Yerevan, Armenia - After countless hours of planning and a sixteen hour flight, we have finally arrived in Armenia to begin our adventure! We eleven volunteers from the US and Australia are here for the next three weeks to rebuild a 16th-century church, in the remote village of Shikahogh in the southern Syunik region.
To make this journey a reality, most of us used our school break or vacation days for 5-6 hours of daily manual labor and an unprecedented personal experience as LCO volunteers. For most of us, it's our first time in Armenia, and half of us don't speak the language. We don't know what to expect, but we are all very excited - not only to learn about and connect with the land and people who live here, but to make a difference for the Armenian heritage! Read more about LCO's mission here: http://www.lcousa.org/about-lco/our-vision
So far, Yerevan has given us a very warm welcome, both literally and figuratively! Daytime temperatures exceed one hundred degrees, and we have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know our fellow volunteers, group leaders, and locals.
After our LCO leaders greeted us at the airport, we arrived at the centrally located Travelers Hostel. The owner, known as "lovely Alice," has welcomed us with legendary Armenian hospitality. Every morning, she ensures we eat delicious meals of fresh eggs, cheese, yogurt, and homemade jams of fig, boysenberry, apricot, rasberry and cherry. Everythings healthy and local, of course!
Yesterday we did a walking tour of the city to visit the beautiful modern art museum, cascade steps and opera house. Yerevan is pleasantly modern, with wide, tree-lined, walkable streets that lead to many public squares, with countless water fountains spouting natural spring water. The sounds of chirping birds perfectly accompany the live street music on nearly every corner, from flutes, to jazz, to acapelo singing. For lunch and dinner, we ate savory family-style meals at outdoor cafes with both familiar and new cuisines!
Today we were lucky to participate in Vardivar, a traditional festival with Pagan roots where everyone in the country throws water on each other all day long. There must have been a thousand people, young and old, participating in Republic Square alone! Folks used buckets, hoses, squirt guns, and even dunked each other directly in the fountain, all in the spirit of fun. We had no choice but to join in, and we ended up touring the National History Museum soaking wet, squeaking shoes and all!
Tomorrow we will drive to Shikahogh village, where we will live and work for the next three weeks. Wish us luck that all continues to go great!
Shikahogh, Armenia - We're happy to report that we safely arrived in Shikahogh village yesterday, after eight hours driving in a bumpy bus from Yerevan! It was amazing to watch the landscape change dramatically as we drove, from attractive urban center, to rolling pastoral meadows, to high mountain steppes, to lush green forests.
Along the way, we were able to stop at Khor Virab. We learned that it was the place Saint Gregory was imprisoned in a snake-infested pit for 14 years, before he "illuminated" King Tiridates and ultimately was responsible for Armenia becoming the first Christian nation in 301 AD. Apart from appreciating stunning views of Mount Ararat, we got to descend into the pit itself. Never had we had this critical moment in Armenian history become more real and tangible for us!
Arriving in Shikahogh, the rural village starkly contrasts everything else we've seen thus far. Here, we were greeted by lively herds of sheep, goats, cows, and stray chickens! We walked around the village, and saw that only around two hundred people live here. Everyone is very humble, nice and friendly, and the mayor joined us for dinner, thanking us all for being here.
We're lucky that our new home neighbors the pristine Shikahogh Forest Preserve, Armenia's second largest forest reserve, covering some 100 km² (25,000 acres) of land. We hope that we will get to learn about the rare species of plants and animals that live here, from Caucasian leopards, Bezoar ibexes, and brown bears to hedgehogs. We already saw our first odd animal- a freshwater crab - crossing the village road!
We are grateful that our modest three-bedroom home has running water, comfortable beds and so far reliable electrcity. We have an outdoor shower, outhouse, and virtually no amenities. For example, if we want to purchase anything, we call the local shop owner so that he can open it for us! It really feels like camping!
Today was our first day working at the church, and it was incredibly exciting and rewarding to finally get our hands dirty! We learned from the chief architect that we will be doing a little bit of everything: shoveling dirt paths around the church to make a safe entrance; tearing down an extra wall that was unnecessarily added on; rebuilding the roof; and restoring the church alter. He said, "all our hands will touch the cross, before we put it back on the roof where it belongs. We're all Armenian, and we're all part of this historically and culturally significant place."
Over the next three weeks, we will share our personal stories and photos with you about who we are as volunteers, and what we're doing to restore Sourp Stepanos Church to its original condition. We hope that you will continue to read the website, and vicariously join in on our adventure! Remember that you can make a difference by donating, or by telling your friends and family about the need to "preserve our past to protect our future!"
Our work day began at 8:30am with a healthy breakfast of hard boiled eggs, bread, jam, butter, cheese, coffee and tea. Wearing our bright orange LCO volunteer t-shirts and hats, we walked for fifteen minutes uphill along a rocky, gravelly, sheep-trodden trail to Soorp Stepanos Church. There we met with the small team of men who have worked on the church since LCO initiated the project three years ago: the subcontractor Stepan, local villagers Armen and Grish, and a few others whose names we're still learning. After receiving our marching orders, we sprang into action removing the top layer of stones from the church alter, to be reinforced later. The heavier stones weigh up 20-50 pounds, but surprisingly, it was incredibly fun and rewarding work!
In assembly-line fashion, Sevana, Alexandria, Ani, and Lillit loosened the heavier stones on top of the alter with pick axes, and rolled them to the edge. Anoush, Garo and Zevart carried them one-by-one to the church door, handing them off to Massis who neatly stacked them in a pile to be reused. Meanwhile, Lori shoveled smaller stones, gravel and sand to the edge, which Christina scraped into buckets and a wooden gurney to be dumped outside and used for cement. Stepan, Armen and Grish mainly fixed the roof (where we’re off limits for safety), and gave us directions when needed. The whole process was organic and fast-paced, with everyone pitching in where they could to share the weight, grab a tool, or offer an extra face mask to their fellow volunteer. Before we knew it, we cleared the top layer in only two hours, and strengthened our teamwork and friendship too!
Around noon, we took a refreshing break of watermelon and wildflower tea provided by Anahit, a gregarious and outspoken woman who lives by the church and graciously lets us use her shaded patio and flush toilet. But before we could get back to work, four special guests appeared: Astrig Hagopyan, Representative of the Historical Monument Committee of Armenia; the Der Hayr (Priest) of Kapan; the Cultural Minister of the State of Syunik; and the President of the Kapan Youth Group. They came to thank us for being here, and to let us know that they’re here to help if there's ever anything we need. LCO Board Member Haig Manjikian passionately responded, "Armenia is like a tree: all those living outside Armenia are the leaves, and Armenia is the root. We need each other to survive, and that’s why we’re here.” Many of us volunteers teared up, we were so touched to conn ect with our family roots.
We then all walked into Soorp Stepanos Church, removed our hats and gloves, bowed our heads, and received a heartfelt blessing from the priest. He didn't just bless the church, but blessed us volunteers,
saying once again that “we’re all Armenian, whether we're born here or not."
Volunteer Sevana Zadorian, a 21 year-old Middle Eastern Studies student at the University of San Francisco, said it was an incredibly emotional moment when the priest blessed us in an Armenian church that we are rebuilding ourselves. "Being told by the priest that our work matters helped me to understand why it's so important I'm here and doing this work. I realized that the church is what our culture has been built around for thousands of years. We're an ancient civilization; we are our ancestors. The priest said our work is helping to keep alive that ancient culture, and that’s really meaningful."