Traveling in Armenia you'll soon discover that people are friendly and welcoming, and it helps to know someone as you travel around. Having coffee one evening in Yerevan we read about an NGO called Pahapan working to provide safe playgrounds for children in the border villages of Tavush. We were interested in this because we'd raised money for a similar project in Paravaqar a year ago. We contacted the director, who introduced us to the Bishop of Tavush, who connected us with Ter Aram, the priest of St. Hovannes church in Berd, where we were staying for a week.
At Sunday services we met Ter Aram and liked him instantly. His kindness and warmth made us feel at home. The service was beautiful and refreshed our spirits. Ter Aram has a lovely voice and it was a pleasure to hear him sing the liturgy. The choir was wonderful as well, especially the soloist Vartan Tumanyan, who had the voice of an angel. After services Ter Aram invited us to lunch at the mountaintop restaurant overlooking Berd. In a Soviet era building with an amazing view from the terrace, we enjoyed an Armenian feast. We ate luleh kabobs (my favorite) and grilled potatoes along with all the salads, breads, cheese, wine, local lemonade and mineral water you could eat or drink, finished with tiny cups of soorj, or Armenian coffee. Perfect!
Ter Aram suggested an afternoon hike in the mountains surrounding the restaurant. No photo can really do justice to the views of the mountains stretching forever to the horizon, with green valleys tucked in between. We wondered at the ruins of ancient fortress walls and ate wild strawberries so tiny you could scarcely find them but with a flavor that burst in your mouth. We admired wildflowers and rocky spires. Then I asked about the nearby historical sites, which were hard to find much information about.
Soon we were on the road heading for Mayravank, a ruined 12th century monastery. High in the mountains surrounding Berd, the little chapel was restored by local youth and an international youth group. The cross shaped garden in front was full of green and blooming wildflowers. Inside faithful people lit candles as they prayed.
We visited the Berd History Museum, where the director showed us the art and history exhibits describing the region. The museum is undergoing some renovations but is still ready for visitors. The artworks and photos of the historic sites were especially interesting.
Returning to town, we stopped for a view of Tavush Berd, a ruined fortress on a hilltop overlooking the town. It's worth the short hike up to explore and see the sweeping views of verdant mountains stretching out forever.
After a brief rest, Ter Aram took us to the Banaki Kef for Hayk, a young man about to enter into his mandatory army service. The Banaki Kef, or army party, is a local tradition of feasting and dancing to celebrate a man's army service. Army service is both a male right of passage and a necessity in a country that has been living with a campaign of terror perpetrated by its much larger and oil-rich neighbor Azerbaijan for twenty five years.
Hayk's parents went all out for the Banaki Kef. When we arrived the tables were practically groaning under the weight of all the platters of freshly picked vegetables, salads, breads, cheeses, meats, blinchiks, olives, fish, nuts, wine, brandy, soft drinks and more. It looked as if all of Berd had turned out. When we were just about full, the platter of khorovats, or barbecue, appeared and we were urged to eat more! Armenians love to make inspiring toasts full of warmth and friendship. We tried to keep up with the dozens of affectionate toasts guests made to Hayk and his family, but although Armenian brandy is delicious, it's also strong. We were falling behind.
Hayk and his parents went about the room greeting friends and family. At one point his mother was overcome with emotion and had to sit quietly for a few moments to recover. As I looked up I saw Hayk gazing out the window, maybe thinking of the future, while his mother gazed in the opposite direction, her eyes wet with tears.
The men began the dancing, athletic and graceful, but soon in a wild frenzy of lines, circles, spins and interwoven figures. Kissing and hugging Hayk, the other men danced expressively with him one after another. I felt my body wanting to move to the rhythms and beats of the dhol and other traditional instruments, but I'm a clumsy dancer at best, and no other women were dancing yet. Everyone watched and clapped, until finally the women got their turn to dance with Hayk. First his mother danced with him, sweet and melancholy. Then the older ladies, and at last his classmates and the rest of us. Araxie and I joined a circle of women and danced until we were sweating in the summer heat.
Stepping outside into the evening air, Ter Aram found us and said it was time to go. We were a little disappointed, but of course he has three young boys who were probably tired. Instead Ter Aram said we were going to watch the sunset at Norvaragavank, a ruined medieval monastery in the mountains near Berd. We drove up for half an hour on twisting mountain roads until we reached Norvaragavank. The site is lovely as is the remaining church, chapel and cold springs. Once inside, Ter Aram proposed to sing a hymn for us and his beautiful voice echoed within the ancient vault of the church.
Driving back to Berd in the deepening night, we mentioned our interest in the frontline village of Chinari. Ter Aram said it was his home village and that his parents still lived there. We made a plan to visit later in the week.