On Board with Passport and Butterflies.
Twenty-six years. That’s how long it had been since my last and only visit to Armenia as a child. But that’s not to say the desire to do so wasn’t there. I had been on a mission to revisit our mayr hairenik (the mother fatherland) since my days as a teen, even setting up a temporary decorated donation can in my house back in 1991 that alerted every guest to “Help Send Natalie to Armenia!” Whether it was school, work, family or community responsibilities, there had always been – and seemed there would always be – a reason holding me back from fulfilling my promise. Year after year I had heard so many rave about their experience on the FAR Young Professionals trip, and year after year I had been filled with jealous regret. So when the opportunity presented itself, I realized it was now or never. I decided I was done excusing myself from making the pilgrimage back to Armenia. With passport in hand and butterflies in my stomach, I embarked on my journey.
Karabaghuh Mern Eh! (Karabagh is Ours!)
I was 12 years old the first time I raised a fist and those words in protest at the onset of the war with Azerbaijan in 1988. After years of political activism and a long hot bus ride through the Lachin (now Berdzor) Corridor, I was welcomed into independent Artsakh by a humble yet overpowering signpost that exclaimed, “Azad Artsakhuh Voghchunum Eh Dzez.” As we drove down the Pan Armenian Highway uniting Armenia (Goris) and Karabagh (Stepanakert), much like the pavement beneath us, this American born Armenian’s dream of unity with a distant but relative land was now a reality.During the 2 days spent here on a 6 day excursion to the outskirts of Armenia, I couldn’t find a shred of physical evidence in its beautifully mountainous terrain or in the bright vitality of its people to explain why this region would ever be considered a black (kara) garden (bagh). We had the honor of dining and dancing with decorated soldiers from the first tank division of Karabagh’s Defense Army, and bearing witness to a wedding ceremony at the Tatik and Papik monument in Stepanakert, meeting with the mayor of the province of Askeran, visiting regional homes that are part of FAR’s reconstructive efforts through a grant from USAID, seeing the rocket missile that wounded but could not destroy the 13th century monastery of Gandzasar in Martakert, and paying homage to memorial monuments and the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral of Shushi. I’ve never felt more Armenian than in Karabagh. The ethnic pride that courses through the locals’ veins, that accents their every spoken word, is an extremely contagious energy – and without a doubt, Armenians from afar, like myself, are most susceptible to this “infection.”
Ten Memories of Yerevan
Though the six days exploring the outskirts of Armenia proved to be an enriching excursion, we looked forward to going home…home to Yerevan, that is. While we can fill volumes with our anecdotal stories of how we got a taste of Armenia, sampling the sweet donuts at Grand Candy or bargaining at the Vernissage marketplace, here are ten memories of the days spent in Yerevan, being tourists by day and living like locals at night.
Quenching our thirst for the States with a cold bottle of Coca Cola Light
Discovering ourselves (N is for Natalie) in the garden of letters at the cathedral and tomb of St. Mesrob Mashdotz
Looking out upon the precious future through the frame of the treasured past at the Matenadaran Museum of Ancient Manuscripts
Meeting with His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, and having him break our nervous silence by asking us if we had gone to any of Yerevan’s jazz clubs
Sipping sourj at Jazzve Café – ‘cause you can’t tell your fortune from the bottom of a Starbucks cup
Having the playroom at FAR’s Children’s Center erupt with innocent chuckles after this comical exchange – Shorter Little Boy: “Let’s see who’s taller.” Taller Little Boy: “Ok.” Shorter Little Boy: “Bow down your head so I can measure.”
Hot, flaky, cheese-oozing Khatchapouri – fresh from the oven – or leftover!
Step-side seats to the HIV/AIDS prevention concert hosted by the Armenian Red Cross and the Cafesjian Museum Foundation at the Cascade complex set against the backdrop of Mt. Ararat
Gaining – and offering – insight on how best to nourish a developing, free and independent Armenia with Foreign Minister, Vartan Oskanian
Finding it hard to say goodbye at the farewell dinner at the Cilicia restaurant.
It truly was hard to say goodbye to the good food, good fun, and good friends. But we had to accept the sad reality that the time had come to go back to the lives and loved ones we had left back home. Yet somehow we just couldn’t part with our homeland or the new life and family we had created over the two weeks in Armenia. My sincere thanks to all those who made it possible: FAR’s Project Director Arto Vorperian and the FAR staff (NY, Armenia, Karabagh), our tour guide and comedian Galust Ovsepyan, and our fearless driver and silent protector Harut Galustyan. Upon return I was asked if I was ever homesick. “How could I be,” I replied, “I never left home!” I returned to the States with a heart full of a rekindled love for my heritage and culture, a suitcase full of souvenirs, and a photo memory stick full of, well, memories. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but my 726 shots of Armenia are priceless.
Natalie Gabrelian – YP 2007