It’s been 17 hours since I was in the United States. After 12 hours on a plane to Russia and then another 5 hours on a second flight we arrived in the capital of Armenia. I’m tired and dizzy and waiting impatiently for my uncle (who arrived last week) to pick us up. My mom is crying tears of joy as she hasn’t been back to her home country for 30 years, but I’m less eager to explore and more eager for a bed.
We settle into the shuttle we had rented, exchanging hellos and even though it’s nighttime, my mom is staring out the windows like a child at a candy store. I’m content staring at the floor and remembering my own home, now 7,201 miles away. But my dad taps my shoulder, giving me that knowing “dad look” and I force my eyes up. Yerevan is overflowing with a contagious energy - the city is alive, street lights are blinding me, there are people bustling around - eating and talking and laughing despite the late hour of the night.
I’d get used to this soon; the restaurants that stayed open until 3 am and the live musicians on the streets. I’d get used to seeing waiters my age and people walking everywhere - the girls wearing sneakers with their fancy dresses because they knew they wouldn’t be taking a car. I’d also soon understand that there were no street rules, just the taxi drivers zooming away, adhering to the unspoken rules of the road. But most liberating was knowing that all of Yerevan was at ease. The people woke up late, seemed relaxed with their lives and jobs so different from the robotic stressful mechanics of an American life.
The next morning we already began packing for our big trip 7 hours away to one of Armenia’s breakaway states, Artsakh. Our itinerary is overflowing with famous landmarks to be visited and our first stop is said to be one of the most religious sites in the country. Khor Virap monastery is known for being where Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned in an underground dungeon by King Tridates III of Armenia for 14 years. A rickety metal ladder took us down to a stone cavernous room where legend has it, Gregory stayed eating nothing but a piece of bread that an old lady would sneak down to him every day.
Afterward, we stopped at Noravank monastery, carved into a narrow gorge made by a river. The monastery is known for the tall, sheer, brick-red cliffs across from it and for its two-story Surp Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) church. The second floor could only be accessed by a narrow stone staircase jutting out from the face of the building, one of the earliest models of cantilever architecture. I didn’t think I’d be flying on this trip, but later we rode the Wings of Tatev, a record aerial tramway that was 5,752 meters long. It takes you from Halidzor to the Tatev monastery in 12 minutes, nothing compared to the 40-minute windy road your car would have to take.
Artsakh is comprised of many small villages, each rich with their own cultures, foods, landmarks, and accents and we visited quite a lot of them. Most notably was Stepanakert where we visited an authentic bazaar or marketplace. Outdoors, there were women and men alike with their booths set up, selling everything from shoes to pickled foods to chickens which they beheaded right in front of you. We ate breakfast there, gorging on Jingalov Hats (spinach bread) and Perashki (bread stuffed with warm potatoes.) Everywhere we walked old women were tugging on our sleeves inviting us to buy bushels of fresh mint and bags of nuts and watermelons the size of our heads. Fruits I’d never seen before, grapes with veins and small round sour berries, were arranged in front of me in perfect rainbow arrays. Everything was fresh and organic, as close as you could get to mother nature, something I had never experienced living in America.
We even had the once in a lifetime experience of seeing a close friend get baptized in Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in the village of Shushi. During the Nagorno-Kharabakh War, Azerbaijan stored their missiles in the cathedral, knowing the Armenians wouldn’t bomb their own beautiful work just to destroy the weaponry. The cathedral was porcelain white with one tall spire in the middle and blue stained glass windows. I remember standing underneath the shining chandelier and looking up at the skylight, noticing the way the sun filtered through the air, suspending the dust particles in an image I had only ever seen in photos before.
On the plane ride back home, I kept grasping onto wisps of memories, trying to hold onto them forever and make my trip last a lifetime. It was empowering to know that somewhere across the sea was this place, brimming with history and culture and food and people so different from what I had known my entire life. I started the trip feeling nervous and in a state of total culture shock, but in the end I couldn’t have been happier. To get to truly be an Armenian for three weeks, live in my mother country and understand my roots on a whole other level was surreal. America might be where I live, but I knew after this trip that Yerevan would always be my home.