All the Things You Can't See From The Centre: Photo-Essay on Armenia

All the Things You Can’t See From The Centre: Photo-Essay on Armenia

I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. ~ Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

I’m going to chronicle my travels to the Caucasus by moving backwards and starting with the most recent first. I’m going to do it that way because Armenia has managed to stick with me more than Georgia. As for why that is, I’m still not entirely sure. Perhaps it was because I have far more photos of Armenia to muse over? Maybe it’s because I had more time in the country and; therefore, have additional experiences and memories to sift through and digest?

On the way from the Georgian border to Yerevan. A stop in Gyumri.

On the way from the Georgian border to Yerevan. A stop in Gyumri.

Whatever the case, the point of this post is not to talk too much. It’s to let the photographs do the talking for me. Armenia, a complex,*1It’s complex for reasons linked to social, cultural and political norms. It’s also complex because I recently added a footnote plugin to my blog and, for the record, footnotes rule. ancient and culturally-rich country, is a place seemingly lost between time periods, not entirely sure where it belongs. This undefined nature makes Armenia hard to pin down as it has one foot firmly entrenched in biblical times with the other striding into the 21st century, looking for a patch of solid ground to stand on.

Mother Armenia. A different vantage point.

Mother Armenia watching over everyone from her mount at Victory Park. She’s the type of woman I wouldn’t mess with.

One of the first, and loveliest, monasteries we visited. In Alaverdi.

One of the first, and loveliest, monasteries we visited. In Alaverdi.

And while the legs try to get sorted the upper part of the body is involved in an ongoing cultural clash. One arm still waves northwards, an off-handed salute to the Russians, while the other wags its fingers West, trying to lure travellers and investors to make their way East. There’s a bit of eye-rolling and chest-puffing when it comes to dealing with it’s northern neighbour Georgia and pulses will start racing, adrenaline surging, before you can even complete the last syllable of Azerbai-jan.*2If you want to learn a bit more about why some Armenians and Azeris are not so civil towards each other, start with this New York Times piece: Frozen Conflict.

Those hills are alive. Moving between Garni and Geghard.

Those hills are alive. Moving between Garni and Geghard.

We crossed overland into Armenia from Georgia and spent a week exploring monastery after monastery, museum after museum and cemetery after cemetery. It was a wonderful experience, truly, and I say that because when the plane took off from Warsaw I was a touch hesitant. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into as I had no experience travelling in this part of the world. This made it difficult to manage my expectations: what Armenia would be like? I had no goddamned idea. At the time, she existed far outside any other experience (travel-related at least) I’ve ever had. I had nothing to compare to. No images or true knowing to anchor myself with aside from what I was told. Tidbits like: Armenia is the country with the oldest shoe!*3Yes, the oldest shoe: Areni-1 It is the birthplace of wine! Armenia is the oldest Christian nation! Factoids that filled my head and did nothing to help fill the void for what I would actually see. For all that was waiting for me.

Food...glorious food. (Yes, of course I included a food photo. A separate food post is planned at some point in the future.)

Food…glorious food. (Yes, of course I included a food photo. A separate food post is planned at some point in the future.)

But then I was introduced to the arid highlands and dizzying valleys where mountains reached for the sky. I walked through dense green forests and across yawning rocky expanses as the sun beat down and turned my arms, my neck, a deeper shade of brown. I sauntered down the cosmopolitain boulevards of Yerevan and drank Armenian wine that tried to rival my favourite chardonnay. I inhaled fresh water droplets that came off Lake Sevan and lingered in empty monastery rooms for far longer than I normally would; I felt the hard rock push against the soles of my shoes and listened to waves of silence echo bounce off the walls in common time. That absence of sound is what perhaps surprised me most at many of the ancient sites we visited, the way it was all encompassing and could serve as an embrace. The manner in which it seemed to slow everything–including the beat of my heart–right down.

And so it went, the journey turned out to be fine, incredible in fact. Indeed, there were ups and downs, high points and low points. There were moments of sheer rapture and a few hours of sheer exhaustion. In that way, it was like any other–every other–journey; however, it was one of the few trips I’ve made where I found I was present during every single moment (that is, when I wasn’t passed out in the back of the car) and fought to absorb as much information as my brain could handle.

When it comes to choosing which country I enjoyed more (Georgia or Armenia? Armenia or Georgia?) I’ll wait to make that reveal at a later date. What’s important to note at this point is that both countries, though so close geographically, are invariably nothing alike. They differ on so many levels. The way religion is adhered to, how national governments operate, the manner in which deep seated cultural allegiances are appropriated, the melancholy for the past and visions for the future, yes, they both stand in contrast to one another though the two countries do share a sort of state-contrived sibling rivalry.

The beauty of cracks. "That's how the light gets in" at the Monastery of Geghard.

The beauty of cracks. “That’s how the light gets in” at the Monastery of Geghard.

Wine + whisky everywhere. Countless barrels (almost) ready to drink. At the ArmAs vineyard.

Wine + whisky everywhere. Countless barrels (almost) ready to drink. At the ArmAs vineyard.

I could use my last few words of this post to draw down a “top 10” list of things one must see in Armenia but I find such lists to be contrived. What you want to see and what I want to see will be invariably different and, besides, travel should be about flexibility and adventure. Flying by the seat of your pants and being ready to change course depending on the way the wind is blowing.

So with that, I’ll end with a short summary of what I think about Armenia herself, that bodacious and fierce entity that is agonizingly beautiful (but in an unexpected sort of way). She’s rough around the edges. She’s wizened and flaunts every wrinkled line she has to show. She’s runs hot and cold at the same time. She is prideful and passionate, but the thing is…she’s made it through the ages. Who can blame her for such a brazen attitude? She’s had to fight hard to stand her ground and survive through centuries of migration, war, oppression, invasion and genocide.*4Genocide: the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” Not that you needed a definition but just in case you did.

She’s had had to get down and dirty when she felt it counted the most.

Living out loud. At the top of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts.

Living out loud. At the top of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts.

 

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. It’s complex for reasons linked to social, cultural and political norms. It’s also complex because I recently added a footnote plugin to my blog and, for the record, footnotes rule.
2. If you want to learn a bit more about why some Armenians and Azeris are not so civil towards each other, start with this New York Times piece: Frozen Conflict.
3. Yes, the oldest shoe: Areni-1
4. Genocide: the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” Not that you needed a definition but just in case you did.