Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Something Old, Something New

When my friends and family learned I was traveling to Poland, I was repeatedly told to travel to Kraków and not Warsaw. When I asked why, they explained to me that since Warsaw was almost completely rebuilt after WWII, it was not “authentic.”  The word “authenticity” made me wonder: what exactly makes a city authentic?  Is it the people and culture that makes a city authentic, or is it the history exuded by centuries old buildings?  Warsaw and Kraków have an interesting relationship in terms of authenticity. Kraków has roots dating back to the 7th century and was the original capital of Poland. Warsaw, however, dates only back to the 14th century and it wasn’t until 1596 that the city became the new capital of Poland. Seven centuries older than Warsaw, Kraków is also often deemed more “authentic,” because it emerged virtually unscathed from the bombings of WWII. On the other hand, almost 85% of the buildings in Warsaw were razed to the ground towards the end of WWII. However, after WWII an initiative was formed to restore Warsaw’s Old Town (the 17th and 18th century city center) to its original condition. The results were so well done that United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added Old Town to the World Heritage List.1 Today, when you walk across Old Town it is hard to believe that the building are actually less than fifty years old.

Can you tell what is old and what is new?  Guess which pictures were taken in Kraków and which were taken in Warsaw.

1.      Wilson, Neil, Tom Parkinson, and Richard Watkins. Poland. China: Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, 2005.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Wildflowers in Armenia - Traveling to Berdzor

When I first arrived in Armenia I was awestruck by the landscape: mountains, open skies, and field after field of wildflowers that filled the valleys and climbed the slopes. Coming from the forested hills of North Carolina’s Piedmont, I was used to smelling pine and honeysuckle and tasting the random wild blackberry dangling from a vine. Never before had I seen wildflower-covered plains seemingly jut into mountains much higher than my dear Appalachians. My hills have long been tamed into sectioned reserves and carefully cultivated parks. What I found in Armenia was an untamed Eden.

Eden might not be too far from the truth; Armenia is an ancient nation with a rich past. Whenever I travel to a new country, I love to discover the history of the land I am entering. The Bible cites Mt. Ararat, a part of ancient Armenia, as where Noah’s Ark landed after the Great Flood.1 Archeologists have even found cuneiform inscriptions in Yerevan (the capital of modern day Armenia) in 782 B.C., making Yerevan the world’s oldest city with documentation of the exact date of its foundation.2 The Kingdom of Armenia was established around 600 B.C. and extended to parts of modern day Turkey, Syria, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.3 Among other firsts, Armenia became the first official Christian nation in 301 B.C., thirty-six years before Constantine the Great was baptized and ten years before the Roman Empire embraced Christianity.4 Since its establishment, Armenia has been conquered and passed into foreign hands time after time, but again and again the country has reemerged, even surviving monolithic civilizations such as the Roman and Ottoman Empires. Even the name Armenia itself has historical significance: “Ar” stands for “life, light, and God,” and thus the name Armenia literally means “people of God.”5 

However, the past hundred years have not been kind to Armenia. From the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century, to the 7.1 magnitude earthquake in 1980 that leveled the country and killed 25,000, to the Soviet invasion, and most recently, to the war with Azerbaijan over the contested land, Karabakh, the Armenian people understand suffering. This understanding seeps into their day-to-day lives, living in small oft said comments: all Russian products (and there are a lot) are referred to as “Russian trash;” despite being located in Turkey Mt. Ararat is referred as “our Ararat;” and always “Karabakh is a part of Armenia.” While suffering might sound out in the base note, the heart note of Armenia is certainly the people. Tried and true, their abundant generosity knows no bounds.

Although I began my journey in Yerevan, Armenia, I actually spent most of my time outside of Armenia proper, in Nagorno-Karabakh, an area of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the Soviet expulsion in the early 1990s. From 1988 to 1994, this region of the world was shell-shocked with land mines, bombs, and gunshots, leaving more ruins than functional buildings. The town I was in, Berdzor, was so destroyed by the war that it had been easier to move the city center than to clear the rubble that remained. Even today, almost twenty years later, the area still has more bombed buildings than not. Landlocked and surrounded by closed borders with Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan, the nascent nation has more problems than just the ruins it lives in. Throughout Karabakh, the people only have water for fifteen minutes every two days. Even in the modern city of Yerevan, only fifty to sixty percent of the people have water throughout the day. Although the water shortage is an important issue, the people also lack the financial power to rebuild their communities, as the average income of male workers in Karabakh is only hundred dollars a month.

During my time in Armenia and Karabakh, I served with Project Agape, the only aid organization with international connections that serves the Karabakh region. Due to political tensions between Karabakh and Azerbaijan, most international aid organizations refuse to work in Karabakh, lest they risk their relationship with Azerbaijan. Through Project Agape, I mostly did construction work (reroofing houses) but I also had the opportunity to do arts and crafts with kids at the orphanage Project Agape sponsors, and visit some of the potential houses in the community that Project Agape might work on in the future.

On my trip, I was able to interact with the local people and what struck me the most was their generosity. Despite their economic situations, every family we visited wouldn’t let us leave without a sampling of fruit, cookies, or coffee. Although every instance of generosity left me awestruck, there was one experience in particular that will remain with me. Several people who came with me to Armenia this past summer also went last fall, so we visited some of the houses they had worked on the previous year. One of the houses we visited belonged to an elderly woman named Anosh, who lived there with her children and grandchildren. Before construction, her house had been little more than crumbling rocks and mortar with a tattered roof. However, once the team completed the construction work, the house had new mortar, a roof, and floorboards. I had heard that the previous year Anosh had looked so downfallen it was as if she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. I had expected to see a woman scarred from life, but instead I was immediately greeted with a bright toothless smile and a warm hug. She ushered us quickly into the house, giving us snacks and water, smiling and pointing all around the room at the decorations she had added. When we finished the tour of her two-room house, she brought out a beautiful crocheted scarf and walked over to Cailyn (another girl on the trip) and me. Although neither of us had worked on her house, Anosh wanted to express her appreciation by giving us the scarf. Since there were two of us and only one scarf, Anosh gave the scarf to Cailyn but immediately walked over to a vase at the side of the room and pulled out a wildflower to hand to me. Although short on water, Armenia is not deficient in terms of the varieties or numbers of wildflowers that dot the countryside. I had seen countless wildflowers on my journey already, but this wildflower had special meaning to me. It was a gift given freely, reminding me of the Native American proverb that states, “May your life be like a wildflower growing freely in the beauty and joy of each day.”6 At the end of our visit, we left Anosh smiling at the door standing tall with her feet firmly planted, determinedly holding onto her family’s new life.

After I received the wildflower, I quietly filed away the memory of Anosh and focused once more on working. Yet the day before we left Berdzor to return to Yerevan, Anosh walked through the gates of Project Agape, with a small bag in hand. I went up to greet her and she pulled me aside. She couldn’t speak English and I could only speak a little conversational Armenian, but from the determined set of her eyes, I could tell she had come to do something important. She pulled out of her bag a beautiful pink crocheted scarf along with some chocolate. Unsatisfied without giving both of us girls a token of appreciation from her own hands, she had knitted another scarf in only a few days to give to me. Anosh’s gratefulness and generosity, so present in the Armenian people I had interacted with, have inspired me to be more grateful for all I have been given and to give more generously with my time and money to others around me.

After traveling to Armenia, one question remains with me: what is it that attracts us to serve our neighbor and to give with abundant generosity? The closest comparison I can find is that of a wildflower that grows unintentionally and unbidden, just as our service and generosity must be to our neighbors if we want to see our labors come to fruition. From my research prior to arrival, I had already marveled at the historical tapestry that was woven into the land, but what I experienced gave dimension and color to the vision I had created in my mind. Like a wildflower that brightens the field stretching toward the horizon, the people I met and formed relationships with in Armenia colored my time there, forming something more beautiful and genuine than I could have imagined.

1.       Embassy of Armenia to the United States of America, "Discover Armenia." Accessed November 16, 2012. http://www.armeniaemb.org/DiscoverArmenia/History/History.htm.
2.       Tourism Armenia, "Armenian History." Accessed November 16, 2012. http://www.tourismarmenia.net/about-armenia/history.
3.       Armeniapedia, "Armenian History." Accessed November 16, 2012. http://www.armeniapedia.org/index.php?title=Armenian_History.
4.       Wikipedia, "Armenia." Accessed November 16, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenia.
5.       Wikipedia, "Armenian Mythology." Accessed November 16, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_mythology.
6.       Proverbatim, Accessed November 16, 2012. http://www.proverbatim.com/native-american/native-american-may-your-life-be-like-a-wildflower.html.