(Laval, Quebec, Canada)
Thinking back of my experience in Armenia, the element that stands out the most is the delicious food. Haha. Good one Cynthia. This statement has some truth to it; however, on a serious note, my trip this summer in Armenia can be shared with you through the marshrutkas (Russian for shared taxi). What are marshrutkas and what is so special about them? Well, they are minibuses used for intra and intercity transportation. They can be compared to public buses in America. But, they are much smaller, both in length and in height, which is an inconvenience for a tall person like me. Every marshrutka has a special route and specific stops but these minibuses can also be hailed anywhere along their route.
While in Gyumri, I made use of the marshrutkas at least twice a day. It is the most convenient and cheapest mode of transportation in such a city. I took the marshrutka to my job placements every morning and I would take it back home in the afternoon. I worked at Shirak Union, a children’s social center, where I taught the kids, who soon became my friends, English and Spanish and played games with them. I will never forget the time when one of the children asked me: “I do not understand why/how a person from the other side of the world comes to Gyumri to simply play with us!” What was I to answer?
I also worked at Women for Development, an NGO involved in several projects such as Peace Education, health education to the villagers, etc. With the help of this organization, Mariana Mardirosian (biologist) and I (dentistry student) prepared a Genetics and also a Dental Hygiene presentation. Both these lectures were presented in five different villages throughout the Shirak region. My job placements opened my eyes to the reality in Armenia: I witnessed the challenges of the health system in this country. A lot can be done to improve the health care system, that is one of the reasons why I will definitely return to Armenia.
Back to the marshrutkas. Interestingly enough, when you enter the marshrutka, you have to hope that there are empty seats. If there are none, do not panic, most of the time someone offers you a seat or scoots and makes a space for you to sit. If that is not possible, the women sitting offer to hold your purse so that you stand comfortably. I was amazed every single time I witnessed this act of courtesy. I felt as though people were less selfish and more conscious of being part of a community. Unfortunately, it’s extremely rare to witness such scenarios in North America.
I discovered a lot of interesting things in the marshrutkas. For instance, my first couple of times taking the minibus were frustrating because when I would ask the driver to stop, I would say: “esdegh gangnetsek hadjis” but the driver would not stop. I soon realized that there must be a mistake in my Armenian. After having attended Armenian classes, I learnt that “hadjis” is in Western Armenian. My next bus ride, I used “khentrem” instead and got an immediate response. One word can make all the difference!
I will never forget the day when Azatuhi, Mariana (fellow volunteers) and I took the marshrutka back to our district together. While we were standing in the crowded space looking through the windows to see if we have reached our destination, the driver of the bus gives us 3 used “Viva Cell” phone cards. Having experienced this already, I knew that they were “domses” (equivalent to bus tickets). However, we were not sure where these tickets came from. Did the driver offer it to us by pure gallantry or was there somebody in the bus that recognized us? It was hard to see who was in the bus and there was no time for observation because we had to get off at our stop. I decided to loudly thank whoever had paid for our marshrutka ride. We got off the bus and an old man, about 70 years old, gets off at the same stop. He tells us that it was not a problem. We soon realized that he was the mysterious person who gave us these tickets. He warned us not to think that he’s inviting us or wants to get to know us. He said that we simply reminded him of his daughter who was a student in Italy. Doing this nice gesture was a way to connect to his child that he loved very much. We were all so touched by his story and speechless. He then went on wishing us good luck and walked away in a “fast”-pace.
These are just examples of how warm-hearted people in Gyumri were. I felt as though I was one of them, they always treated me like their own children or siblings. I am sure that people in other cities are as welcoming and as nice. I have yet more to discover!
If you have not visited Armenia yet, please do so for your own sake. However, what you experience as a tourist is nothing compared to what Birthright Armenia and AVC allow you to live through. The people, the love, the coffee, the mountains, the music, the food, the fellow volunteers…
Most importantly for me: the marshrutka. A mode of transportation and an important tool of immersion through which I discovered my love for Armenia.