By Greg Keraghosian, Associate Travel Editor
All my life I’d been running away from visiting Armenia, until the day Armenia came for me. It found me just as you’d expect, on Twitter.
Would I want to come teach an afterschool travel-blogging workshop to Armenian kids for a few weeks, the 140-character message asked. I wouldn’t be paid, but my transportation and lodgings would be covered, and we’d get road trips. It’s a question I had never once considered, yet my answer couldn’t have been easier: hell yes I would go.
I’m a late-30s American-born Armenian who had never been to my ancestral homeland, and I was overdue. Also, after traveling mostly for fun all my life, it was time for something more, and I wanted the challenge: could I fly into a country I didn’t know, attempt a job I’d never done, speak a dialect I didn’t understand, and help a class of hormonal high-school-aged kids produces something of value while still working my Yahoo job part-time?
It turns out we could. By the time my three-week workshop at the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies was over, and the kids and I had celebrated by dancing to Blondie’s fittingly titled “One Way or Another,” we’d created our own Armenian travel blog: the Tumo Traveler, with articles, videos, photos, and social media accounts all produced by the students. (See the highlight video the students made below.)
That blog and a bottle of 20-year Armenian cognac were the only souvenirs I took home, unless you include the priceless bond I forged with those kids and my memories exploring a beleaguered nation in transition between a troubled past and a hopeful future.
There’s something ironic and charming about the way the teens, who love pop music as much as any American kid, chose traditional Armenian music to score their video posts, and it still makes me smile when I play them a month later. When I returned and played them for my mom in her assisted-living home, she smiled too.
In compiling stories for our project, we visited a 9th-century cliffside monastery, stayed in the home of a general within a war-ravaged, unrecognized republic, took a shower underneath a psychedelic-looking waterfall, and visited some wisecracking barbers in their 75-year-old museum of a shop.
Then there was the historic timing of my visit. Just days after the Kardashians and Kanye West had left Armenia in a blaze of paparazzi-fueled glory, I flew into the capital city of Yerevan just in time for the 100-year commemoration of the Armenian Genocide on April 24.
Whether you’re from Armenia or a diasporan like me, all Armenians were touched by the Genocide in some way – in my case, my Turkish-born grandparents barely escaped it alive as children. I didn’t know how it would feel to be in a foreign country on such a familiar day, and as it turned out, I felt supremely wet. A powerful rain soaked me after I walked up the hill to the Genocide memorial with Zof, a Polish-born travel blogger who moved to Armenia a couple of years earlier and fell in love both with the country and with the boyfriend she met there.
But more than feeling wet, I’ll remember feeling overwhelmed that evening when, on my way home from a folk-music show in a cafe, I spotted a torch-lit wave of humanity heading my way on central Yerevan’s main boulevard. The annual night procession to the Genocide memorial was so large in scope, it looked like a CGI effect more than a real-life march, and I was swept up in it, joining with friends and riding the wave while people carrying Armenian flags and banners sang and chanted.
With that emotional day behind me, it was on to the workshop. Teaching kids how to tell online stories about Armenia is surprisingly challenging when you’ve never taught kids or been to Armenia. I had to learn everything on the fly, from how to delicately pick which students went on two coveted weekend road trips (we decided on a lottery), to explain the concepts of photography or video, to learning about the people and places within the country.
Then there was the puzzle of the kids themselves, whom we’d divided into beginner and advanced classes. This was the most interaction I’d ever had with people that age and the anxious questions in my head flashed like strobe lights as I stood in front of them for the first couple of classes: Would they like me? Would they respect me? Would they even understand what I was saying, or would I sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher?
From the first day, I didn’t need to wonder whether the students would charm me: they succeeded in that with ease, and each in their own way: Aren and his overachieving video skills, Emma with her braces and love of interviewing people, and pint-sized Arman, armed with a mischievous laugh and a camera that was barely bigger than him.
I’ve never known what parenthood might feel like, but taking on this project gave me a sense of responsibility for others that I’d never felt before. Of all the fears I had before we made the Tumo Traveler a reality, failing in front of them was the biggest.
I had help, of course – Tumo provided a classroom assistant to translate between my western Armenian dialect and the students’ eastern dialect whenever we couldn’t understand each other, as well as to quiet them down every 10 minutes so I wouldn’t go hoarse. As for gear, we had all we could ask for with cameras, iPads, computers, microphones, and more. Armenia doesn’t have a worldwide reputation for technology, but I couldn’t have asked for more than the facilities at Tumo, a privately funded, free program that’s been getting attention from the BBC, Kanye during his visit, and others. In a country that’s facing depopulation and the drain of its young talent, I was glad to see at least one organization that has the means and will to combat that.
“Your best kids, they’ll all be gone from here,” one diasporan living in Yerevan told me over dinner. She may be right, but I hope not.
Here’s the challenge I faced: I was teaching three days during the week, plus weekend trips with the students, and doing my Yahoo work three days. The kids had nearly 20 stories to cover during our three weeks together, all requiring them to be in the field taking photos, video, and interviews, and we had a hard deadline: everything had to be done and published before I boarded my plane home. And let’s just say that my bosses at Tumo weren’t shy about reminding me of that deadline when we got off to a slow start – our blog was still empty going into the final week (we did at least have a logo, though).
I had about 22 students total between the advanced and beginner groups, and we decided it would be best to break them into groups of three or four and give everyone a job: reporter, photographer, social-media person, or video specialist. Meanwhile, I couldn’t remain a stranger in the country we were covering, so I became a student myself and met some locals. Here’s what I found:
I learned that public Wi-Fi in Yerevan is faster and more available than public Wi-Fi in San Francisco. I learned that the influx of Armenians from Syria and Lebanon has made the once-stale local food both delicious and insanely cheap by U.S. standards – I regularly devoured kebab, lamajoun (Armenian pizza), and tabbouleh at Anteb, perhaps the best restaurant in Yerevan, with a bill that never reached $20. I also learned that service in Armenian restaurants is slow and indifferent at best – “If you’re expecting good service in Armenia… don’t,” a local blogger named Anna, who runs Streets of Yerevan, told me while giving me a day tour.
I learned that Armenia’s Soviet-inspired architecture is often ugly, but its women are even more beautiful than I thought and it pained me to have little time to meet them. I learned that a status symbol in Armenia is having a car with repeating numbers on the license plates. I learned that most people here live with their parents until they marry, so if you want to get frisky with your boyfriend or girlfriend away from home, you find a covered booth at a bar. I learned that Yerevan has the only active mosque in all of Armenia – the Blue Mosque (Armenia is the world’s first officially Christian country, dating to 301 A.D).
I didn’t need to venture far to notice the social contradictions in Yerevan: next door to my comfortable, modern high-rise apartment was a crumbling, aluminum-roof house that was still occupied. And it was comically strange to stroll through English Park and Children’s Park and find some creaky, Soviet-era amusement-park rides bearing the likenesses of Disney and Looney Tunes characters. I thought they were all abandoned until some nice elderly people offered rides to Anna and me (we politely declined out of self-preservation – absolutely nobody was aboard them).
But then there are flashes to Armenia’s past that any tourist would want to see. Such as Gayane’s, a restaurant inside the owner’s home in a back alley that requires a map to find. If the kitschy décor or the solo piano tunes played by Gayane herself don’t win you over, the food will – I especially liked the borscht, which is a tasty throwback to Soviet times. You can see the students’multimedia story about the owner and restaurant.
(I’ve even been learning about the country since coming home, with the “Electric Yerevan” protests to fight the government’s utility-rate hikes.)
I took two-weekend road trips with the kids: one to the independent republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, on the eastern border of Armenia, and one to Gyumri, Armenia’s second city. Karabakh is a rugged, green, beautiful place that will go down as one of my favorite road trips ever, in part because we stopped on the way at Tatev Monastery, whose views I’ve already covered with a video from the students.
But in admiring those views, I learned that there’s a difference between being a travel journalist and teaching travel journalists: we were pressed for time because of the all-day drive, and in my Instagram feeding frenzy I broke away from my students to get all the photos and details I could before remembering to help them do the same. I got greedy, and because of that they didn’t get as much footage in Tatev as I would have liked.
If you’re going to learn how to lead, you might as well learn from a general, which is what I did in Nagorno-Karabakh. We stayed in Shushi in the house of Saro Saryan, a general just two years retired who fought in the war of independence against Azerbaijan that lasted from 1988 to 1994. Karabakh, known as Artsakh to Armenians, is a predominantly Armenian region technically inside Azerbaijan but also an autonomous, unrecognized republic with an empty international airport in the capital of Stepanakert – Baku threatens to shoot down any aircraft that approaches it.
If I ever meet a more jovial general than Saryan, I’ll be surprised – he’s turned his home, which belonged to Azeris before the war, into an unofficial bed and breakfast for travelers, photographers, and friends. He gleefully played tour guide for the students and me, walking us around destroyed 19th-century houses and buildings with bullet holes in the walls. But despite Shushi’s damaged looks, Saryan fell in love with it at first sight and takes pride in pointing out improvements on the way, including an agriculture university. He also stuffed us full of delightful dolmas and cheeses, and he gave me an order to drink shots of arak with him, so I obeyed.
I needed a general’s assertiveness with the kids, lest our classes or road trips turn into selfie exhibitions. And as they’d never done in-field reporting, I had to remind them constantly to take notes along with all those pictures, such as when one student interviewed a blacksmith and a vodka maker in a mountainside village called Metz Tagher that looked frozen in time. I’m pretty sure if I had told her to “write down what he just said” one more time, she would have stabbed me with her pen.
As general, I literally had to march the kids a couple of times. Such as descending about 1,500 feet from the white limestone monastery on top of Vankasar Mountain in the ancient city of Tigranakert, all the way down to the ruins of a 5th-century basilica next to an archaeology museum (here’s their article about the experience). The students didn’t love the hike nearly as much as I did as they lagged way behind, and I had to prod them to keep walking even as we all got pricked by tall thistles. Threatening to turn our hike around this minute if they didn’t behave was not an option.
But just the day after that, we had a more triumphant hike in Hunot Canyon, a gorge in Karabakh that mixes lush greenery with Medieval ruins and a waterfall that would be the subject of a million Instagram photos if it were somewhere more famous.
Umbrella Falls looks just like it sounds – a green canopy sheltering a cave where the narrow waterfall overhead creates a liquid beaded curtain that drips into a stream. To cross that stream, you can take your chances on a rickety bridge made of tree branches. The whole scene looks like it belongs someplace tropical, with a kaleidoscopic effect in the greenery that will make people think you filtered the photo.
Seeing students Mher and Maria excitedly drench themselves under the falls while fully clothed will go down as one of my favorite memories from the workshop – I actually told Mher to go back under the falls just I could record it for posterity and share it on Facebook. And that’s when I realized I might not differ much from all the annoying, oversharing Facebook parents on my feed. Which was a frightening thought?
There’s another reason I’ll savor the Karabakh trip: the night before it began I learned that the church where I was baptized in Aleppo, Syria as a 2-year-old had been blown up by anti-government forces. I hit the road with a heavy heart, but the kids and scenery were the perfect therapy.
On the following week’s road trip to Gyumri, in western Armenia, I had a better feel for leading the kids, and perhaps they had a better feel for me too. We covered a lot of ground during a two-day walking tour (see their story here) that included some spectacular 19th-century, black-and-orange stone architecture and entire blocks of homes that are still leveled by the 1988 earthquake.
What the students seemed to enjoy more from that trip was filming and photographing me while getting a straight-razor shave at a 75-year-old barbershop with wisecracking old barbers who roasted me the entire time and vintage décor that any hipster in Brooklyn would envy. The kids wore down the last of my defenses on the drive home, as they got me to belt out “One Way or Another” with them. Who knew that 1978 New York punk was popular with Armenian teens?
When we danced to that song on the final day of class, which coincided with the deadline of our blog launch, it was as much out of relief as joy. We ground out those final days, staying as late as we could until security kicked us out of the building. My eyes were blurry from editing every article and video subtitle while fixing the kids’ English, which often had to be translated from Armenian. My assistant, Elina, was the translator, and she deserved sainthood for doing it.
I can’t place Armenia among my favorite vacations, because it was no vacation – it was work. But no selfish leisure trip, of which I’ve had many, could simulate the emotions I felt when I turned out the classroom lights for the last time, walked outside, and was ambushed with a group hug from about a dozen kids. I don’t have a picture of that moment, but I don’t need one to remember it.
Read about Birthright Armenia.