Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Fourteen, First Aid

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This week, I got to teach basic first aid to a group of high school students. If that doesn’t sound particularly exciting, let me try to explain why this is so special to me.

Months ago, back before I got to Armenia, the first thing that had me feeling really, truly excited about joining the Birthright program was the potential opportunity to help teach first aid and CPR in a number of Armenian villages through an organization called Aid to Armenia (ATA). When I got certified as an EMT a couple of years ago, it was like I had finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up, so the chance to put that knowledge to good use in Armenia while also getting the experience that could help me get a job in that field was thoroughly appealing. Sadly, due to timing and a handful of other factors, it didn’t work out and I took other volunteer placements instead.

Until this week.

Members of the Birthright staff had mentioned once or twice that, if I was interested, there was some possibility I might be able to help with some trainings in Yerevan. One of the major logistical problems that had made it impossible for me to go out to the villages was a lack of available transportation; if I stayed in the city, that was no longer an issue. To my shame, I didn’t follow through right away. It was a slim chance, and with just over a month left on my trip I was loath to shake things up when they were working so well, or at least well enough to be safe. If you ever wondered what my greatest weakness was, I think that’s it: I don’t leave my comfort zone easily.

At the same time, spending two days every week just observing for the past three months was hard. I was learning, and the friendships I had begun (and continue) to make with the doctors and nurses at Nork Marash are more than worth the time spent on them, but I hated that I wasn’t doing anything hands-on in any medical field.

The thing that finally pushed me into doing something about it was the half day I ended up with no one to shadow. I talked to the same Birthright staff member who had mentioned that there might be some possibilities in Yerevan, and, long story short and with lots of help from lots of people, everything fell into place. Another Birthright volunteer agreed to interpret, and now there’s a few more people who know a bit more about basic first aid. And maybe that means they’ll be able to help someone when they need it most.

And that’s really, really cool.

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Ten, Planting Trees

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This past weekend, our excursion was a little different. Instead of just visiting one of the countless, incredible sites of Armenia, we got to add something as well: we got to help plant three hundred fruit trees on the grounds of the Sardarapat Memorial.

This was my second trip out to the memorial in Armavir province. We took our first trip there back at the end of September when the weather was just starting to turn and the memory of a hot summer was still fresh in everyone’s minds. It’s hard to believe that that was only about a month ago. It feels so much longer.

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Fall on the grounds of the Sardarapat Memorial.

We met a group from the Armenia Tree Project (ATP) on a small plot of ground near the Sardarapat Museum. Trenches where we would be planting the saplings– apricot and plum– already lined the ground, and the young trees themselves lay spaced out where they were to be planted. All we had to do was set them in the ground, perhaps digging a little deeper into the rocky soil to provide room for the roots, and fill the space around them with dirt again. Then, we needed to build small dams below each sapling before watering each one with a bucket to welcome each tree to its new home. Last of all, the ATP workers would turn on the water and let it run down the rows, watering the trees once more after the first bucketful had settled them all into place.

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Trees in their new home.

It was early afternoon when we finished, and the bagged lunches that the Birthright staff passed out to us were more than welcome: big sandwiches, fruit, salad, gata (գաթա). We ate them sitting together on the ground just above the newly planted orchard. Afterwards, we had the chance to visit the museum and the memorial again, and I was happy for the more leisurely afternoon and the chance to take a few pictures that I hadn’t managed to on our first visit.

 

 

Excursions like this are my favorite part of this adventure. They are a chance to give back a little in addition to looking and learning. They make it easy to think about the future. Armenia is this strange mix of young and old; our history stretches back for thousands of years, but the Republic only gained its independence from the USSR twenty six years ago and is still working to find and make its place in the world. Working where I am with the people I am with, it’s not difficult to have an optimistic view of what that place might be. No one denies that there is still a long way to go, but the atmosphere is heady and excited. It’s going to be hard, but we can do it. We can get there.

From a purely writer-ish point of view, that’s the kind of thing I want to tell stories about. Hard odds and hope. Ups and downs and the difficult work in between. Ideas and ideals. It’s not just those more abstract concepts, either. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy (and anything else that lets me make up whole worlds of my own), something new sparks my imagination every day. The dichotomy of new and ancient means that centuries-old churches are as much a part of what Armenia is as the fact that the country is the “Silicon Valley of the former Soviet Union“. Kiosks throughout Yerevan let you renew your phone’s data plan and do a dozen similar things. The big intersection near where I live has no crosswalks, but if you take the steps down at any of the corners you find yourself in a kind of circular mall lined with stalls and stores and exits to the metro and the other side of the street.

I know I’m seeing the best Armenia has to offer, and though I’m aware of the worse parts of living here (low wages, government corruption, blockaded borders…), I don’t have to live them myself. Volunteering here for four months means that I get to experience life here in a way I couldn’t as a tourist, but four months is still just four months, a fraction of a year. It’s not enough time, for me, at least, to put down deep roots here. If I’m honest, I’m not entirely certain what I think of that.

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Four, Autumn

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Another week, another blog post!

It’s funny– sometimes the same week contains both the highest highs and the lowest lows. Which, now that I’m thinking about it, is nothing new and hardly unique to living in another country. The same thing definitely happened back home as well; I just didn’t notice because it was normal. There’s also the fact that my support network here is not as well developed as the one I have back home, but more on that in a bit.

After reading the above, it probably sounds like this week was the definition of a mixed bag. And that’s what I thought it was until I scribbled down a list of the aforementioned ups and downs, only to find that the former far outdid the latter in both quantity and quality. None of that negates the rougher parts, of course, but it definitely makes it a little easier to be thankful for the good.

I’ll start with the biggest change. I think, fingers crossed, that summer has finally given way to fall. Ask anyone who knows me: I love colder weather. Even nine years in Santa Barbara couldn’t change that. There’s a part of me that comes alive when the chill finds its way back to the edges of the breeze, bringing with it the smells of earth and cold and rain. Even the quality of the light has changed and softened, and I’m pretty sure the leaves are starting to turn as well.

I’ve been here for almost a month now, and whether it’s because of that or the change of season, I’m also starting to feel at home here. I noticed it a couple of evenings back as I walked through Republic Square to the metro. I was just on my way home at the end of a regular day, not going anywhere exciting, not doing anything special, but I felt a sense of peace and familiarity that I hadn’t since before I left Santa Barbara.

Given that, it feels a little weird to say that I’m also a bit frustrated with my language learning progress. It’s hardest when I’m shadowing at the hospital, listening to the doctor talk with her patients. She translates for me when she has the chance, but it’s so discouraging every time she asks if I’ve understood and I have to answer with miayn mi kich; only a little.

It doesn’t help that I also have the almost neurotic need to feel useful, and while shadowing is a fantastic learning experience, there’s not a lot that the shadower can give back in the moment. And in theory, I’m okay with that! That’s how you learn and grow, and more generally it’s just a part of living in community with others. Helping the people around you isn’t a competition. It’s just what you do when you have the opportunity. In practice, I still feel more comfortable when I have a way to contribute.

One other thing about my language learning endeavors: I’m pretty sure I have a warped view of my progress. There’s no getting around the fact that my vocabulary is still horribly small, but it’s also definitely growing. There’s also a huge difference between knowing enough to follow a conversation in a medical setting and being able to hold a basic conversation– and I’m getting the chance to do that second one more and more often. Whether or not it feels like it in the moment, I know I’m getting better, and that’s always really cool.

I think my favorite part of the week, though, was the tour we got to take of the Megerian Rug Factory. Armenians have been making rugs and carpets for thousands of years, so in addition to this trip being a chance to see some beautiful examples of a skilled craft, it’s also a fascinating piece of Armenian history. They are made with dyed and knotted wool or silk, and depending on how they are made, they will last and hold their color for a long, long time. The Megerian factory, for example, uses organic dyes and fixators that have been developed and perfected over decades, and they follow a process that ensures a very high quality: one of the silk rugs we got to see was intricately patterned and had 1.9 million knots per square meter.

I could go on for a while, but I’m afraid I’m already starting to ramble. If you’re interested in more information, you can follow the links up above or let me know in the comments, and I’ll be happy to give you as many details as I can! My only regret is that I was a dork who forgot her camera. My cousin is awesome, though, and she let me post a few of the shots she took. Check them out below!

 

 

There’s so much else I could talk about, but then, that’s always the case. I finally spent a little time exploring the neighborhood right around my host family’s apartment and found all sorts of amazing nooks and crannies. I also figured out that all these weeks I’ve been playing Frogger to get across the street on my to and from the metro have been unnecessary. It turns out there’s a route that goes below the street and through this amazing little underground mall area that has given me about twenty ideas that I want to include in various stories. The whole city is like that– stoking and feeding my imagination. And I love it so much.

 

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Three, Exploring

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As best I can tell, this week that just finished was probably a pretty good indication of what a normal week will look like. Well, normal aside from Thursday, which was Armenian Independence Day. And looking back, it was a really good week, even with the occasional hiccup.

But first, the excursion!

We spent all day Saturday visiting two monasteries, (Hovhannavank and Saghmosavank), the Armenian Alphabet Monument, the Gourmet Dourme handmade chocolate factory, and the Byurakan Observatory. If you compare that list to the one I posted last week, you may notice that this one has a couple of additional locations. It was a long, busy day, and I was exhausted by the end of it, but it was so much fun.

The monasteries were incredible and beautiful. The biggest parts of both were built in the 13th century, but the original basilica, was built in the early 4th century. Seventeen hundred years ago. Seventeen. Hundred. I got to stand and pray in the same place that Christians have been worshiping for the better part of two thousand years. And I’d keep going, but I don’t think words are going to do it justice, at least not in a blog post like this. Hopefully, I’ll fill in at least a few of the gaps with pictures.

 

There is one thing, though, that pictures aren’t going to help me share, and that’s what it was like to listen to the Little Singers of Armenia in both of the churches. The Little Singers, as you’ve probably guessed from their name, is an Armenian youth choir. They are incredibly beautiful singers who have sung all over the world, and getting to listen to them sing in the acoustics of both churches was extraordinary.

Between visiting the two monasteries, we stopped for a little while at the Armenian Alphabet monument. It consists of giant stone renditions of each of the letters in the Armenian alphabet, and was installed in 2005 to honor the 1600th anniversary of Mesrop Mashtots creation of the Armenian alphabet. It’s weirdly cool. Also, there was ice cream and I got to see a horse, and it’s hard to complain about that, either.

 

After that, it was the chocolate factory! I have a feeling that terminology is giving the wrong impression– I know I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect. It’s called Gourmet Dourme, dourme being the Armenian word for chocolate, and it’s actually pretty small; they make handmade, handwrapped gourmet chocolates using Belgian chocolate, and it’s not a huge industrial operation at all. It’s owned by two Armenian brothers who repatriated from France and Austria. We got samples, and it was just as amazing as you would expect it to be. Maybe moreso. It’s also really cool that this is one of the new things coming out of Armenia.

Our final stop was at the Byurakan Observatory. I believe the original plan was to visit the HAYP Pop Up Gallery that was setting up there, but we also had the option to tour the telescope, which several of us did instead. Unfortunately for those of us who still only have a basic grasp of Armenian, the tour was mostly conducted in Armenian, so I didn’t learn as much as I would have liked to, but we still got to see it and learn just a little bit about astronomy in this part of the world.

The telescope itself is about ten to fifteen minutes away on foot from the main entrance, and for those of you who played Myst, it felt a little bit like that, minus the bit about traveling through books. There was also a friendly dog who who followed us over and was just a generally amicable fellow. As for the more technical aspects, about all I remember/heard was that it is a 2.3 meter Cassegrain reflector, and while it’s not among the very largest anymore, it’s not tiny, either.

 

So, that was Saturday!

Monday marked the first day I went to the hospital to shadow, as well as the first day I had to get up there on my own. I went by marshrutka, and was very grateful that my first time taking one was on a day a bit less busy than normal. The marshrutkas are basically fifteen passenger vans, but on busy/normal days (like this past Tuesday), they are definitely standing room only.

Sadly, my stomach decided to go squirrelly after only an hour or so on Monday, so I actually ended up going home early and sleeping. Tuesday went much better, and I got to spend the whole day shadowing a very kind doctor who would translate for me when she was done with each patient so that I could follow what she was doing. I’m hoping that my Armenian continues to improve so that I can follow more on my own.

That’s all for this week! As always, thanks so much for reading about my adventures. To those of you who are also interested in seeing more fiction from me, I’m hoping to have the story I’ve been coaxing out word by word finished sometime next week, and I have another one that I’m hoping will be a bit easier to write coming shortly after that.

Until next time!

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Two, Settling In

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I can’t believe another week has already passed. By the time this post goes up I will have spent sixteen days in Yerevan, long enough for a bit of the novelty to have worn off (though I still haven’t gotten around by marshrutka– that’s an adventure for next week). It’s long enough for a bit of the homesickness to have worn off, too, though I suspect it’ll be around for another go sooner or later.

It’s been a good week. Busy, for sure, but definitely good. Monday was my last week of intensive language class, which feels a little bit like someone turned the hose off and is now waiting to see what happens when the bubbles die down. I’ll still have class twice a week, but for two hours at a stretch instead of six, and we’ll have a chance to get deeper into the grammar, which I’m really excited about.

Finishing the intensive class also means that I got to start volunteering this week, at least for the first of my two job placements. Specifically, I’m helping with content at Repat Armenia, a non-profit/NGO whose mission is to “inform, initiate and actively champion the return of high-impact (professional, entrepreneurial) individuals and families to Armenia to secure the future development of the Armenian nation.” It’s a fascinating place to work, and in just a few days I’ve learned more about the challenges facing Armenia than I’d realized there was to learn, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ll try to post more specifics later, but if there’s anything in particular that you’d like to know, please let me know and I’ll do my best to answer!

As for the second of my job placements, shadowing at the Nork Marash Medical Center, that starts on Monday. If I understood correctly when I met them last week, I’ll be shadowing in their cardiology department at first instead of their emergency department, but with the possibility of switching departments later. Either way, I am looking forward to it and can’t wait to see what happens.

And that’s about it for this week! Tomorrow there’s an excursion for the Birthright volunteers that will take us to tour a chocolate factory (yay!) and on a hike to a couple of old Armenian monasteries. Expect pictures next week! Until then, all the best!