As a 2012 graduate of the Armenian Sisters Academy, I traveled to Armenia in June with nine of my classmates. During the school year preceding the trip, we were busy fundraising and wondering what the motherland would be like. During Armenian class in school, I would think, “Wow, I’m going to be experiencing this for real in just a few months.”
June finally came! We were getting ready for graduation, organizing the funds we raised, and packing our bags. Then on the 19th, we met at JFK, excited and ready to start the experience of a lifetime. After long hugs and teary goodbyes to our families, we flew from to Charles du Gaul airport in Paris and finally arrived at Zvartnots Airport, Yerevan, Armenia, our homeland. As I was walking down the gate, I turned around to look for my friends. I stopped mid turn, awestruck at the beauty of our holy Mt. Ararat towering before me. It was about 8:00 pm then and the sun was setting, making the view even more spectacular. What an awesome welcome!
We were fortunate to see so many beautiful sites including the Matenadaran, Lake Sevan, Sardarabad and even experienced badarak at Holy Etchmiadzin. We were lucky enough to travel to Karabagh and stayed at an exceptional hotel in Goris on the way there. Everywhere we went, the people were kind and welcoming; especially the elderly. Although the experience was wonderful overall, certain sites stood out for me.
One of the greatest parts of the trip was when we spent a day visiting the orphanage in Gyumri which is run by the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. We arrived around lunchtime, and were served amazing losh kebab and pilaf. There were only a few children there because most of them were at Our Mother of Armenia, the nuns’ summer camp in Dzaghgadzor, which we would later visit. In Gyumri, the children taught us a game called badeej, (Armenian-style dodge ball) and we ended up playing for hours. Despite our different dialects, we easily communicated because smiles go a long way. I was amazed how quickly we became close to these children who have so little in life, but share their incredible enthusiasm and steadfast spirit. They were very excited to have visitors and vied for our attention which we willing returned a hundred-fold.
Another wonderful experience was when we took the Wings of Datev skyride. It’s located in a land of rolling hills and valleys (well, I guess all of Armenia is) and to top it off, the glass trolley car rides thousands of feet above the ground. It traveled at a leisurely pace; not slow enough that you get bored, yet not so fast that you feel like you missed something. Sometimes the car would tilt in the wind and everybody would shift and some (the girls) would scream. Once back on the ground, we were touring the monastery itself, and while leaning on its wall, heard a sudden GONG! The church bell signaled the start of communion and we all literally jumped at least three feet! We learned that the monastery was built with three surrounding walls and the fourth side opens to a cliff. This provided protection through the centuries. On the way out, some of us drank from a spring sprouting out from the wall – the water was so fresh and clear!
One of my favorite places on the tour was Geghard monastery. It was located in a small corner of one of the most picturesque landscapes I’ve ever seen. Outside the complex, vendors had set up shop and were selling all types of things. I bought some salor (plum) flavored basdegh which was amazingly delicious. Once inside the complex, on one of the small hills, there were wooden crates. Upon further examination, I noticed it was the beehives my mother had told me about. When she visited in the 1990’s she met the priest who tended the bees, who wore only a veiled hat for protection. In one of the rooms in the church there was a spring that came out of the wall and over the years it carved a stream bed through the floor!!
An exciting spot for all of us was Vernisage. For those who don’t know, it’s a HUGE open air market in central Yerevan that sells everything from foodstuffs to carved khatckars to handmade tavloo boards. There, one man’s trash is definitely another man’s treasure. Vendors came from all walks of life, and bargaining was a much used tactic. Our group would split up and buy whatever we wanted and then meet back at the bus and inspect each others’ treasures and occasionally trade them.
One of the final things we did that some of us loved (I did) and some of us didn’t, was our trip to Khor Virap. (Some thought the pit was too hot and stuffy, but that was the point!) In the parking lot, there were men with cages full of doves. They would ask the guests if they would like to release a dove, claiming that it was good luck. Most of the time, though, the vendors pushed the doves into people’s hands and made them pay after. One of my classmates received extra good luck when a dove did its business on his pant leg! The pit wasn’t as deep or narrow as I thought, and I’m glad St. Gregory had more room than I imagined. Unfortunately, visitors had carved their names into the walls of such a holy site. That day we had the best view of Ararat of the entire trip.
I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity to see Armenia for myself. I was hoping it would be a fantastic experience, and it more than exceeded my expectations, especially since I toured with my closest friends. As a result, I hope to return as soon as I can.
Armenian Sisters Academy