I spent twelve-odd days in Armenia. I took the overnight train from Tblisi, passed the border sometime around midnight, and woke up in the land of Stone. Armenia is an incredibly beautiful country of mountains, hills, and valleys with old churches perched in the most unlikely places. I fell in with a young German traveller and we stumbled out of the train in the early morning before dawn and walked, with overloaded packs, towards the downtown. Yerevan is a beautiful city, newer and more open than Tblisi, and I immediately liked the place.
After some knocking on random doors we found our way to a homestay. Homestays, for those not acquainted with them, are private residences that the family opens up to travellers. They are usually very affordable, get you into close contact with local people, and more often than not include homecooked breakfast and dinner. Great! For instance, at the homestay was a young girl, full of energy and wide-eyed curiosity, who was absolutely fascinated by me. We played catch with a stuffed bunny for about a half hour as I chatted with her father about higher education systems in the West and in Armenia. Eventually my playmate got bored (or rather, I did) and I sicced her onto my netbook: she became completely obsessed with mucking about on Paint.
This brings up something important about the Caucasus: the children are absolutely showered with love and attention and also happen to be far better adjusted socially and emotionally than North American kids. Perhaps children get socialized in a healthy manner by -gasp- social interaction? Practice makes perfect, and human attention here starts once out of the womb- babies are passed around like hotcakes, cuddled and coddled non-stop. Toddlers always have an older sibling, cousin, or neighbour around to play with. If the family even owns a television then anytime they spend in front of it is most likely to be spent with a Grandparent or tuning in to some bizarre variety show with the whole family.
Incidentally, babies are far less fragile than I have been led to believe: North American parents freak out it you get too close to their babies as if they were made of crystal or, if they’re white and upper middle class, aerogel (anyone remember Science One?). In the Caucasus you’re more likely to get a baby thrust in your face to hold as the mother struggles onto the marshutka with two armloads of groceries than scolded for touching another human being. Buses and marshutkas are my favorite: even the coolest, black-jacketed and aloof young man turns into a goo-goo gaa-ing playmate when faced with a wide-eyed toddler.
Anyways, after hanging out for a bit and recovering from the rigors of the night train I got out and rambled around the city. I climbed the ridiculous and ridiculously expensive Cascade, twenty five years in the making, tromped over to the University, and eventually found myself in the Museum of Modern Art. Yerevan has a slew of excellent galleries, and the National Gallery has wonderful traditional collections as well. Armenian art seems dominated by the exact sort of brightly coloured oil landscapes that I love. Under the cascade is probably the coolest collection of glass art I’ve ever seen (I actually like glass art now!) and a very impressive two story-tall modern tryptech celebrating three eras of Armenian national history. Good stuff.
I stayed at the homestay a couple days until my friend took off for Iran. By this time I had sorted out couchsurfing arrangements and entered the Black Hole: I intended to stay only for a couple days, but got sucked in for eight! It was the abode of three Iranian students and is one of the most ridiculously open and dynamic place I’ve ever been: there was a constant flow of couchsurfers, peace corps volunteers, and family through the place which made it very hard to leave. Every time I had my bag packed someone new and interesting showed up! Copious amounts of whisky and the associated hangovers didn’t help.
Out of Yerevan I made a number of daytrips. Since Armenia is so small and its history so concentrated around the capital it is possible to see many sights in half-day jaunts. I visited the monestary of Khor-Vidap, the birthplace of institutionalized Christianity where St. Gregor the Illuminator, after being imprisoned in a well for twelve years, was brought up in the king’s desperation to cure his blindness (or, in some versions of the story, the king’s cursed head, which had become that of a boar). With the Power of God St. Gregory summarily healed the king and Armenia became the world’s first Christian country in AD 330 (more pragmatic arguments have been made that the king converted in order to encourage national unity in the face of Zoroastrian Persian and Pagan Roman military advances, but boar-head curses are way cooler than realpolitik).
Also nearby is Echmiadzin, the spiritual center of Armenian Christianity (officially the “One Holy Universal Apostolic Orthodox Armenian Church”). Armenian Christianity falls into the Oriental Orthodox tradition, along with Egyptian coptics and the Syrian church. Tradition has it that it was founded by the preaching of Thaddeus and Bartholemew, two of Jesus’ disciples, who drifted up here after Jesus’ death to preach the Good News. The theology separating the Oriental Churches, the Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox churches is largely beyond me, but from my understanding the Oriental Orthodox rejected the resolutions arising from the Council of Nicedon in 451 which stated that Christ has two natures: human and divine. The Armenians believe that Christ is first and foremost a united being with both human and divine natures existing side by side as a perfect whole- a doctrine known as monophysitism (or maybe miaphysitism).
Garni temple and Geghard monestary are collectively another day trip from Yerevan. The bus ride to Garni is beautiful- you pile into a public bus with a bunch of locals and take off from downtown Yerevan, immediately rising up out of Yerevan’s valley into the surrounding hills. Garni is a bizarrely out of plance 1st century pagan temple in what is elsewhere an entirely Christian country; Geghard is an old monestary up the valley where the church is carved directly into the rock face and the surrounding cliffs riddled with hermitage nooks. The valley connecting the two is a national park and a great place for a hike.
My next day trip was over to Asterak, a small town a half hour from Yerevan. I wanted to see a couple old churches and hike along the gorge connecting the two. Again however I was frustrated by fog and winter. Instead of a hike I got to have lunch next to a ruined church that looked like somewhere a necromancer would hang out and coffee with Ashot who tried to marry me off to his (not entirely unattractive) daughters.
In Yerevan I met a large number of the Peace Corps volunteers doing work in Armenia. Their projects ranged from education (like my own work in Georgia), medicine, environmental awareness projects, and the development of sustainable buisinesses and the encouragement of tourism. Peace corps, for those who haven’t heard, is an American program involving two years of volunteer work Somewhere Else, with the volunteers themselves given considerable latitude and ability to develope their own projects/ ideas. Generally speaking their feelings and moral were the same mixed bag that I’d encoutered in the TLG program- some people were loving it and doing good work, but most were resigned to the reality that change in a foreign country takes time and that their own commitment -even for the relatively long two year stay- is short in the wider scheme of things. Despite having fifty years of experience doing development work Peace Corps doesn’t quite have it right yet, and the whole experience highlighted to me that the West (and humans more generally) are still very bad at cultivating positive change in far-away places. As usual I’m optimistic about this (there’s still work to do! Yay!) but I think more emphasis needs to be placed on creative, novel and exploratory approaches to reach development goals.
From Yerevan I took a marshutka to Lake Sevan, a large and very beautiful lake in the center of the country. A bustling beach destination in the summer, in the middle of February relatively little was happening. The views of the lake however were amazing, the downtown surprisingly busy and inviting, and the police incredibly hospitable- after politely declining the usual invitation to coffee and vodka, I also had to sadly decline what I think were offers of cocaine, cannibis and heroin. They were in a very good mood that afternoon (and not on duty, thankfully).
From Lake Sevan I hitched back to Tblisi, and I was quite happy to again see the happy little characters into which I’ve anthromorphized the Georgian alphabet.