitality. Some 60 volunteers entered a private family’s backyard where the family had prepared a dolma lunch for all of us, including vegetarian AND vegan options. Leo and I have made dolma at home ones, 4 portions, it took us several hours to finish it because you have to roll every dolma by hand. Imagine how much work this family have put into the lunch they served us 60 volunteers. Amazing.
After lunch we had free time to visit the Areni wine festival – a street festival showing of their wines, vodkas and crafts. Some in old soda bottles and some in glass bottles. It was a lot of fun with different types of wine tastings (red white rose, sparkling, wines out of pomegranate, raspberries, even hot gluwein), live music, people everywhere and things to look at wherever you turned your head. And despite what you may think when reading about home made wines in plastic bottles, many of them tasted good. As you may understand it was a jolly mood when we all gathered back at the buses to go home, but not too long after we left Areni village most people had fallen asleep. May it be for the exhausting day full of impressions or for the amounts of wine I dare not to say but all in all it was a really great way to experience another part of Armenia.
- A week with our moms
So as you may have read already in Leo’s post, our moms were here last week. It was said to be a week but two days disappeared by flying back and forth, and the rest of the days passed by too quickly that I think they actually were only here for a weekend or so. But we somehow found time to do a lot of things and even had time for some mother and daughter-hangout too and it was so much fun showing them around in Yerevan I just have to share some of the highlights too.
Some of the highlights during their stay was definitely the dinner with Leo’s host mom, where we were all invited (spontaneously the same day) for a barbecue dinner with the whole family. The dinner was as Armenian as it can be, with toasts, too much fresh herbs, vegetables and fruits, too much khorovats (grilled meat and potatoes), lavash, Armenian coffee, laughs, hospitality and warmth. I think both me and my mom was really happy and appreciated that she got to see the “real” Armenian life and not only the touristic sites.
We also got our artsy curiosity stilled when we strolled around in the Armenian national gallery looking at art pieces we are not 100% sure were the real deal, but nevertheless entertained us for several hours. There is also a park here in Yerevan where painters put up their artworks every day and it is an amazing place to go to if you are into art. All kinds of techniques, types of styles and types of motives. So we just had to go there, and discuss the paintings. My mom actually knowing what she was talking about as she is a painter herself, and me trying out the guy guessing concept, acting like I knew everything.
The weather here is still really nice, so one evening we decided to make the most of Cascade – the maybe most recommended place to go when visiting the city. We bought some Armenian cheese, charcuterie and sparkling wine and headed up to the top of the Cascade to enjoy the sun setting over the city. It was really one of the most memorable experiences with them, and I think even throughout my whole stay here in Armenia.
The days passed by too quickly and even though I barely had realize they had arrived, I find myself surprised by the fact that they are no longer here. Somehow it both eased and increased my home sickness. Mom brought me two packs of Swedish ginger cookies and now I’m longing even more to the winter and all the cosy hangouts with friends and family. After all, it really is the most happiest season of all if you ask me. But seeing our moms leaving also reminded me that our time here will end too, and I really look forward to all the things we have left to experience here. And there are so many things left to experience.
- Armenian Theory of Relativity
Another week has passed and I’m reminded of Einstein’s relativity theory and something called Time Dilation. A shameless googling gave this explaination “Time dilation describes a difference of elapsed time between two events, as measured by observers that are either moving relative to each other”. Then it goes on to talk about factors like gravitational mass etc but we’ll ignore that for now. The imporant part is the difference in elapsed time. Because that’s how this whole adventure feels like for me. I know we’re about 45 days into our journey but relatively it feels like time is passing so fast. This passed week our mom’s helped us yet again prove the phenomenon best described as Armenian Theory of Relativity©
Last week our mothers came to visit us for a week, a week that felt like two or three days at the most. The days were packed as best we could with different types of activities, visiting museums, dinners, leaving Yerevan etc. Seeing Emma’s and of course my own mom felt great, I’ve missed them both very much and besides bringing themselves they brought Swedish candy, chocolate and gingerbread cookies!
I’d also just like to express my gratitude for them coming on a short stay with the horrible hours they had to endure. Early mornings, late nights, layovers for hours just to be here for a couple of days. Both Emma and I are really happy they did though, a bit of the home sickness I think we both have was cured by the familiarity of their visit.
Even though they were here for a short period of time I would say they got to see some of the quintessential Armenian experiences. They got to experience that being on time is a recommendation, they got to experience hustling attempts by street vendors, crazy taxi drivers, beautiful nature and maybe the most important part, Armenian hospitality.
I moved out of my host mothers apartment roughly two weeks ago but during our mothers visits they invited not just me, not just me and Emma, but all of us to a welcome dinner for her new guest, another Birthright volunteer. We were spoiled rotten and greeted by a big dinner party together with my host mom Margarita, her daughters, one spouse and the grand kids. Everything was delicious and we tried some home made walnut liqour. If you ever get the chance to try walnut liqour take it, I didn’t know it existed and now I’m craving it.
Our moms left the other day and now it’s time to do some catch up with the other volunteers, we’ve missed lots of invites and fun activities and meeting every one again yesterday was great, I’d missed them. We’re planning a new trip together with the whole crew soon which I’ll write about more in the coming days. But for now, I once again just like to say thank you to our moms for coming, we miss you already!
PS. here’s a longer drone shot from Dilijan, it’s hard to make time to edit everything and I’m lagging behind with the movies but hopefully you still enjoy viewing them.
- This and That
It’s been a while since I blogged, I’m sorry about that, looking back at my post history I realize it’s been 2 weeks since I gave any update of what I’m up too. In my defence, Emma drew the blog jackpot and got to blog about our Dilijan trip. Life here can be quite hectic, you move about with your life and the days just seemingly dissapear without you understanding whats happening. This post won’t be a deep dive into anything really, instead I’ll just give some short notes on everything that’s been happening lately. Since my last post about hiking at Azhdahak there’s been quite a few different things I/we’ve been up to, lets get started.
So where do we begin after a two week hiatus? I’ll try to pick up where Emma has ended her posts since to be honest I don’t really think I’ll remember everything if I dont. Two weeks ago we went to Dilijan on a hike. It was truly a awesome experience. The experiences of the previous hike fresh in our minds (and bodies), we chose to do a medium level hike from the HikeArmenia app and found one from a lake called Parz Lake to Dilijan. Emma’s done a great job writing about the trip so I won’t go into much detail more than say that I’m in love with the nature in this country, and that using my drone here is so much fun. The only negative thing about droning is the time it takes to do editing afterwards. Don’t get me wrong, it’s actually super fun, it’s just a matter of trying to find time to do it.
After living with my host mother Margarita for a month it was finally time to move. I am very thankful about the time I had with her, I got to practice my every day Armenian, be pampered like you wouldn’t believe and find myself spending time with an extremely caring and warm person. I look forward to meeting her again, going ahead of things I can say that my Mother arrived to Armenia together with Emmas mother and I really look forward to introducing them to Margarita. Even though I miss her it’s nice to live together with Emma again. A month apart has been a long time and I’ve missed the small things in our lives, like annoying Emma by being myself or eating breakfast while listening to music etc. It feels like one part of the adventure is over and another one began.
Meetings & Greetings
Both Emma and I wrote about our meeting at the Swedish Embassy, it was so much fun hearing Birger and Razmik talk about their exciting mission in Armenia and everything they’re doing. Since then we’ve been put in touch by the Embassy with a outsourcing/recruiting company called Minds, curious about how the Swedish work culture and recruiting climate looks. I have also been to the European Delegation in Yerevan, talking with Karen Azaryan about the European Union’s mission in Armenia. We’ve somehow together with Razmik from the Swedish Embassy started a little group for Swedes in Armenia and had our first after work with them last week.
One thing I love about these types of meetings is how open people are to actually seeing us and sharing their stories, I feel so humbled about it and feel that I want to learn more. This friday I’m meeting a very interesting gentleman, an American-Armenian lawyer who’s living in Armenia. I’m also trying to get a meeting with the Country director of the World Bank. It’s quite hectic as you can here but it really gives you food for thought hearing what everybody does and how motivated they are doing it.
Geghard, Garni & Gata
This past sunday has been all about the 3 G’s. Visiting Geghard Monestary, followed by the Temple at Garni while eating Gata (Armenian pastry). We went together with two wonderful co-volunteers named Inna and Sama. Now, Geghard Monestary is a 13th century monestary that’s partially built into a mountain. Garni on the other hand is a pagan temple in a very greek/romanesque fashion from the 2nd century AD. I love these excursions around the country seeing the rich history of Armenia. It feels like there’s something to discover wherever you go. The sunday culminated with a performance by an orchestra and Armin van Buren. The reason behind the performance was the WCIT 2019 conference in Yerevan. It’s one of the biggest ICT conferences in the world and I was lucky enough to go together with colleagues from Ameriabank. It was so cool hearing the orchestra playing songs from the different countries whom the performers came from.
WCIT 2019 has been really interesting and it’s been taking up my time these past days. Even though some sessions have been kind of generic it’s still a very nice experience hearing about the future in ICT with topics such as machine learning, cyber warfare/defence, block chains, smart cities etc. Oh and Kim Kardashian was there, because why not right? It feels so random but also so fortunate being in Armenia right now. Seeing Armin van Buren play one day and hearing Kim talk about something two days after.
Mom and Mom
To top off all of the small fragmented pieces of our life these past week is that our moms came to visit as of today. They will be staying for a week and it feels so nice seeing my mom and Emmas mom again. I’ve missed them both and just getting to spend time with them today has been great. It’s my mothers first time in Armenia as well and I’m happy to be here to get to experience it with her. It’s been a long day starting with them arriving at 6 AM. The time tables of flights coming to Yerevan are really horrible. It’s almost always flights departing or arriving in the middle of the night.
We started off slow today with just a breakfast at our place followed by a quick sightseeing tour, naping and dinner tonight. But we have a busy schedule to maximize their trip and ship them back home full of experiences (and gata). I wish my sister and my dad were here as well, but even if it didn’t happen this time I look forward to another visit as a family here.
Anyways, this will have to do as a update for now. I’ve probably missed a couple of hundred things but I’ll update you again when I remember it. Next up for the blog is to post drone videos and photage from the 3 G’s day and prepare for an upcoming 4 day trip together with Birthright. More info to follow!
- Back to normal
1st of October has passed and with that – our moving day to our own apartment. Regardless how grateful we both are for having stayed with very kind and considerate host families, the feeling of having an apartment by ourselves is nothing short of wonderful. Of course there are the obvious things like, living together again, having complete freedom of doing what I want, choosing my own food etc, but some things I didn’t knew I would appreciate as much as I do now when having stayed here for a couple of days are:
- Singing out loud
- Listening to music without headphones
- Having a laundry machine that I can use whenever (though we still have only washed one time but it’s more the feeling of knowing I can wash whenever I want to)
Had no idea that I had longed so much for singing, it really changes my mood when I get to follow along in the lyrics. Almost want to stretch that far to say it’s a way of meditation for me. Though I doubt it gives any meditation for Leo hearing my nasal voice singing all the time, luckily he likes to sing just as pitch perfect as I do.
Settling in in the apartment was easier than I thought, and I think both me and Leo already feel at home. Probably mostly due to the fact that we finally are living together with each other again, but also a little bit because I actually like the apartment. It is bright, warm (enough), the bed is comfortable, the kitchen is big, our balcony has a really nice view and the warm water is actually warm. Even though we are placed just next to one of the busier streets and more restaurant-populated areas, almost nothing gets through the windows and we are sleeping really good at night.
What I like most about this whole moving-thing though, is the fact that we can eat breakfast together again. And I mean breakfast, not a dish of spaghetti bolognese or falafel with french fries that would feed up to 6 people, but a normal sized breakfast with tea and coffee. Leo putting on some morning music of the day (not always the best but you get used to it), while preparing the breakfast together, sitting down together, eating, laughing or not saying a word together. Man, I’ve missed it. It really is the small, ordinary things that means the most.
- Hiking in Dilijan
Still high on life after last Sunday’s hike, we decided to go hiking this Sunday too. Everyone is telling us how the weather is starting get too cold for outdoorsy life, which I as a Swede doubt, but I think that affect our plans and we want to do the most out of Armenian nature as soon as possible. If not for the weather so for the fact that one month has already passed, and we only have two months left here.
For this Sunday we decided to go to Dilijan, a place we looked up before coming here as it is supposed to be breathtakingly beautiful and we have also heard so much about when coming here. The rumors about the place was true, and we started to get them confirmed already in the car over there. Just before Dilijan you enter a long tunnel through the mountains, and it feels almost like you stepped into the closet of Narnia because when you reach the end of it; the amazing differing landscape of Dilijan opens up in front of you. Soft hills covered in trees with vibrant autumn colours, where the road carefully winding down into the valley of the town.
We didn’t stop in Dilijan, instead our driver took us to Parz lake where we started our hike back to Dilijan. We used the really brilliant hiking app Hike Armenia to find our trail, and it showed that it would take around 4,5 hours to walk the 14 km back. We laughed, wondering who would ever walk that slow. But just about 5-6 hours later we arrived at our final destination, realizing that even if we removed the time taken to droning and photographing, it would most likely have taken at least 4.5 hours. Apparently, we haven’t really learned to appreciate and respect the effort behind steep climbing.
Despite the incline, the hike exceeded our expectations in many ways. The weather was perfect; the views varied from magical beech woods, springs and muddy valleys to open fields, old majestic oaks and highlands with cows calmly strolling around. The trail we walked on was sometimes just a foot wide with steep dive on one side, sometimes old jeep roads consisting of more mud than road, at times tractor tracks and sometimes a small creek walking in the waters trying not to slip. Everything combined with the crispiest of air, autumn winds and the fresh scent of woods.
It was really an amazing Sunday, again. Even more so when not having to stand on a truck for 1 hour after the hike. Instead we both slipped into some kind of hike coma in the comfortable car back home, both longing to going to bed but also, already longing for the next hike.
- Defeating the dragon
First of all, this will possibly be the most over the top title of any blog post that’s ever going to be written here. Speaking about tops, this post will be about last Sundays hike to Azhdahak. Now Azhdahak in Armenian mythology is a man-dragon, powerful enough to absorb the world. So how does one even travel to a man-dragon-mountain? Well it’s quite easy really. You go to one of the villages about one hour away from the mountain, then you go up and up and up for about an hour on the back of a truck. After that you continue up and then up and when you reach that tall peak on your right, yeah continue going up a bit more
We we’re off to an early start on sunday morning, hopefully I think both Emma and I prepared as best we could before the trip. We had enough food with us to feed an entire village, layers upon layers with clothes, hiking shoes and everything. I had a small fear that I was reliving my art of overpacking days©. This trip has been one of the destinations I’ve been most excited about when we were doing research and scouting which places in Armenia we’d like to visit the most. It’s an old volcano with a lake in the center at 3600 meters, I mean that says it all right?
What it doesn’t say is the obvious part, an old volcano at 3600 meters isn’t going to be a simple stroll right? It’s probably going to be hard, but that wasn’t something I’d given much thought to beforehand, let’s just say there’s a reason I’m blogging about this on thursday, 4 days after the trip. I was a bit sick before the hike and afterwards it’s been fever, coughing and generelly having a man cold that’s put my Birthright life on hold for a couple of days.
We met up with the other people that were going on the hike and got into three taxis that were going to take us to a village. I forgot the name of the village but that’s not important, the important thing is our taxi drew the short straw, we had to cram in 4 people in the back of the taxi and sit there for an hour. I’ve had smoother rides but I think it was worse for Emma and another girl that both had sore backs even before we started the actual ascent.
Once we got to the unnamed village we were met by a suprise, the taxis stayed and the only means of transport was an old Soviet era truck from I don’t know, the 70’s? 60’s? 50’s? who knows. What I do know is that it was a cold morning and that we were supposed to get up on the truck and hold on for about an hour ascending 2000 meters, on non existant roads, next to small canyons, cliffs and try not to freeze to death on the way.
It wasn’t even 9 AM and a few of the unwritten rules of Armenia had already made themselves painfully clear:
- Being on time is an recommendation
- Comfort is an recommendation
- Safety is an recommendation
It’s quite funny, or comforting, or maybe both I dont know any more. Another volunteer from Switzerland (a.k.a. other Sweden) said she’d heard the phrase “TIA“, which usually stands for This is Africa, which can be used when something is done differently from what you’re used to back home. Well lets just say that TIA = This Is Armenia from now on.
The ride wasn’t as bad as we initially thought, although it really felt unsafe to say the least. But the views were amazing, going up towards Azhdahak on one side, even though we didn’t see the actual mountain, with Ararat behind us, and no one else in sight besides our trusted diesel chugging truck that is.
Finally we arrived to our drop off location, from here we’d need to hike for about 3-4 hours before reaching the actual mountain. The adventure was about to start.
The first ten minutes of the hike gave us a few hints about how the rest of the day would look like. It was going to be a day full of beautiful nature, and one that reminded us of how out of shape we were, having to stop every now and then just to rest cause of the incline. In retrospect doing this while I was sick wasn’t the best idea i’ve had, but I would probably be just as exhausted regardless.
The hike to Azhdahak kinda felt like we we’re in the Armenian version of The Hobbit, we were on our way through tough terrain, among beautiful mountainous landscapes on our way to the dragon. On our way we had to go over heaps of large boulders, jumping from one to the next, passing slopes of smaller rocks where you were at risk of falling over all the time, crossing hills and going up, up and of course up.
Finally we arrived to Azhdahak, just one more challenge before we could rest. Getting up the actual mountain. The incline was so steep and I was so tired that we literally took 20-30 steps, rested for a couple of minutes and rinsed and repeated. When we finally got up we were rewarded with the most amazing views I’ve seen in my life. The lake in the center of the crater, and views stretching to I don’t know how far in every direction.
Remember I said I thought we overpacked? Well foodwise maybe, cause I was so nauseous I could hardly eat anything, but the clothes? Even with all layers on it was so cold on the top. The hiking boots helped alot, it kinda felt like cheating when some of the other people in sneakers were tumbling around, but they were a life saver! I think both Emma and I low key collapsed into a nap when we we’re sitting enjoying the view. Plus I was trying not to ruin the magical experience for everyone by throwing up.
One of the other hikers got the hike as a birthday present from his girlfriend and she did one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. She acctually brought a big cake and wine up 3600 meters and everyone sang for him and ate cake. After cake there was time for wine and vodka, remember when I said TIA? That’s still true on top of mountains as well.
Finally we made the descent which was much much easier before heading back on our lovely truck. This time the ride was just terrible. We we’re so tired and sore and going down 1 hour on roads that felt unsafe wasn’t really the best thing for our tired minds and our tired bodies.
All in all this was a experience I will remember for the rest of my life, it was amazing, it felt so nice being able to complete it together with Emma. We came back home around 8 PM, some 14 hours after we left, the dragon was defeated and so was my immune system.
- Bits and pieces from Armenian everyday life
So what’s up lately?, one might wonder when both me and Leo have been absent from this site for a while. Well, we have been busy living our not so ordinary everyday life here in Yerevan, which is filled with big and small adventures every day. Let me recap some of what has happened the last couple of days.
I have moved in to my new host stay and it is really nice. My host mom Anahit is very kind and takes care of me like I was 5 years old. She makes me breakfast every morning and it is something new every day so I get to try out as much as possible of the Armenian food. She puts food on my plate and when I’m halfway through it, she add some (read: a lot) more and looks at me with a determined face and says “Eat!”. It doesn’t help telling her that I’m “a light eater”, she just waves away my apologies with her hand as if they where flies and tells me that I can eat light when I’m in Sweden. Here in Armenia I must eat. But she says it with a laugh and I can’t help feeling that I want to eat all the food, just because she is so nice fixing it for me every morning. So I eat, smile, says “shat merci” (thank you very much) and ignore the stomach aches and the 10 kg added weight I will have before moving out.
Speaking of moving out, we have finally arranged an apartment for me and Leo to live in from 1st of October. A smaller apartment with 1 bedroom, combined kitchen and living room and a balcony facing the park just before the Cascade. Location is as good as it can be and we had a quick tour in the apartment on Saturday and it looks really nice, from an Armenian point of view. It feels so nice to have it all sorted out and I can barely wait. It has been a great experience living with host families but I’m longing for some privacy and normal sized portions.
Besides visiting our home to be, the Saturday was spent in the best possible way together with Leo. We touristed our way through Yerevan by ourselves without any guide, any time schedule, trying out local fast food and a ice cream restaurant, and ended the day relaxing in a hotel in the city centre. We had booked a normal room but for some reason we got upgraded to a Junior suite, a pleasant surprise. It that was the first suite I’ve ever stayed in, and the first I ever seen with two bathrooms. Because, why not? We seized the luxury and ordered room service which also turned out to be a pleasant surprise, with some of the most delicious dishes we have tasted so far.
For Sunday we had signed up for a hike up mount Azhdahak, a dormant volcano about 3500 m high, and the hike started already 06.00 in the morning. It was too early for hotel breakfast, but we got something much better instead – the air was crystal clear and we were just in time to experience an amazing sunrise over mount Ararat. The hike couldn’t have started better, and the good weather accompanied us throughout the day giving us the perfect conditions for what proved to be a rather challenging hike. Leo was not feeling 100% and I am just in embarrassingly bad shape, so breathing while climbing on an altitude around 3000-3600 m was tough. However, it was all worth it – the feeling of reaching the top was incredible. Not to mention, the views throughout the whole day. It was just incredible.
- Filling in the gaps
Emma’s smart, I mean really smart. She got her blog posts up before me after the Gyumri trip and cornered the whole market. Now I’m standing here with more is less the same experiences as her. Well played, that’s all I have to say. There is however something I can do, fill in the gaps with some short anecdotes
First of all, this will be a fragmented post, but what else would you expect with a title like “filling in the gaps”? This is the first real excursion Emma and I do with AVC and Birthright and it’s been a lot of fun and really intense. If Emma’s mental age has been 75 this trip, mine has been 115. I think a combination of sleep deprivation, sensory overload and a flock of volunteers really took its toll.
I’ve been curious about Gyumri ever since we arrived in Armenia. It used to be a thriving city before the earthquake in 1988 that devestated the town. It’s a strange sensation walking around in a city and seeing the remnants of the tragedy, mixed in buildings that have been restored or rebuilt. It is however a nice town, I’d like to visit again, if not for the city than the fish restaurant we visited. Best fish in my life hands down!
It had to be quite a sight with 80 people that don’t really fit in walking the streets of Gyumri taking pictures of whatever they could find. We were gathering at a place near an roundabout when a guy in a Toyota corolla, with a hookah in the car was just driving round and round looking at us
Anyways, that’s enough about the trip, here are some more pictures!
- Moving time
Since I moved in with my host sister Armine at Halabyan street there has been an ongoing discussion with AVC about why I was placed on one side of the city, working on the opposite side and having Leo living in a third direction from the centre. Apparently they always try to locate volunteers close to work and close to a partner if they are travelling in twos. Since I’m not close to any of those nor to the city, there has been a lot of money spent on travelling (not compared to spendings in Sweden, but in relation to the 0 income I have during these months). Finally yesterday, it was decided that I can move to a new host stay, and already this morning. So now I’m sitting here outside what has been my home for the last two weeks, with my life packed up into two bags again, waiting to go to my new home.
My new host family is a women at the age of 58 who’s name is Anahit. She speaks a little bit of English and we are probably going to understand each other. In other words, this will be great practice in Armenian for me the upcoming two weeks. It is almost neighbours with Leo, 10-15 min walk to the centre and slightly closer to work. I still need to take a cab to work but at least I can walk back and forth to everything happening in the evenings or during weekends in the city centre.
I’m excited to meet my new host mom and see what her place is like. My only concern is how I’m going to communicate with my non English-speaking cab driver that he needs to help me carry my bags. It’s a good thing Armenians are patient and good at using body language at least, and I’m hoping that these two weeks with Anahit will help me practice more on my language skills.
- Our first excursion Pt. 2
So. Our Sunday started with, again, way too much food. After having breakfast with the host family all the volunteers had to gather again at 10.45 by the buses so that we could leave at 11. Naturally, we left at 11.30. The course was set to Ani; an ancient ruin city just on the other side of the border to Turkey that previously was the capital of Armenia over a thousand years ago. The road to Ani was even worse than the roads from Yerevan-Gyumri and if any of you follow Leo on Instagram you check out his stories from yesterday and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
We arrived at the fence border that closes of the no mans land between Armenia and Turkey (the border has been closed for a very long time but in peaceful conditions). The Birthright/AVC programs has got a special permission to enter the no mans land with the volunteers so it was a very special feeling when the military approved our passports (all 80) and we entered through the gates. After a few minutes drive behind the fences we arrived a the ridge of a huge gorge, where in the bottom a river was running as a natural divider of the two countries. On the other side of the gorge, we could see the ruins of Ani which a small village behind; with a huge Turkish flag waving symbolically as a reminder about territory.
The reason for the city being in ruins is said to be mostly because of cultural cleansing carried out by the Turks and a neglecting of restoration and maintenance of the cultural site; if this had been preserved it would have probably been a majestic piece of history. The city is believed to have housed around 100.000 inhabitants at the peak of its history, all you could see now was remaining a of the once impressive city wall, the church and a few walls here and there. We sat there on the edge of the gorge for a while, taking it in and listening to Sevan explaining the symbolism and importance of the city for the Armenian people and, maybe a little bit propaganda-ish, the importance of our work there and investment in Armenia. However, I hope that what we really do have that huge effect that he was talking about; not only me and my work of course, but as a group. It feels good to be part of such a big movement.
Anyway, after an half an hour or so we jumped back on the bus and headed back to Yerevan again. A short lunch break (at 17.00…) with typical Armenian food was almost completely insignificant compared to everything else we’d experienced during the trip. But it was tasty, as always. When we finally arrived back at the AVC office I was more than ready to go to bed and I thought everyone would feel the same after such an intense weekend. But apparently the younger half went out partying the whole night (as one usually do on sundays…) and I got the stamp of being “so old”. At the age of 28. But I can live with that if it means I get to sleep a full night after such an adventure. It was so many people and impressions the whole trip that I was all worn out and my body really needed the sleep. Guess I’ll just have to face it; I’m getting older, and is slowly closing in on my mental age of 75.
- Our first excursion Pt. 1
Birthright Armenia & Armenia Volunteer Corps arranges everything from language classes, lectures on societal topics, havaks (social gatherings) and excursions around the country. As Leo mention it is one of the reasons we barely have time to see each other or do any blogging but since it’s a lot of fun and a great way to explore Yerevan and Armenia, we sign up for most of the things. This weekend they had planned for a trip to Gyumri and obviously we just had to join. I divided it into two parts as it was too much for only one post. It’s hard to keep it short when every little thing on this trip offered a new experience. I just have to write about it to remember, and it wouldn’t be the right way to document this excursion otherwise. So let’s begin with day 1; Saturday.
The first thing that happened was the armenian standard delay of the bus. “Bus is leaving 9.00 sharp!” in means its leaving maybe 9.15. So after that normal start we set of to reach Gyumri, on roads that cannot be explained, only experienced. We arrived an hour later than anticipated, tried a typical Armenian sweet called Monchik which is some sort of filled doughnut that tastes nothing but extreme sweetness. After a sugar high, we started off a city tour in the little city centre, passing by the main square and the beautiful church next to it, the Gyumri Birthright office and some really cozy streets. No longer surprising, we found empty buildings just like in Vanadzor, but in Gyumri they where examples of beautiful history in black, pink and red stone only a couple of floors high with balcony’s branching out from the facades in curly, organic shapes. Some of them where already falling apart, having the sky as roof.
After the city walk we hoped into the buses again and drove 30 minutes out to nowhere, guided down some winding stairs into a gorge which turned out to be an incredible restaurant. Long tables where set for us (being around 80 volunteers on the excursion) with salads, breads of all kinds, butter, fresh herbs and to our surprise – a variation on smoked fish and something that looked like salmon caviar. It all looked incredibly tasty and fancy and when we had our first bite the flavours exceeded all expectations. It was hard to understand we where having such a nice quality meal in the country side of Armenia. The main dish that was served was something reminiscing of salmon grilled over charcoal together with french fries and all the herbs and vegetables we had had to the pre course. It didn’t look so extraordinary but believe me it tasted even more so. Everything put together it was probably the best fish meal I have ever had, and I was not the only one of that opinion.
After the lunch we walked around the facilities and saw that they where farming the fish in different ponds all over the gorge, realising that we had just had freshly caught fish. In between the ponds there were cute porches where other guests were having lunch in the shades, while the staff took care of both alive and dead fishes and a couple of kittens was snooping around to maybe get a fin from a nice guest. For some reason they also had horses so I got stuck a couple of minutes, bonding with the horses and enjoying the serenity of animals. Very appreciated after being herded together with 79 other people the whole day. The whole experience was surreal but amazing and it is a definite must for anyone of you who comes and visit!
We also visited a monastery named Marmashe after the lunch, located down in another gorge by a wide and peaceful river. The sun had started to set when we arrived and offered amazing scenery and peacefulness. We happened to time two talented girl who were singing in the monastery and their voices, the acoustic and the intense feeling of being in an thousand old monastery gave me goosebumps and I was very grateful for the experience.
Last stop on our trip was Gyumri city centre again, where we had an hour before meeting up with our host family’s who we were gonna stay at during the night. Someone in the group of volunteers mentioned beers and that sounded like a great idea. We ended up in a basement bar, tried a libanese shots called Dou Dou (tequila, Tabasco, lime and an olive – horrible) turned up the volume to max and everyone started to dance. It was like a whole night out, but all concentrated into one hour, and it ended 20.30. Of course no one drank much, as we had to disperse into families later but the spirit and energy as if on a night club was there and I must say I like the concept of one hour-dance floor.
The clock struck 20.30 (actually, more like 20.50) and we went to met with our hosts. We where divided into groups of 2-4 and introduced to each of the families that had been kind to offer us dinner and overnight stay. I was paired up with Marie, a girl from France, and we met with our host mom Karine (though she was not much of a mum as she was 19 years old) and her husband. They where very nice but didn’t speak much English, though we could have smaller conversations. When we arrived at their house they had made dinner for us as if we were 6 people coming and we ate, ate and ate. Pasta, huge meat balls, chicken, potato, salads, bread (of course), cheese, eggplant patty and salami for main course and then watermelon, grapes, apples, pears, two types of sweet bread and of course; more bread and more cheese for dessert. We ate until 01.20 and I was so full when we finally went to bed that I slept like a baby the whole night. Only to wake up to breakfast and more food, as they made us breakfast before we headed out with our team again. The breakfast table contained pizza, pirogue with meat or potato filling, boiled egg, salad, salami, bread and cheese. The ironic thing was when I asked our hosts if this is what they normally eat; they answered they don’t even eat breakfast. Must be the reason for why they made us a buffe for breakfast, they didn’t know what breakfast looks like. But at least we got a good start of our second day on our excursion.
- New friends and getting back to the roots
How do you make new friends while you’re in Armenia? Well you just jump in to conversation, go with the flow and try to remember everyone’s name along the way.
I’m not going to start by talking about new impressions again, cause you’ll just think we copy-paste it from the previous 300 posts about new impressions. No instead we’re going to talk about the hectic life of trying to balance work, language classes, interesting forums, gatherings, hanging out with the other volunteers and maybe somewhere in all of that, actually trying to spend some quality time with Emma.
Work is the easy part, I get there, say hi to my colleagues, sit and work on my interesting tasks (holding a presentation on Agile Transformation and Data Driven next Friday). No the real logistical magic show begins after that. It’s a mix of language classes (8 letters known, 31 to go), visiting different forums, going out drinking or eating dinner, seeing my host mother, hanging out with Emma, planning some adventures of our own, finding an apartment for October and yeah the list goes on. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really a positive kind of complaint. There’s just so much that I want to do when I’m here. We’re also planning a visit to the Swedish embassy, as well as meeting a few interesting people, both in politics and business. This is also one of the reasons why I haven’t had time to blog recently, It’s like the days are shorter in Armenia or something, I don’t know where all the hours are going.
Assorted volunteers – Missing, the other 80-100 of them
It’s been really fun to start going to language classes as well. I haven’t written or read any Armenian for the last 24 years or so. It’s painful being so awful at it but baby steps I guess. The classes are twice a week and we practice everything from reading to writing to telling stories etc. One thing that makes it harder is that sometimes the there are differences in what things are called when you compare for example Iranian Armenian and regular Armenian. I know what something’s called, just to be reminded that it’s incorrect in Armenia. But I’m confident that with some practice, stubbornness and fear of failing I’ll be able to leave Armenia knowing how to read and right, even if it’s on a 6 year olds level.
This weekend we’re going to Gyumri, Armenias second largest city. I look forward to it a lot, I hope to have time to grab some nice aerial photage, another thing I’d like to put some time into. The same can be said regarding all the hiking Emma and I were supposed to be doing, again, time is not on our side so far. But we’re planning to go to Dilijan next weekend, it’s a scenic and green area just north of Yerevan. I’ll post the videos here once I get around to it, it’s supposed to be really beautiful.
Anyways, this post felt a bit fragmented and all over the place but it’ll have to do, I figured it’s better with a update than complete silence until the perfect blog-idea pops up.
If there’s anything you’d like to see more of, or less of for that matter please let us know. We’re happy to see people are reading our blog. Today a colleage at Ameria Bank came up to me and mentioned that she’s reading our blog and that she really enjoyed it. Especially my use of gifs and nonsensical pictures, they are basically the only thing on the table that are not subject to change on the blog.
- Do you smell gas?
I knew I’d be experiencing new things in Armenia but one thing I for sure didn’t want to experience was the smell of gas.
I know my parents will probably freak out when they read this and wish for me to just go home but eh. Worth sharing anyway. Last night when I came home my host sister Armine asked me to step out on the balcony and smell the air. Weird question I thought, but okay. She explained that she had a stuffy nose but was sure she could smell something and needed a second opinion.
She was right, it did smell weird and quite much of it. She calmly said “it’s probably just a gas leak outside” and she was going to call a guy about it. I asked if we should be worried and she shrugged and said “nah, only if it’s a big leak and people decide to smoke. Then its a big explosion”.
Funny thing is that I would assume that if you can feel a heavy smell of gas out in the open, it’s probably a significant leak. And another funny thing is, like 80% of the Armenian population smoke like chimneys. So I freaked out, while Armine called “the guy” calmly and was told that if we still smell it in 10 minutes we should call again. Luckily we didn’t, it had probably been a rusty car passing by. But what if the smell would have been there after another 10 minutes; imagine how many cigarettes you would have time to light during these 10 minutes?
My worries and maybe exaggerated feelings aside, two good things came out of this; 1) we survived, and 2) Armine plugged in her gas sensor, apparently she doesn’t use it that often.
Safety here is something else, for sure.
- Recap of last few days
I can’t believe how quickly these last few days have passed by. So much have happened and at the same time not necessarily so much that I shouldn’t have time to reflect about it. Anyway. I’ll try to give a short recap of the last few days bigger events and hoping reflections can be squeezed in between without making this post all too long for you guys to read.
My first work week has come to an end
I stand by my first impression of amazement of all initiatives here in Yerevan. Also, the culture of my colleagues is really nice when I compare to other volunteers. Even though my colleagues mostly speak Armenian they still invite me to join the lunch breaks, small walks to nearest store and give me fruit at the office (though that is something common for ALL Armenians; wherever you go, everyone offers you their food even if you don’t know them). What I’ve heard form other volunteers it is a bit less inclusive and some are left completely alone. Glad I’m not at that type of office, especially given that we are placed in a suburb outside the suburb – there’s nowhere to go unless you are shown the office food court. How I will get there and back every day is another story, right now I’m taking a cab but I need to figure out the buses this upcoming week. Will get back to you on how that goes.
My first international game
This thursday, AVC and Birthright gathered all volunteers who wanted to join to the game Armenia-Italy. It was played at one of the stadiums in Yerevan and it was around 14 000 spectators there, and so were we. I haven’t really been a fan of football before when watching Swedish league games but this was a fun game. All Armenians cheering, the drums and the songs, the atmosphere when they actually scored a goal against Italy. Feels odd that we paid 20 SEK to see the game, and also feels odd that during my first international game, I was cheering for Armenia. Life is full of surprise.
Our first community service
This saturday we had signed up for Community service for Armenia Tree Project. Every month (or if it was every second month), AVC and Birthright do community service – on top of the volunteer work we do every day. This time the assignment was to pick stones and shuffle soil in a park out in the middle of nowhere. The area around the park was just fields, but fields that are soon to be built on so the park would soon be part of a small community.
It was an interesting experience as we found scorpios (and nobody gave a heads up or could tell if they were poisonous or not), talked to city kids (other volunteers from LA and similar) who thought this was slavery, had really nice food prepared by the staff and got to meet with many of the other volunteers. Both Leo and I have felt that we haven’t got opportunity to meet the other volunteers so it was fun to finally chat with some of them and get some new faces. The game from Thursday also was a really nice time to meet some friends and both feel a bit more into the whole volunteer society now.
Excursion to Vanadzor
Yesterday we had been invited to go to Vanadzor with my host sister, who was holding an contemporary art exhibition at Vanadzor’s only pub. Vanadzor is Armenia’s third largest city, however there is a huge drop in size compared to Yerevan and the second and third largest city. Gyumri, the second largest, is around 130 000 inhabitants if I remember correctly, and Vanadzor just around 100 000. Yerevan has about a million inhabitants. And there is a reason for that, development has mainly been focused in Yerevan and the other cities in the country is clearly behind on many aspects. Nevertheless we were very excited about going there and it was nice to get 2 hours bus ride on a comfortable bus not having to be on our toes socially; a nice break from the last week.
Vanadzor proved to be a photogenic but slightly depressing city under a stormy sky that darkened the whole scene. Remainings from the Soviet era was everywhere, tucked in between hills covered in clouds chasing each other over the tops. Abandoned industry facilities, overgrown railroads and apartment buildings left to the hands of nature greeted us when we drove in to the city. A sad feeling overwhelms you when you see so much infrastructure already in place that could make a daily life better in this city, but it is just standing there waiting for someone to care. Probably also too badly maintained to ever be used again. I can’t help wondering what they will do with all of it when they try to revitalise the city again; will they just build new areas further away or will they tear it down and start over? Will they care for some of the legacy and do something cool out of it or is everything just going to waste?
In the city centre it isn’t as gloomy, but still the weather didn’t help making Vanadzor to a touristic pearl exactly. We walked around, took in the scenery in the cities as well as the hills around us, dropped by the art exhibition which was really not our cup of tea, and thanked my host sister before taking a cab back home for the 2 hour drive. It costed 220 SEK. Sometimes it really feels like you are robbing the people here.
The upcoming week
Is already filled with plans; work with EIF and Engineering city Mon-Fri, evening language class Tues & Thurs, visit to Impact hub on Wed (so excited about that!) and weekend trip to Gyumri on Fri with AVC. Also I need to find time for better food routines as I have barely eaten anything but apples and nuts these last few days, find a gym, go to the gym, find an apartment and figure out the bus route to work. It’s going to be an interesting week!
- Armenian Hogwarts & Road Trips
It’s been a busy first week. In some ways it feels like we’ve been here way longer than one week, and in other ways it’s still so new. It’s been a week of impressions in so many ways.
The week began with two days of work at Ameriabank, I feel lucky that I can help with something I hope I know a little bit about, Information Management. It still feels weird saying my volunteering placement is at a bank. I have to keep telling myself that competency in other fields than social work is also important for the Armenian society as a whole.
I got my chance to acquaint myself with the other youths, younglings, and youthsters who are in Armenia as part of Birthright Armenia on Tuesday. It felt like coming into Armenian Hogwarts, maybe a little bit less magic but still opening a world of Armenians from all around the world. I got to meet Armenians from Brazil, Argentina, Lebanon, France, USA, Canada and much more. There was even another person from Sweden there! Another reference to the world of Harry Potter is our own version of Hagrid, Hayk is the excursion coordinator, a big guy with a big beard, a tough first impression but in the end a teddy bear.
We got the chance to go see Armenia – Italy football game, a interesting experience, Armenian fans are a bit more engaged than the ones I’ve seen in Sweden, it was a really nice game. The only thing that sucked was the “food” inside the arena. The worst French fries I’ve had in my life, and a sorry excuse for a hot dog, never the less a good first day of meeting other volunteers in Armenia.
Later on Saturday we had a excursion together with the Armenian Volunteer Corp and Armenia Tree Project. Their goal is to plant more trees in Armenia (duh), and we were helping them prepare an area that’ll be turned into a park. It was a really hot day but basically my first workout session since arriving to Armenia so it felt great doing some physical labor. I really need to find a gym before I turn into the statue from the first day in Armenia post.
Lastly Emma and I finally got the chance to go on a trip of our own, we went to Vanadzor, Armenias third largest city together with Emmas host sister and others for a contemporary art exhibit. The landscape on the way there was amazing with mountains in the clouds. It was a real shame that it was a rainy day, I was looking forward to take some cool drone pictures, another time I guess.
- First days in Armenia – Part 2The first days in Armenia have been eventful. I mean, how often do you move to a new country (albeit temporarily), move in with a new family and get introduced to your new workplace within 3 days?
It felt really nice waking up after our trip here, and finding out that Emma had the day off as well. We met up in downtown Yerevan, also known as Kentron, which literally means Center. Walking from my new home to the Republic Square, at the heart of Yerevan was like being hit with a wave of impressions. How the people dressed, the smell of a city I’ve never been to, the way they spoke, the architecture. It’s kind of funny, in Sweden I hear Armenian once in a blue moon and you go into red alert straight away, searching for the source and trying to earsdrop what they’re saying just because you can. Here I was tired just by walking 20 minutes because that reflex was still in me, the only difference is there are 1 million people speaking Armenian with each other. The day was great, we got to hang out, it kinda felt like dating again, another thing you can’t really say that often in a established relationship. We passed by my workplace, the Birthright Office and said hi and strolled up and down the streets at random for a couple of hours, it felt great being able to walk freely again after our long journey here.
Walking home was a fun challenge, I have to admit, I used google maps and made my way home as the night made its entrance. I made it all the way home but got confused, which entrance did I come from? Three older ladies were sitting outside talking and I excused myself into their conversation, only to find they knew more about me than I would have ever thought. The conversation went something like this: – Can you tell me where 36d is, I’m looking for ma… -Margarita yes, you arrived this morning right? it’s on the fifth floor in that building. I was 50% impressed 50% scared, they probably already knew my blood type as well. I got home and told Margarita and she just shrugged it off, she said something along the lines of “oh, they are the BBC of the neighbourhood”. Apparently they know everything so mission successful on their part I guess.
The next day was my first day at work. It was as uneventful as first days can be. Mainly struggling with access rights to my new workplace and meeting, greeting and forgetting the names of 95% of my colleagues. They are however really nice and I think and hope I’ll be able to contribute in their tasks. I’ll write a little bit more of my work once I get going but for now I’ll just end this post with a couple of random pictures.
- Impressional fatigue
First day of my placement for the upcoming three months, and I’m exhausted. Mainly because I woke up at 5 in the morning, didn’t have much for breakfast and couldn’t find the coffee until 15.00 in the afternoon. But also because of the sheer amount of information I’ve tried to process and all the new faces. AVC warns you about “cultural fatigue” before you arrive, but in my case it’s more of an “impressional fatigue” as I’m too tired for words to even begin describing all impressions I’ve had so far. But they’re almost all good.
First and foremost I am amazed of how Armenia is full of initiatives and drive. I don’t know much about success rates or quality of all the initiatives but at a glance – it seems like they are driving so many ideas at the same time that it doesn’t matter. That cheesy quote about “you miss 100% of all the shots you never take” isn’t necessary here, they feel so incredibly driven and entrepreneurial. EIF, where I will be placed, is just one example. And yes I know, I have probably only seen a narrow view but that narrow view is impressive even when set into the greater context of Armenia.
I’m looking forward to work with the people at EIF and understand more of what they do and I can do for them. And maybe, what Sweden can do with them, in the end.
- First days in Armenia – Part 1
It’s been an interesting transition. After a week on the road to arriving, and starting to take in that this is our new home for three months. The first days have been uneventful in some ways, but also completely filled with new impressions, people and pleasent surprises
First of all I’m sorry I haven’t posted anything since sunday or whenever it was. It’s been a couple of days filled with lots of impressions and I’ve been tired. But it’s time to write a little bit about my first days in Armenia. If you’re just jumping into this blog we arrived on Sunday morning at 7:20 A.M. We we’re both tired and quite happy to jump off the train and rejoince in the fact that we won’t be cramped up in any confined compartment for some time.
We wen’t into the train station and eagerly looked around for a “Emma & Leo” sign, maybe a couple of happy faces and a welcoming hug. Who knows, maybe even balloons and an audience slow clapping us for our 5 day journey but no, instead there was nothing. We started looking around for someone other than the taxi drivers that might be interested in two tired, confused travelers, still nothing. We started asking around and apparently the location where our chauffer was waiting was 10 km away from where we were.
This is were we introduce a true superhero, I can’t think of any witty name so lets just call him our friendly neighbourhood Armenian, Armenia-man. He saw us looking slightly confused and offered to help us, asked us where our friends were, if he could call anyone and we gladly accepted his help. He called a couple of numbers we had in case we needed to get in touch with our programs and the chauffer had realised the error as well and was on his way.
with our bags finally in the cab, and on our ways we got our first glimpse of Yerevan, I got dropped off first, and said good-bye to Emma. She lived further north from me and I see what felt like my Mount Everest, the five flights of stairs that I had to carry my bags until I could finally put my powerlifting career on hold. This is where we introduce the second superhero of this trip, Margarita. She is my host mother and I’ll be living with her for the next month.
Margarita is about the same age as my parents, very welcoming,and extremely hospitable. As soon as I arrive she greets me, shows me where my room is, tells me that if I need extra blankets, less blankets, mediumish blankets, just let her know and she’ll get right on it. She starts cooking me up some breakfast and I got curious. Curious to see if one of the stereotypes of Armenian mothers was true or not. I had a hint that it might be, since my own mother does this too. The stereotype I’m talking about is that Armenian mothers serve a normal sized person a portion that would last a village for 10 days.
I sat down as plate after plate came to the table, a couple of sausages, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, Armenian cheese, assorted fruits, boiled eggs, crackers (salted and sweet), tea, coffee, sunflower seeds, Armenian flatbread, called lavash and sweets. And this was all just for me, she wasn’t even joning me!
I’m her first volunteer and to be honest I couldn’t be happier to get the opportunity to stay with her. She asks lots of questions and in turn likes that I ask lots of questions. We seemed like a good fit from the start.
She also mentioned that she has three daughters, and that they we’re coming over with their husbands, and childen and treat me to a khorovats, an Armenian barbeque. I was exhausted but humbled and happy, both from their hospitality and the chance to get to practice up my Armenian. There aren’t that many Armenians in my normal every day circle back in Stockholm, apart from my family of course. Her family started arriving one by one and we started talking and getting to know each other, well truth be told I talked, they talked, and I understood like 40%. I felt sorry for them, since I had to ask them to repeat themselves, or use different wording and that wasn’t enough every time. I missunderstood them a couple of times and started giving a long answer to something nobody had asked.
All in all it was great though, one of her daughters had baked a cake and when they left I had only one more thing to do, collapse in bed and get a good nights sleep.
Pictured: Leo Zakarian trying to have a conversation. [Watch with the sound on]
Anyways, this post is getting too long and I’ll end here and continue with part two tomorrow. we have a couple more days of impressions to capture before we’re up to date.
- A walk in the city
My first meeting with Engineering city (my volunteer placement) was initially planned for today but got cancelled yesterday, so all of a sudden I had a day off. Conveniently, so did Leo who doesn’t start until tomorrow. So we decided to use the day to explore the city together.
Apparently it had been heavy rains and thunder during the night but I had slept like a log and didn’t hear a thing. I woke up after a full night of good sleep and had some yoghurt breakfast together with my host who made me some herbal tea that she had picked and dried herself from the mountains in Armenia. She helped me figure out how GG works, a taxi-app in Yerevan, and I ordered a car to pick me up and drive me to Republic square where Leo and I was supposed to meet up. The driver that picked me up didn’t say hello and gave a grumpy impression, and I had the feeling that he wouldn’t know any english at all. But when we arrived at the square he turned to me with impressive english and asked where I wanted to drop me off. He also said I could keep the extra 100 dram (2 SEK) I didn’t have change for. It all went incredibly smooth with the app and it is so nice to not have to worry about being ripped of by cab driver (as one always is abroad otherwise).
Leo and I found each other in a street corner at the square, and I realised how much I had missed him when being apart for more than 24 hours. Living together in Sweden and then living almost on each other for 5 days travelling made these 24 hours seem extremely lonely. I was glad I had the whole day together with him.
We started walking where our noses pointed and strolled up and down the streets, passing by Leo’s volunteer placement Armeriabank, said Hi! at the AVC/Birthright office, passed by the Cascade, the Opera, the luxury avenues and much more. What struck us as a first impression is that it is much cleaner and more “decorated” than we had expected. One could think that a country with poor economic history would’ve looked more worn down, but there where small details everywhere that really made the inner city a cute and almost romantic place. Plenty of benches to rest your legs on, parks and trees, small local shops, colourful wall paintings, balconies and small decors on door posts and windows. Not everywhere of course, it was all mixed with this raw, cheap Soviet era-type of architecture and I’m pretty sure it is more polished where we were in the city centre than in the outskirts. But this mix really appealed to me and I’m so looking forward to getting to know the city better. Also, to both of our content, Leo understands the Armenian accent much better than he thought he would with his Iranian background and I found that there’s much more english than I had expected so I can get around.
I had hopes of tasting some real Armenian street food during our exploration walk but somehow we ended up having everything but Armenian food; frappucino and lemon pie, Italian pasta, American coffee and finally burger with fries. The burger was mostly because it started to pour outside and no cab was available for me to take back home. So we decided to have a quick dinner at the nearest place to get out of the rain and it happened to be a burger/steak place unfortunately. But as Leo said, we have three months to try out Armenian food, we will have time to taste everything and likely also get tired of some of it. I guess its good then that we now have a really nice pasta place to go to, because that spinach ravioli I had for lunch was one the best I’ve tasted. Who would’ve known there’s great Italian food in Yerevan?
Now I’m back home and relaxing, snacking on some delicious macadamia nuts that we bought today (side note: there are specialty stores selling so many different kinds of nuts and dried fruits here, it’s like a dream coming true – I’m going to be their most frequent customer (and also I’m going to be so fat)). I’m planning an early night because tomorrow things are starting for real, with orientation day and my first official meeting with the AVC organisation. Really looking forward to hearing more about the details of the program, and also to meeting other volunteers and starting my everyday life here in Yerevan.
Wasn’t in a photography-mode today so have no images to show all that I’m writing about above, but at least there’s an image of a nice wall painting that I fell in love with. The lion is a cool statue made of sliced car tires that just look so much cooler in real life.
- Traveling to Armenia – Summary
It’s kind of hard to write this summary, not cause of any sentimental reasons, more due to physical and mental fatigue, trying to remember these past five days. We left Sweden on a Tuesday and arrived at our new home for the next three months this morning.I think both Emma and I are in a slight shock, we made it.
We actually made it and not only that, in retrospect it’s been a surprisingly smooth journey. It’s almost worth pinching myself just to make sure this isn’t a dream, that’s how smooth it’s been, at least when looking back at my worries.
All in all 120 hours of traveling has passed and the biggest offset to our plans was in Stockholm. When we weren’t allowed to have our backpacks as carry on luggage. Otherwise the only near misses we’ve experienced has been due to our own fault.
I have to say I’m relieved to not have to think about any more boarder crossings or security checks, and even more so by the fact that I no longer have to carry any luggage for another month. The last test came this morning, when I had the joyful experience of going up five flights of stairs with 30kg luggage plus 12ish kilo in my backpack.
Emma together with assorted luggage
The train ride from Batumi to Yerevan was the low point for me. Tired, eager to arrive combined with a crazy hot train combined with border crossings at 12 a.m. And 2 a.m. Really took the last of my good spirit.
The 30 hour train ride from Ankara to Kars was the high point. Really comfortable and cozy. I would recommend this route to anyone wanting to experience at country by train. The bus ride had the best views but wasn’t as comfortable I would say.
Hyperlapse from the Dogu Express
If I were to give any pointers to anyone traveling the way we did it would be the following
- Travel with somebody who’s company you really enjoy, you don’t have any privacy or your own space for some time
- Water, water and even more water. Oh and snacks! Recommend local pistachios
- Google translate – it might be cheating as far as backpacking goes but I don’t care. In some situations it saved us some hassle, in other situations it was a nice insurance to have in your back pocket, literally.
- Book tickets in advance, at least the train rides, as they can get booked quickly.
- Take lots of pictures and write about it. I’m so glad we started this blog, it’ll be a nice read in the future looking back at everything and reliving it.
- A breather in Yerevan
I’ve found myself a nice little spot in a park close to my new home, overviewing the river that runs through Yerevan and the city centre on the other side (at least that’s what I think). A strong wind is blowing cooling air on my arms for the first time since we left Sweden and I can feel that certain scent you only find in warmer countries, mixed with freshly cut grass. Some sort of serenity has landed in my body, blending with the feeling of complete exhaustion from the last five nights of bad and/or little sleep. We made it, we have arrived in Yerevan and Leo still loves me. Win on all fronts.
It has been a great experience to travel here by train, which I have written and said like a hundred times now. Sorry for repetition but it really was so enjoyable. I assume the company contributed a lot, but I think it would’ve been quite an amazing experience on my own as well. If I may pat myself on the back, I’m glad I seized the opportunity to go by train (read: nagged about it for weeks until Leo caved in and we compromised half flight half train), and I cannot stress enough how much I encourage you all to go by train instead of flying if you have the chance. Preferably not with a diesel driven train though which I learned we were taking after the decision was already made, but we have climate compensated for that too all the way. Or, I have, for the both of us. Leo payed for it just by being on this trip with me instead of refusing with the very logical and perfect argument that it was a crazy idea.
Now, here in Yerevan I have settled in with my host sister Armine who luckily is a pescatarian and cooked some vegetarian breakfast for me this morning. We chatted, sipped a cup of Armenian coffee and got to know each other a little for a couple of hours. She is very kind, speaks excellent english and seem to be slightly introvert which fits me perfectly as it gives me me-time. My room is huge with a bed, cupboard, armchair and two tables and a big window. Simple and functional and I have already taken a nap which proved to be very easy after these last couple of days. In fact, I’m already longing for the bed again and I’m so looking forward to going to bed tonight and sleep as long as I want to. Imagine waking up well rested tomorrow – how nice that will be.
- Day 5 – Final stretch
Writing from the train taking us from Batumi to Yerevan, the last stretch of our trip down to Armenia. I don’t know what Leo wrote yesterday about that part of the journey, but I will only focus on today. Even though I have much to reflect upon and probably add to yesterday, as I didn’t have quite the same experience as Leo had. Anyway.
We started this morning with a half Georgian /half Turkish breakfast buffet at the hotel on the roof terrace. It felt nice to finally dare to eat some fresh vegetables again without worrying about sick stomachs. Then we wrapped ourselves up in the room, checked out and headed out on the streets of Batumi to spend our last hours. The storm from last night had passed, leaving excellent conditions for city exploration with a beautiful blue sky and a fresh wind from the sea. So we strolled up and down random streets, photographing our way around, touched the beach grovel and the sight of the Black Sea before we paused for some coffee. And we concluded two things during our few hours in Batumi;
- Polite customer service is not a Georgian custom, as barely anyone smiled or offered some help in any way
- Batumi is all or nothing. Luxury hotels and casinos next to old shacks and horrible living conditions. On the other side of the street from our hotel on the roof, there was a shelter of badly fitted tin patches where a mother and her baby made their everyday life. It was like something that one sees in documentaries from ghetto areas, but scattered among luxury hotels where people just seem to have turned a blind eye. It all felt strange and uncomfortable, the worst part is that you can’t really do anything about it then and there. So you just continue your relatively lush backpacker life, observing and taking it in from a distance.
Our coffee break turned into a late lunch that became too late, and we had to run back to the hotel to fetch our luggage and find a cab to take us to the railway station. When we got dropped off at the station we rushed for the platform, up and down the stairs with 35 kg each to carry, only to realise that the train didn’t leave for another 15 minutes. So we sat down in our small room, noticed that there were no ventilation what so ever while we started to sweat heavily after our little run. Luckily, the train conductor spoke Armenian and told Leo that the ventilation would kick in when the train started moving so we weren’t completely screwed for the upcoming 14 hours.
Our cabin is furnished according to the fashion of Soviet in the 70/80s. Brownish all the way and dim lighting, topped of with a swift scent of cigarettes. If anyone of you have watched the Chernobyl TV-show lately – that is pretty much what we are in. Except for the small detail of the radiation. But the staff is great, so is the ventilation once it kicks in, and it is quite cosy being cradled by the old unsteady wagon swinging from side to side. Comparing to the life of some in Batumi there’s really not much to complain about at all. Leo strolls around talking Armenian with random strangers, loving the ability to finally talk and be understood by people again.
All in all, our last stretch is ok. Not the best, but definitely ok. Now we’re only eight hours and a border crossing away from the start of the real adventure. Crazy and hard to take in, that this week has only been the beginning.
- Day 4 – Buses & Borders
After waking up less than satisfied from last nights sleep, Emma and I started packing before heading down for breakfast. I think this might have been my shortest hotel visit ever. Arriving somewhere around 2 a.m., woke up at 7 a.m., and left the hotel at 8:45 a.m. The breakfast was simple, but it was nice to get a chance to sit down and have a meal somewhere that wasn’t a train cart as a change of pace.
After sticking out like a sore thumb on the streets of Kars, we found the bus station at last. They seemed suprised that we had gotten our tickets of the internet but non the less we got our luggage in the bus and waited patiently for the bus to leave. I can’t help to see a trend on our journey through Turkey, that time tables are mere recommendations. We departed 20 minutes after schedule and the first thing both Emma and I rejoiced about, was that the air condition on the bus worked, so far so good!
If someone would have told me yesterday, that the bus ride would be more beautiful than the train ride, I wouldn’t believe them. But we got to see such amazing views on the bus. From mountains, to plains, to hills covered with forest and much more. The pictures below really don’t do the views justice really.
After some delays we finally arrived in Hopa. The sky had opened up and the rain was pouring down as our bus driver hurried to get our bags out (all 40 of them) before rolling away while we were trying to understand what was happening or where we were. We regrouped and headed towards where the minibusses to the border town of Sarp arrived and departed from.
This is where misunderstanding number one occured, Emma say’s it’s my fault, but I would say it’s a team effort. I walked into a hotel and asked them where the minibusses to Sarp where heading from. Somehow they thought I wanted to book a room and we had a conversation through Google Translate (best travel companion hands down). Emma understood what was going on, but only after we used her Visa card to pay for the room. After a few laughs and directions (and of course our money back) we went to the real bus station and got onboard the bus.
Somewhere half way to the border city misunderstanding number two occured. We, along with 2 other backpackers had payed what we understood to be the correct price for our bus tickets. Somehow it seems that the driver didn’t understand that the 30 or so turkish lira were from us. He stops the van and in a heated flurry of frustration tries to explain to us that we haven’t paid, meanwhile we’re trying to explain that we already paid. All of this is happening through me using Google Translate together with a friend of the driver, while he’s shouting at us and 5 random people are sitting in the bus wondering that’s going on.
As you can see the whole smooth sailing that we’ve had during the start of our trip was starting to take a turn for the worse. I don’t think it helped that it was around 7 p.m. and the only thing we had to eat was the previously mentioned breakfast.
We arrive to the border crossing and get over the Turkish side without any problems. When we get to the Georgian side of the passport control we have a run in with the officer who is inspecting our passports. If man-handling official documents was to be a sport, he would have won an honorary gold medal each year. He must have thought our passports were forgeries, because he held onto Emmas passport trying to find a fault in it for 5 minutes and the same with mine. Even taking my passport to another colleague to expose us. He tried to see if the passports would bend, if the papers had any structural weaknesses, he tried shouting my name real quick to see if I would react, and fortunately for us our passports passed every test.
Getting into Georgia we went to Batumi and checked in to our hotel. Both of us exhausted, hungry and annoyed after a long day. We just went to grab something to eat before heading back to the hotel. I finally got to taste Khachapuri, a Georgian dish that is best described as a cheese omelette pizza something. Anyways that’ll be enough for today. Time to sleep in and prepare for the last stretch of the journey to Armenia. The night train from here to Yerevan.
- Day 3 – On track
One could think 30 hours on a train would feel endlessly long and tiresome. But now, with only a couple of hours left on the train, both Leo and I think we could’ve done one more day on the train – it’s been nothing but great!
That was a lie, just when I wrote that I remembered I slept horribly as the train was rumbling and the brakes squeaking all through the night. But apart from that, everything has truly been great. When I woke up this morning, Leo had gone up and ordered breakfast for us and a few minutes later a tray was delivered to our “room” with different kinds of cheese, vegetables, salted butter (why do other countries even bother with unsalted butter?), toasted buns and delicious Turkish coffee. Together with the view outside our window, this may very well be one of the best breakfasts I’ve had in my life.
The train did som additional stops during the day, where Erzincan was the most memorable as we thought we were stranded there. The communication with the train personel is not the best when we try to understand each other with translation apps, but we were sure they said we would stay for at least 2 hours when we arrived at Erzincan. So we, together with many other of the passengers, strolled out and went up on a walking bridge over the tracks to reach the other side. When walking there, all of a sudden the whistle blew beneath us and our train started moving. Like in slowmotion we started running back (as if we would ever catch a running train…) and at the same time reason loudly – could it really be leaving? Panic spread, all our stuff was still at the train, we only brought phones and money. Even our passports where left at the train. What the h were we gonna do, stranded in the middle of nowhere in the Turkish country side?
But then a policeman on the platform saw us running and yelled something and waved to us, and we saw the conductor strolling around down there too. We stopped and tried to figure out what he had said, it was something in line with “the train will be back”. At least that was what happened, a couple of minutes later it came back on a different track. The panic faded and got replaced by the insight that we probably looked pretty dumb when running for the train when everyone else chilled. Never the less, the anxiousness of loosing sight of the train again remained and we hanged out at the station for the rest of the stop.
Our current stop is now Erzurum, which is the last stop (that we know of). We’ve had a delicious kebab meal that we bought from a restaurant outside the station (but not too far, if the train would start moving again). It is apparently tradition to eat kebab when stopping at this station when taking Dogu express. Gotta say, it tasted really good with a beer.
Besides all the stops we have done during the day, the best part has been the actual ride. Over and over again we have been blown away by the views. Speaking with almost no experience of long international train rides, I still feel confident stating that this must be one of the most beautiful train routes. We spent hours just lying comfortably in bed looking out at an ever changing landscape. The picture we have taken doesn’t even begin to do it justice. I would recommend this to anyone, it is one of the best experiences of my life.
- Day 2 – Dogu Express
Yesterday marked an exciting step in our journey towards Armenia. Preparing and getting on the train that would take us on the longest leg of this trip, the Dogu express.
We arrived to Ankara from Istanbul and got the chance to regroup, get some lunch and call our parents before starting to yet again understand where we’re going next. Turns out the Dogu Express departs from the old train station in Ankara. The new station is this huge, and kind of empty, I don’t know if we’re traveling odd hours or if train travel just isn’t as high in demand yet.
Everything in Ankara went smoothly and we went on a shopping spree for food and snacks before finally getting on our train. The room we have is actually kind of great, all things considered.
There’s a sink, air conditioning, comfortable beds (not sure Emma agrees), a fridge and maybe the best part of all, a big window to enjoy all the views.
I thought we’d drive each other crazy being cooped up on a train for 30 hours but so far so good. I even got to try out the restaurant cart. They make everything in the kitchen right behind the counter and I got a small but savory meal of meat and rice for 4€.
All in all the train ride has been nice so far, it doesn’t feel like just another step on the way to Armenia, but instead like a experience I wouldn’t mind doing again…with less packing next time.
- The real fun has begun
We have just left Istanbul on the high speed train and are on our way to Ankara. This is where the real fun starts, the train journey!
There have been a lot of discussions back and forth between us regarding this train route and I have prepared for the worst. Missed trains, denied luggage, late arrivals, hard-to-find stations and worst of all, maybe an incredibly angry Leo. But actually, so far it has been nothing but a smooth ride (probably too early to say but let’s jinx it).
The hotel we stayed at in Istanbul arranged for a cab to pick us up at 7.30 in the morning, and this driver had more sense of driving than the man at the airport so we arrived safe and sound at the station Sögütlucesme (spelling and pronunciation unknown). We found our way smoothly to the entrance where a kind stranger stepped in as translator between us and the station personnel and explained how to go about with our overweight luggage. Then I went just outside the station to get us som delicious breakfast: Turkish coffee, freshly baked pretzels and a cheese baguette with vegetables. A couple of minutes waiting and then we got to step up on the platform. We showed our tickets, paid 10 lira (around 16 SEK) for overweight and then got sent off with a “have a good day” and a smile.
Even Leo admitted that it went surprisingly smooth. Sometimes I wonder if he just want this to go wrong so that I will stop arguing for taking the train through Russia home. We’ll just have to see about that.
- Day 1 – Istanbul
As you might have seen on Emma’s post, our start on this trip wasn’t the best one. But it could have been worse I guess. We made it to Istanbul, with all our packing intact, nothing broken, besides our fragile ego’s ,on time. I even experienced a first, our luggage all came out within the first 2 minutes of waiting at the bagage drop(!).
One of the highlights of travelling through Turkey for me when planning the trip, was to spend at least one day in Istanbul. I love history and visiting Hagia Sophia has been on my history bucket list forever.
We started our day by having a thrilling taxi ride to say the least. The taxi driver used the roadside as much as he actually stayed in the lanes. We arrived at the hotel unscathed and collapsed on the bed. For me this was the first time in weeks where I could fully relax and just be in the moment. I’m a person who likes to plan, and preferebly have a backup plan to the backup plan just in case.
Next up was one of the most important stops on our itinerary, eating döner kebab. It wasn’t the best I’ve had but honestly, after waking up at 4:15 am. going through the hassle at the airport and making it to the hotel anything would have tasted fantastic.
The rest of the day was spent exploring Istanbul, we got lost in the grand bazaar, took some pictures outside a mosque I forgot the name of. After a quick coffee break it was time to visit Hagia Sophia. I don’t think I’ve ever been awestruck by a monument, building or a place before but Hagia Sophia did that to me. The level of history, detail, complexity in the construction was just fantastic. I didn’t think it woult be worth to go inside, until Emma convinced me that we should. I hate to admit it but as most other times, she was right…
Tomorrow we’ll be heading to Ankara, a 4½ hour high speed train-journey before we snack pack our backpacks and start one of the highlights of the trip. 30 hours on the Dogu Express from Ankara to Kars. It will either be the most calm, relaxing and relationship building experience of our lives, or it will be like The Shining on a train.
- The art of overpacking
Overpacking, a skill that requires three things. Incredible foresight, a complete disregard for practical aspects and the ability to block past packing catastrophes.
We’re finally on our way, I’m sitting here blogging from the flight. This feels like the first moment in quite a while where I can just sit back and not (try to) plan or control what’s going to happen.
But back to the topic at hand; overpacking. With some 35kg of luggage I’m positive I have everything I need with me. But the real question should be, how much did I bring that I won’t need?
In my defense, it’s not easy packing light for 3 seasons of weather, casual clothing, business clothing, workout clothes, hiking gear and plethora of electronics.
Anyways, the first part of our journey is completed. We made it to Istanbul after a interesting taxi ride which gave us more adrenaline than we asked for. We’re having a quick breather at the hotel before heading out exploring Istanbul, our priorities are crystal clear:
- Döner kebab
- Visit Hagia Sofia
- Ready for take-off
Already at the airport and our first part of our trip things didn’t really go as expected. We had planned and weighted our hand luggage carefully but Turkish airlines was not impressed. They looked at our backpacks and said it had to fit the standard measurements for a hand luggage. When we tried to squeeze it in in the “frame” with right measures, the woman at the counter got upset and said there’s no way they could allow something that needed to be squeezed into the right shape. Of course, we had to get help by that someone who had a bad day.
So we had to leave, wrap the backpacks in plastic, pay 120 SEK for it, and another 1200 SEK for overweight now that we couldn’t split weight between hand luggage and check in. Then we could check in. The upside of it that I have never gone through security check so easily, bringing only my phone and passport.
We concluded this first experience with the fact that we will probably have to pay our way through Turkey and Georgia to even get on the trains with our luggage. Leo is already starting to love the life as a train traveller…
The plane is now starting to move and soon we’ll be on our way. Next time you’ll here form us it’ll be in Turkey – so excited!
- Hours away
Somehow a half year passed by month by month, and then months turned into weeks, that turned into days, and all of a sudden it is only hours left. The alarm is set at 04.15 tomorrow morning. The flight departures at 07.50. My upcoming three months is packed into one travel bag and a backpack.
I wanted to post something during the days that have passed. Give you guys a glimpse into the glamorous life of packing, folding and cleaning. Sprinkled with some more packing on the top. But time ran out, and so did my energy. In the end, even my thoughts seem to have ran out. We were taking a quick lunch today at Centralen before finishing up the last chores, and I didn’t had a single thought on my mind. I just sat there, chewing my food and barely recognising Leo’s presence. Both a liberating and scary state of mind, when usually my mind is like a kaleidoscope. Countless thoughts at the same time where you can’t twist one without affecting all the others. But now, it’s just empty as a white paper.
But there aren’t any more thoughts needed now when we’re only a few hours away. I just want to board the plane, get up in the air and see where this whole adventure will take us.
Oh no wait, what I want most right this second is a couple of hours of good sleep.
- How, Why & What
It’s just five days to go before we start our 120 hour trip to Armenia. A trip through three countries, six cities before finally reaching Yerevan. This is as good a time as any to give some context of the how, why and what of this journey, from my perspective. Both Emma and I have received a lot of positive response, and even more questions regarding what we’re going to do and I’ll try to answer the most common questions now.
The How can be divided into two parts:
– How did you come up with the idea to go to Armenia? and
– How does it take 120 hours to reach any country in the 21st century?
The answer to the second question is short and sweet; Emma. Since she’s an environmental zealot (I mean this in the most loving way… mostly).
The answer to How did the idea come up is a bit more multifaceted in detail, I’ll get back to the long answer in another post. But for now the short answer is that we stumbled upon the two organizations Birthright Armenia & Armenian Volunteer Corps.
Birthright Armenia – is an organization which believes “it’s every Armenians birthright to not only see Armenia, but experience their homeland via an enriching, hands on, life-changing experience. […] Our mission is to strengthen ties between the homeland and Diasporan youth, by affording them an opportunity to be a part of Armenia’s daily life and to contribute to Armenia’s development through work, study and volunteer experiences, while developing life-long personal ties and a renewed sense of Armenian identity.”
Armenian Volunteer Corps – “is the brainchild of a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Armenia for two years. After falling in love with long-term community service and with Armenia, he set out to create an independent organization that would make volunteering in Armenia possible for all through affordable, safe, and fulfilling service projects.“
Being part of the Armenian diaspora, my family and I are Armenians from Iran. Some 500 years ago a large number of Armenians were forcefully relocated from Armenia to Iran and we’ve been in Iran ever since. Still keeping the traditions, culture and language of our ancestors but in a new country, if you can call a country new after 500 years.
Being part of a diaspora is a subject in itself which I could write a post about, but let’s settle with a brief explanation for now. The word Diaspora is one of those things that’s crystal clear, unless it isn’t. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary a diaspora is “the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland”.
Of course I’ve always been curious about Armenia but at the same time it’s been distant in my mind in some ways. Culturally for me, I feel I’m all over the place. Being more or less raised in Sweden all my life, from Parskahay background (what Armenians from Iran are called), the country Armenia was of course my home in some way but a home I have never gotten the chance to know.
However the older I get, the more curious I’ve become about my ancestral home, its people, the way of life etc. When the opportunity presented itself with Birthright Armenia, a chance for self-discovery, I just couldn’t resist applying and going. It was truly one of those moments where you know you would ask yourself “what if?” for the rest of your life, if you passed on the chance to do something totally different.
I realize the intention to do a fly by is kind of failing since this post is getting pretty long. It won’t get shorter when answering the question; What will we be doing there?
The main part, the volunteering aspect of the program, depends on where you will be working. There’s everything from working within eco-tourism to education to finance to journalism and more. It feels like a paradox saying the word volunteering followed by the word journalism or finance, but the volunteering aspect isn’t just from a humanitarian perspective. It’s also from a competency exchange perspective, getting new ideas, new ways of working and new expertise back into the country.
I’ll be volunteering at an Armenian Bank named Ameria Bank. Where my main focus (as I have understood it so far) will be to work with questions regarding how to become more data driven and Information Management.
Emma will be volunteering at Engineering City, a developing platform for hightech companies, where she will be a jack of all trades.
A typical week in the life of a volunteer in the Birthright Armenia program is working 30 hours, language courses for 4 hours with presentation forums or gatherings once per week, as well as weekend excursions across the country.
On top of this, we’re planning to see the landscapes of Armenia since they’re supposed to be gorgeous. Armenia is slowly becoming a popular hiking destination, due to it’s comparatively low cost, proximity to Europe as well as it’s unexploited trails. We surely can’t miss that.
I don’t want to think or admit to myself how much I’ve invested (sounds so much better than “spent”) in hiking gear, a drone for areal photographies and time, researching where we should go. But given what we have seen and researched about the country so far, I cannot imagine it won’t be worth it in the end when we stand there in the mountains.
- Adventure Time
It’s time for me to jot down some of my thoughts as well. Bear with me since this is my first blog post ever. Emma’s the talented one when it comes to these things. With 13 days left before we’re on our way, we’re finalizing everything before one of the biggest adventures in my life at least.
It’s been an interesting last 6 months leading up to our departure on the 27th of August. Going from an exciting, fantasizing state back in February when I got accepted to the Birthright Armenia program, to a full research everything state, and now finally to a more concrete action oriented state during this last month.
Piece by piece this journey has been getting more and more real the further along we’ve come in Emma’s and my plans. We just finished booking the last part of our route to Armenia, (see Emma’s last post to see all the 592 stops we’re doing on the way to Yerevan). Meanwhile we’re packing up the apartment to make it ready to lease, planning a going away gathering, finishing up at our work places, celebrating a couple of birthdays and saying fare well to friends and loved ones. I probably missed a couple of other major things but you get the idea.
As of today it’s also been finalized that I will spend my 3 months in Armenia working at Ameriabank, something I look forward to. I’m still waiting to hear back regarding which host family I’ll be staying with during my first month in Armenia. I have to say it feel’s kind of odd moving in with a new family after so many years of moving out from my own, I feel that I’ll be the worlds oldest 12 year old. It is however probably one of the best ways to submerge myself into the culture, language and day to day life in Armenia and I think it will be one of the most memorable and best parts of our stay.
Anyway’s I’ll end this post by saying that I’m not sure what kind of blog this will be on my part, it’ll probably contain a little bit of everything from photography, cultural observations, my experiences volunteering, meeting new friends as well as general reflections.
Since i started with a The Hobbit reference i might as well end with a The Lord of the Rings reference
- The travel route from Stockholm to Yerevan
It is quite easy to get from Stockholm to Yerevan; you book a flight from Sthlm-Yerevan with a touchdown in Kiev for an hour or so. But when we started talking about applying for the program, I said that I would only apply if we could take the train to Yerevan. I refused to fly because of the climate. So we found a few possible routes, and came to the conclusion that train would be fun adventure together! Little did we know that the adventure started already when finding out how to get there.
When we actually started to look into the details of the trainride, it was of course not as simple as we first had thought and Leo also realised he’d be travelling with 3 months of clothing as luggage. So after some negotiation and compromising between us two, we settled with the plan of flying to Istanbul and then take the train to Yerevan. Of course, the flight would be climate compensated and the train ride would be just the fun adventure we first had in mind and smooth way of exploring Turkey and Georgia. Ironically, we did not learn from the first time we thought that.
The smooth part was an exaggeration to say the least. The table below shows the route we have to take in order to arrive in Yerevan. Also note, we booked the flight before we had figured out how to book the remaining trip. So we kind of had to (also I kept insisting on) make it by train the last bit. A rookie mistake, or just plain stupidity…
From To Departure Arrival Istanbul Ankara 28/08 09:24 28/08 13:52 Ankara Kars 28/08 16:55 29/08 23:58 Kars Hopa 30/08 9:30 30/08 15:30 Hopa Sarpi 30/08 17:00 30/08 17:30 Sarpi Georgian border 30/08 18:00 30/08 22:00 Georgian border Batumi 30/08 22:00 30/08 22:30 Batumi Yerevan 31/08 15:30 01/09 07:25
Finding out how this route works, and how to book the ticket has been an adventure in itself. Finally now we have everything figured out and only 2 trains left to book, much thanks to Leo’s talent for googling. Note to ourselves: share how we book and find it all to fellow travellers as this information is incredibly hard to find when you actually start digging for online booking sites.
One might think I would just cave in on the whole “refusing to fly” when reading this but no, I am a woman of my principles. Even if I come out
a bitstupid. The thing is, I have become almost as excited about this train route as I am about the trip itself. How cool to travel through Turkey and Georgia by train? Imagine all the things we may see! I have no idea what to expect and that feels so exciting. Can’t wait to also reach that feeling of touching ground in Yerevan and feeling a glimpse of success – we actually made it all the way.
I’m just hoping I haven’t forfeited all of Leo’s patience on the way.
- We’re going to Armenia…
...was the headline of my first post on our travel blog. But then I failed to understand how WordPress (the blog platform) works and everything I had written, thoroughly and detailed, disappeared. So let’s just begin our first post with a heads up to all of you – neither me or Leo are used to WordPress, nor to photography, or droning, editing nice images or to travel together – so bear with us.
We’re hoping it will be fun.