Shikahogh, Armenia - Living in Shikahogh village as LCO volunteers has been humbling, slow-paced, and amazingly eye-opening. Every day after working on the church, we enjoy a hearty lunch of green beans, salad, bread, cheese, and a different entrée, followed by a few hours of free time. During this time we hand wash our clothes, take an outdoor shower, play games, do arts and crafts, read, or just watch livestock wander in and out of our yard. But best of all is hanging out with our new friends in the village!
We've played soccer and hung out at swimming holes with local kids, toured family homes and backyard gardens, and befriended veterans who showed us their battle wounds and told us war stories. We've enjoyed the village "discotec" – a simple auditorium with a boom box where around 20 kids go dancing every night at 9pm. LCO volunteer Lori Pogarian said, "At first it was a little awkward, because we were dancing with complete strangers. But the music is really good, everything from Armenian songs to Rihanna, and they're great dancers. Now when we go, we all dance together, even the little eight year-olds! It's really fun!"
One of our most memorable days was going on a three-hour hike in the Shikahogh Forest with our 36 year-old cook, Narine. She showed us three natural springs where villagers come to relax and do khorovats (barbecue), and along the way we filled our bellies with delicious water, blackberries and toots (mulberries). LCO volunteer Anoush Taylor said the hike was really special, because she learned about and connected with her Armenian heritage. "I didn't learn that much about Armenian culture in school or from my parents; it was just from my grandmother, Metzma. Being here I can see how she grew up, and how she aspired to be the wonderful woman she is. I want to be like my Metzma when I grow up, so I really like the village life – living off the land, the gardens, and how everyone works together as a big family."
Along the way, Narine told us sobering stories about her life – how she grew up in the nearby city of Kapan, but came to Shikahogh at age 17 when she got married against her will. She said "it was scary at the time, but I like my husband, he's a good family man who provides for us." Narine pointed at a green meadow in the distance, a three-hour walk from the village, where her husband herds sheep and cattle four months out of the year. She told us that she worries about her children’s future, because there are no jobs in the village, and many people are leaving. She also showed us grassy spots in the hillside, where her mother-in-law hid during the Ngorno Kharabagh war around twenty years ago.
After our hike, Narine invited us all to tea in her home. Lori couldn't believe how beautiful and clean her home was, in typical Armenian style. "Sitting on her deep mustard velvet couches, with lace curtains hung up over all the windows, eating the homemade tea, fig jam and honey she gave us – I could have sat there for 3 days straight!" Narine showed us her huge barn that holds more than twenty cows and sheep, her fruit trees, vegetable garden, and where she bakes lavash bread.
Lori asked Narine if she lives happily in Shikahogh village, and she said yes, she's very happy, because it's a simple life of doing the same things and seeing the same people every day, and everything she does is "from the heart." In that moment, Lori realized, "our lifestyles are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Narine's lifestyle is calming and simple, whereas in America, I get so tired being constantly bombarded with my job, school, and social media. Words can't describe what I'm gaining from these conversations and memories we’re creating."
When asked what she'd like to leave behind in Armenia, Anoush said she hopes to show the villagers that we appreciate their lifestyle. "Even though we aren't living in the village permanently, I hope we show that we as Armenian-Americans care about our culture, our heritage, and about village life - the gyoogh! That's why we came here, to work on restoring a church for the local people, so they have a place where they can come to be spiritual and to pray. If the villagers can see that we care, maybe that will give them hope to stay here and to keep on living this life that's so important to our shared history and culture."
*** You can follow our progress via photos posted in our Flickr Album ***