Armenian Volunteer Corps

Welcome to the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) blog. Here our volunteers and alumni reflect on their experiences living and volunteering in Armenia. For more information about our programs, visit our website, follow us on Facebook or drop us an email: .

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gyumri, Armenia: Word on the Streets

Vana Nazarian

There is a Chinese proverb that says “better a diamond with a flaw, than a pebble without.” This is a little account about my two month experience with the Armenian Volunteer Corps. Two days upon my arrival to Armenia, I finally came to Gyumri. What I knew about the place was the fact that it was the second largest city of Armenia and that it had lost it all in a devastating earthquake some 22 years ago. What I imagined was a smaller version of Yerevan and perhaps a few little reminders of the destruction. Anxious for my summer travel, I had taken the time to Google images, sites, and frankly anything that could have given me an idea of what to expect. Yet reality, as I came to discover, was something a lot different from what I had imagined.

Every inch and every little corner of the city was a fresh reminder of both its glorious and dark past. Parts of it were filled with the abandoned factories of the Soviet Union, others were mainly inhabited by the very ruins of the earthquake. And, a tiny magical part was where I had the chance to work; it was the historic district of Kumayri.

I was placed in an NGO called Historical Armenian Houses that had as a primary mission to identify, research and preserve the historic houses of Gyumri. I had several tasks on the job, among which block surveys. In this particular assignment, I had to walk around designated blocks of the Historic Kumayri district to collect addresses and information about each building. What started off as being my most dreaded task, block surveys became one of the most meaningful experiences.

Initially, the very idea of this task entailed that I had to walk the Gyumri streets on the hottest time of day, considering I had to get it done during working hours. To those who think Gyumri is mountainous and cool, let me assure you; daytime Gyumri, in the summertime, can get pretty hot. As to the task itself, what sounded like a piece of cake became a whole new story. Most common of scenarios would occur in the act of collecting the addresses. Suddenly, surveying the block would lead residents to become suspicious and distrustful. First, I thought that it was the outsider versus local issue. Some locals would be helpful but a large number of them would not. Too often, I found myself thinking of how a simple and innocent act as surveying architectural features of a block could possibly become a most threatening event for others. At times, simply standing in front of a building would make me a curious subject and all of a sudden, an entire neighborhood would come to bombard me with questions about my work, my intentions, life and marital status. Other times, the crowd of interested people would get so curious that minutes after they had approached me, they would start discussing and debating aspects of my life amongst each other. I dreaded the task because it required long hours and endless walks, which commonly resulted in frequent loss of my sense of direction and absolute exhaustion at the end of the day.

Of course technical difficulties did not make the task easy. What I chose to refer as technical difficulties consisted none other than the bad street conditions and stray dogs. The first concern was actually very simple; if I wasn’t cautious and attentive to every little inch I stepped on, my feet could end up in a hole, a pile of excrement, mud or better yet, I could fall head first to the rocky ground. The second problem was actually the only thing that preoccupied my mind before my arrival to Gyumri and to each time I had to be on the streets. Dogs in Gyumri had become a natural guarding device to the streets. They were everywhere and would casually go around in packs. Most often they became very territorial and would go against other packs to defend their land. They would easily sense fear and before you even knew it, you would get followed. Did I mention how I was utterly terrified of dogs? And so, to make matters worse, the very first week I was there, one of our fellow volunteers got bit by a dog. Can you imagine my terrorized state while walking the streets? But after a while I got used to them and they got used to me; although, the former statement is probably the rather likely situation. By the second week, I had learned to control my fear. And at the end, this much dreaded task became one of the most life changing ones as I came to face my fears.

Before I even knew it, Gyumri became my diamond. It was beautiful like a diamond but not flawless. Every single day that I lived in that city, I came to discover the talent, the culture, and the life of this odd and magical place. It was a bittersweet reality. It had so much to offer but no means to give it. And ironically, I fell in love with a place that was so different from my reality; not to mention a city that didn’t quite resemble one, from a Western perspective. On the other hand, it offered what no other place could; an approach to life that exceeded all understanding and rationality. Those people had every reason to be sad but instead they lived with the dream of the good old days, hoping for the good ones to come. That was the best life lesson I could retain after my two month experience. Gyumri people had experienced death but had not forgotten to live. As soon as music broke, one would witness a scene of people hand in hand, dancing like there was no tomorrow, with movements that were more passionate and perfect than the greatest performances anyone had seen.

As an Armenian of the Diaspora, it often was difficult to associate to the motherland. We often focus on the differences and fail to see the common points and the truth is, we might have too much in common. What had first stricken me as different, strange, and bizarre, suddenly became familiar. I realized that once I understood their ways, lifestyles, and norms, it became easier to connect.

Armenia, for me, is the center, the heart; and I, one of its veins. At times, it is necessary to visit the core that pumps your blood. But most times, it is crucial to cease from being the vein, and start becoming the blood gushing through.

This post first appeared on Vana's own blog,

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