Last Tuesday was the “Genocide Memorial Day” in Armenia. This day stands in commemoration of the massive number of Armenians murdered at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries amid the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire and the shifting national boundaries, allegiances and nationalist suspicions that went along with the beginnings of WWI . This event still looms large in the Armenian psyche and its full recognition is still a sticking point between Armenia and its neighbors. Naturally, the day of recognition April 24th is a big deal here.
There is a massive remembrance event in Yerevan (the capital) where thousands upon thousands of people rest flowers at the National Genocide memorial. But there also exists numerous regional ceremonies as well. I and a fellow PC volunteer (my boy Scott) thought that it might be more authentic, more worthwhile to take part in our own regional ceremony that takes place every year, 15 miles outside of my city. During the previous 7 months spent living in Gyumri I have driven by this regional genocide memorial many times as I traveled to the neighboring regions, and had listened intently to many stories from locals about, “how wonderful it is on Genocide day when all the locals from Gyumri come together and travel the vast expanse from the city to the memorial by foot talking about memories of relatives lost during those dark days”. The memorial site sits in a high valley in the mountain range that separates my region of Shirak Marz from the neighboring region of Lori.
I awoke that morning to a light dusting of snow on my window sill. The grey hue visible outside and the wind-rattled window panes did not bode well for our trip. As I rolled out of bed and sprinted to engage and hug my heater, I dug down mentally to the depths of myself grasping for the sort of resilience that Peace Corps volunteers are supposedly known for, steeling myself for the difficult day ahead.
How does one dress for such a day? I knew it was going to be cold, and my limited, shamelessly pieced together winter wardrobe meant that if I wanted to ensure my warmth and wellbeing I would look disrespectfully unkempt. But this was an important and somber day… and I have plenty of Business casual clothing in country. Siding with what I assumed to be properly solemn protocol I dressed in slacks and a dress shirt (a layer of long-underwear beneath), but decided to forgo the suit jacket, and grabbed my thin shell of a rain jacket. An umbrella would have been a phenomenal idea, but under these cold conditions, who can blame such a seemingly small mistake.
Mile 0: Approaching the main square I expected to see a huge mass of people all holding flowers, fathers leaning over and sensitively explaining the events to their children, all ready to brave the elements and trudge up to the memorial. Alas, I only saw Scott there waiting for me. As we began walking out of the city we passed one area with many buses lined up and tons of people piling on to make the trip up to the memorial. Our trip just barely underway, Scott and I breezed past with an air of superiority, looking forward to discussing this lazy lack of proper deference for the event with the hundreds of “real” walking mourners we planned to meet on the road ahead. As we exited our city and the sidewalk turned to ice and mud we saw none of the multitude of walkers we had been promised by so many stories and other sources. In fact we saw nothing, except miles of steadily climbing road ahead and ominous grey clouds.
Mile 3: Scott is a trooper. I used to be a trooper, but since my enlistment in the Peace Corps my verve for life has diminished greatly. I’ll admit, that as the first storm cloud broke and snow started blowing upwards in our faces, I realized that walking into the strong wind as we were, this trip was going to be difficult. As passing vehicles began splashing mud all over us and the snow started sticking to the ground and soaking our clothes, I was the first to suggest going back. We were only 3 miles out of the city by then, but hadn’t seen any of the previously promised throngs of people. In fact we hadn’t seen a single other person walking, save for the Sheppard quickly herding his sheep towards shelter. We should have known.
Mile 5: We came across our first known landmark. The little village of Shirak. We had held out hope that the hearty village folk along the way would certainly not be taking buses up the mountain for the activities. These were people chiseled from the hard earth of the Eastern Anatolian Steppe. As we passed walked through the village, we asked a few of these “hearty” folks how far the memorial site was. In classic Armenian fashion we received answers ranging from 30 kilometers downwards to 4 kilometers. We, being woven of optimistic fiber (one has to be to sign up for this gig) chose to believe the 4 kilometer guy. He was wrong.
Mile 7: As we started ascending the mountain the weather turned angry. I suppose it didn’t so much “turn” angry, more that we were just walking directly up a mountain into a pretty crazy pass where a storm was raging. As we crossed the snow line we came across three young kids and asked them how far the memorial was. Immediately they suggested that we allow them to accompany and show us. Scott saw it as nice gesture, being that they were likewise underdressed for such a harrowing journey, I on the other hand thought they might just be waiting for us to freeze to death so that they would be well positioned to take our wallets. Scott accepted willingly, I less so, our spirits buoyed for a second push. As the slope increased and the pain in my legs began to stem more from the build up of lactic acid than the freezing cold, visibility dropped and I began loosing faith in our chances of success/survival. I started cursing the fact that these local kids had come along. With them in toe there was no way that we could use our better judgement and turn back now. We were here representing America Damn It, and American Don’t Quit! I suppose they were thinking the same thing about their representation of the motherland also. Ah… how nationalism can turn men into utter fools.
Mile 11: The storm did not let up, in fact it got worse as the snow turned to hail. Not willing to fully let down my country, I began working for a compromise. I suggested that we try and flag down a bus, a common enough occurrence in Armenia. For some reason, maybe the visibility, maybe because people couldn’t believe that there would actually be pedestrians in these mountains, none of the buses would stop for us. It was absolutely ridiculous. There were tons of buses passing us filled with mourners going to the exact same place that we were. I saw numerous open seats through the fogged up windows. As we took turns running out into the road to flag down buses, every one just swerved and avoided us, splashing a healthy dose of mud and ice all over our frozen bodies. I learned a few new Armenian curse words that day. Finally, in exasperation we decided to have a rest on a roadside barricade (see above picture, that’s me in the back). The rest was risky, not so much because of the cold, as most of us had lost feeling in all our extremities, but I could tell that we were all looking around Donner-Party style for who looked the weakest/tastiest.
Mile 13: After leaving the road to take a straight shot up the mountain (as opposed to the switchbacks that the heartless drivers of the buses were using) we crested a ridge and saw our prize. I remembered it being bigger, better, more worth it.
Mile 14: We arrived just in time to see everyone filing away from the memorial site. The ceremony had just ended. I suppose it was a fitting end to our journey. As I turned to head towards the buses all heading back to Gyumri free-of-charge, Scott inquired as to where I was going. I told him the buses. He suggested that we go back by foot, “after-all it’s all down hill now.” Did I mention that my boy Scott is an idiot sometimes.