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: .

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

So Much More Than a Volunteer Experience

by Katie Aune

A simple Google search led me to Armenia.

I was planning to spend a year traveling and volunteering through the former Soviet Union and I was looking for good volunteer opportunities in the countries I would visit. A search for “Armenia volunteer opportunities” brought me to the Armenian Volunteer Corps.  I liked that AVC was based directly in the country and that it offered professional, skills-based volunteer placements. After completing an application, writing a personal statement, securing references and interviewing with the director of the program, it became official: I would spend five weeks in the spring in Yerevan.

I would love to say my transition to Armenia was seamless, but it wasn’t.

Armenia was the first place I visited for a significant period of time where, not only did I not speak the language, I couldn’t even read the alphabet. Until then, I could get around pretty easily with Russian or English. And while Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish were certainly unfamiliar to me, they at least used the Latin alphabet and English was widespread.  In Armenia, I was completely illiterate and it was unnerving.
I hated that I couldn’t go into restaurants or up to street kiosks and read a single word on the menu. I hated that I had to take the 2, 43 or 76 marshrutkas home because those were the only ones I knew and I couldn’t read the signs on any others to determine where they might be going.  I hated that I wasn’t even sure if a building was a store or a restaurant or something else because I couldn’t understand the sign out front. Yes, there was some English in the center of the city, but near where my homestay was, in the hills surrounding the center, I saw very little.

Armenia was also the first place where I spent a significant amount of time where I just really didn’t fit in. In Russia and Eastern Europe, I looked like everyone else with my blond hair and blue eyes. In Armenia, I definitely did not. I also felt like I just didn’t fit in with the other volunteers, who were all diasporan Armenians, coming back to explore their homeland. They looked like everyone else, they knew the language, were familiar with the culture and could bond with each other much more easily. They were also much younger than me and I felt like I struggled to relate to them on so many levels. It didn’t help that everyone I met seemed to question why I was there – why would a non-Armenian want to come to Armenia?

So I relished the time by myself:  running along the pothole-filled streets of Zeitun at sunrise, walking to work past Monument and down Cascade, staring out at Mt. Ararat, and shopping in the Vernissage market, chatting with the vendors and practicing my Russian.

And gradually, it got easier.

I started to have more conversations with people in Russian and realized that I could easily explain to taxi drivers how to get to my apartment. The bleached blonde woman with gold teeth at the shop across the street greeted me warmly in Russian every time she saw me.  In the city center, more store clerks spoke English than I initially realized (or expected). Sure, I wasn’t communicating in Armenian as I hoped, but I was at least communicating.

At the same time, I spent more time with my fellow volunteers on excursions to Lake Sevan, Gyumri and Tatev.  While I still felt a bit of a gap, I started to feel more comfortable as people pulled me into dances and translated the lyrics of traditional songs. A weekend-long excursion to Tatev may have been a turning point.
My volunteer placement was a perfect fit, with the tourism program of the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia. Given my love of travel and aspirations to work in travel and tourism after my year-long trip is finished, I couldn’t have asked for a better placement. I was able to get a firsthand look at the challenges facing a developing tourism program like Armenia’s and hopefully give a little something back through my experience and expertise.

But while the placement was interesting and will provide a nice line on my resume, it was everything else about my Armenian experience that will stay with me the most.

I learned that I need to be more assertive. I realized that my struggles early on in Yerevan were due in part to the fact that I wasn’t putting myself out there – I was waiting for people to come to me. When I took more initiative during my last few weeks in town, I felt much more included and welcome – and as a result had some of the best times I have had in my year of traveling.

I learned that it is okay to quit sometimes. My last weekend in Yerevan, I participated in a group excursion biking to Echmiadzin. While I had pictured a relaxing bike ride along quiet roads, in reality we were riding along a busy road, dodging marshrutkas and semi-trucks the entire time. It was anything but relaxing and, on top of it, I had a faulty bike that kept changing gears on me without warning. I made it to Echmiadzin but I really didn’t enjoy a minute of it. So when it came time to head back, I bit the bullet and hopped in the van that followed the bikers. My butt hurt, my legs were like jelly, I was sunburned and I wasn’t having fun. It was time to quit and I wasn’t ashamed of it at all.

I learned that age and ethnicity really don’t matter when it comes to connecting with people.  I initially focused too much on the fact that I was the only non-ethnic Armenian and one of the oldest volunteers. But really, that was silly because what matters is so much deeper. I should know better than to think that age matters – when I went to Egypt I was in a tour group of Australians about 8 years younger than me, many of whom I still keep in touch with and consider good friends.  And I should know better than to think that ethnic background matters since some of my closest friends back home are Indian and Asian.
No, what really matters are the things that you discover only after taking the chance to get to know someone. You hike in the Vorotan Gorge, play touch football and bike to Echmiadzin. You learn that you follow the same sports and have the same taste in music. You discover you have similar religious views and shared dreams and fears. You find out that, despite your differences, you have more in common than you ever would have imagined.

And that, in a nutshell, is what I’ll take away from my experience in Armenia.


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