(Canada, AVC ’12)
If you had asked me how I was feeling the day before leaving for Armenia for the first time, I would not have known what and how to answer. Birthright Armenia had been a plan of mine since I was 18 – when I first heard about it. I was finally old enough and ready to embark on this journey of a lifetime, but the butterflies in my stomach were increasing exponentially as my boarding time was getting closer and closer.
Needless to say, I did not know what to expect; therefore, I told myself not to have any expectations and to go in with a clear mind… a very difficult task for someone as paranoid and detail-oriented as myself. After an excruciating 20-hour long trip to Yerevan, I finally made it. After years of hearing and learning about my homeland, I finally had my feet on Armenian soil. It was an incredible feeling. Sure, I was already feeling homesick, constantly thinking about my family and friends back home, but I was ready, ready for what I knew would be the single most amazing experience of my life.
Was I wrong? No.
One of the questions I was asked near the end of my stay was: “do you regret volunteering in Gyumri?” My immediate answer was no. Absolutely not. Gyumri opened my eyes to many things. It made me appreciate life much more. I met some of the most remarkable and fascinating people, but most of all, Gyumri introduced me to my host family – a family so close to one another, so pure, a family that reminded me so much of my own. Of course, Gyumri wasn’t perfect, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. I mean, Bonchik Monchik, trying to find lettuce for 3 weeks, our sheer amazement when we would find automatic doors, a place with air conditioning, or WiFi, how can you replace such things? Gyumri definitely had… character.
Thinking back though, the reason I left part of my heart in Gyumri is because of what it symbolizes for me and the fact that this is where I met many of the people that have changed my life one way or another. The day we said our emotional goodbyes to Rafi & Tamar (queue song), we agreed that we would all see each other in the next year, so start planning reunions, people! (Allegra, your room is ready and waiting for you. That reminds me… have you gone grocery shopping yet?)
We got to know each other the most during the excursions, which were adventures of their own. Each and every single one of those trips taught me something valuable; however, it was during the Artsakh trip where I learned not only about my homeland, Armenians, and other volunteers, but also about myself. I learned to do things I never thought I had the courage to do, to feel things I never thought I could feel, and to instantly connect to a place I never thought would speak to me so powerfully.
“Just do whatever you can do – take every opportunity that’s offered to you because if you don’t, I guarantee you’ll regret it.” This was one of the most useful pieces of advice a fellow volunteer gave me very early on, and he was right. That’s probably the reason why I jumped at the opportunity to spend my last weekend on a two-day camping trip. I knew we would return late on Sunday night (which we did) and I would be a complete zombie travelling back to Montreal (which I was) since my flight was on the following day at 5 am, but it was definitely worth it. One of the best memories I have is sitting around the campfire on Saturday night and not saying a word. It wasn’t my happiest moment, but it was one of the most unique. During the course of these two days, many of the friendships I made over my journey were strengthened and solidified and I knew that this certainly wasn’t the end; it was actually the beginning of something great.
I’ve been back in Montreal for a while now and it’s the smaller things I think of that make me smile, laugh, and cry at times: the Jesus walk, learning that there are 17 provinces in Canada and a city in Toronto named Annandale, watching the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics with my loving host dad until 3 am, Marshutka 9, Evelyn’s bottomless stomach, being carried and thrown into a pool by three men – guaranteeing no escape, sangria in a pot, a flying cow, late-night life conversations during the marshutka rides back to Gyumri (with our famous drivers, of course), Allegra’s glasses – and just plain self, my kids from Meghvik chanting “Anna-Marie” as they walk me to the marshutka stop, a four-hour hike that in fact, WAS THREE, OK? “I won’t stop ‘til the cows come home!” (Arman, this is where I would insert our famous 3 words), and my very last ride back to Yerevan… not much was said, but I can’t thank Asq enough for just being there.