27 April 2013

Why we're still in Armenia... (Part 1)

“How long have you been living here?” people often ask us.

“Since 2008,” we reply.

After they get over their surprise at our response, and after the predictable series of questions – “Are your parents Armenian?” (they aren’t) and “Was your son born here?” (he wasn’t) – there is one more thing people invariably want to know: “Why Armenia?” At this point, Jarred and I usually look at each other and reply, “It’s a long story…” and we may or may not explain further, depending on how much time we have and whether we feel the person is genuinely interested.

I guess the short version is, quite simply, “We’re here for work.” It’s true we arrived in Yerevan as QSI (Quality Schools International) newbies, and though we spend most days isolated from the “real” Armenia in the English-speaking international school bubble, we have come to appreciate so many things about Armenia itself, its people, and the opportunities we’ve been given in this special place. It’s why we renew our contracts with QSIY year after year.

What is it we love so much about Armenia? While it would be difficult to put into words every moment, every feeling, every kind spirit that has touched us, the next few posts will attempt to answer that very question. None of these things are unique to this country, but because this is the only place we’ve lived outside the United States, they have endeared Armenia to our hearts forever.

The Goodness of Fresh Food

A bread delivery van in Vanadzor

One thing that still strikes me when I’m at work is when I see my Armenian colleagues preparing their lunches. While I’m unzipping my Thermos-brand lunch bag and popping a Tupperware of leftovers into the microwave, they’re peeling and chopping fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbs to make a salad, sometimes with a side of salty local cheese, sliced into little rectangles. Or maybe they’re cooking some buckwheat or boiling eggs or potatoes on the stove. It’s not that my leftovers are bad – Jarred cooks delicious, healthy dinners for us every night. It’s certainly a step up from the frozen meals (organic varieties, but still) we would stockpile for our quick-nuke lunch breaks at work in the US. But why is it that the idea of making my lunch from scratch, right there on the spot, never occurred to me before coming here?

Fortunately, we have managed to eliminate a lot of processed foods from our life, perhaps because there is so little of that here. There just aren’t any TV dinners, canned soups, cake mix, refrigerated cookie dough, microwave popcorn, or instant mashed potatoes (which I never liked, anyway). Sure, you can buy boxes of breakfast cereal and processed cheese products, but they’re not cheap because they’re all imported from Europe or Russia. Occasionally, we’ll buy a couple cans of beans (it’s more convenient than having to soak dry beans overnight and then boil them for hours) or corn (it’s not a major crop here, so rarely is there any available fresh), but at any given moment, you’ll never see more than 4 cans of anything in our pantry. Everything else is fresh from the market or frozen – which usually means we froze it ourselves. Nathan has so little exposure to prepared, packaged foods, he actually asked me one day, “Mom, why are there so many cans in my play kitchen?”

Here’s a typical scenario: we’re on one of our out-of-town adventures, we’ve been on the road for hours, and hunger strikes. There’s not a drive-through, vending machine, or bar-grille in sight. What to do? Depending on what part of the country we’re in and the current season, there are usually a couple of options. If it’s just the munchies, the easiest solution is to keep an eye out for the next village. There’s almost always someone sitting by the highway who has taken the trouble to drag out a few crates of apples, pears, peaches, candied nuts, or other home-grown produce, hoping to make a sale. And it’s always cheap! If you want a full meal, however, you may have to drive a little longer. But in certain regions, notably Lori and Vayots Dzor, and near Lake Sevan, there are quite a few charming roadside restaurants where you can enjoy a feast, prepared to order: fresh bread, lavash, cheese and vegetable plates, khorovats (barbecued meats and vegetables), fresh fish, local honey and sour cream, and more. On top of this, the restaurant usually overlooks some seriously picturesque mountain scenery – no extra charge for the view! You won’t get that at a Cracker Barrel on I-75.

The best souvenirs from a weekend in the countryside.

One of our favorite places to stop is Gntuni, a bakery in the town of Aparan. Buns stuffed with potatoes, mushrooms, cheese, chicken, or sausage; cookies and sweet pastries; hot, flaky khachapouri… I can’t say enough about all the yumminess at that place – and it’s all prepared right before your eyes. In the last few years, this bakery has become so popular, it’s always crowded with people taking a break from a bumpy marshrutka ride, and there’s also a new supermarket attached. Aparan is best known for its bottled water factory – and some cruel jokes about the intelligence level of the locals – but really, its claim to fame ought to be Gntuni.

Gntuni bakery in Aparan (Photo credit: Diane Baima)

From the world's most flavorful tomatoes to mouthwateringly sour spas (yogurt soup) to hot-out-of-the-tonir bread so honest-to-goodness natural that we joke it goes stale after 12 minutes, fresh local food is a major reason we love Armenia.

14 April 2013

Apaga Active Leisure Club

Apaga Active Leisure Club is a resort near the village of Yenokavan in Tavush Region of northern Armenia.  It is particularly popular among members of the international community looking for a mountain retreat because of the quality of accommodations and the fact that it's less than 3 hours from Yerevan by car.

From Yerevan, take the road to Lake Sevan and continue through Dilijan and Ijevan.  Near the north end of Ijevan, take the left turnoff toward the village of Yenokavan, and before you know it, you're approaching a perfectly-situated mountain retreat overlooking a forested valley, the watershed of the Aghstev River.

Apaga Active Leisure Club seen from a distance.

The car parking area is covered, the staff is friendly, and because we stayed during the first week of April, not a busy tourist season, we had the whole resort to ourselves!  Upon check-in, we were given the key to cottage number 5.  Amenities include hardwood floors and stone walls, along with round-the-clock running hot water and electrical outlets for charging our devices.  There was a sitting area with a fireplace, a table for four, a soft double bed plus an extra bed for Nathan, a spacious bathroom with shower, and a balcony.  Each cottage has two stories, so it could have accommodated another family above us.  It felt like a luxurious version of camping.

The only issue with the sitting area is that this is the only chair of its kind.

Some very useful shelving separates the sitting area from the sleeping area.  On the right is the bathroom door.

A view of the balcony from one of the windows.

A neighboring cottage.

All meals are included in the cost of the room.  At mealtimes, we would walk down to the main building where we would find everything ready and waiting for us in the restaurant area: between hearty soups, rice pilaf or potatoes, various salads, fresh herbs, assorted pickled vegetables, and platters of local cheeses, there was no problem accommodating vegetarian travelers!  Adjoining the restaurant is a small greenhouse, so we could see where our food came from.  There is also free Wi-Fi available in and around the main building.

Homemade meals, made from local ingredients, and served family-style.

After lunch, the staff always asked us if we'd like to go horseback riding.  Nathan had his first-ever riding experience on a lovely buckskin named Chanel.  The trainer led them on a gentle 20-minute walk around the property.  He was a bit nervous, but sat well in the saddle and didn't say a word.  When he returned and dismounted, he told us that he was uncomfortable and didn't want to go again.  Oh, well, at least he tried!  Then he stayed behind with Daddy while I had my turn on Chanel.  I followed the trainer on his horse into the forested hills behind the resort, and when we reached some open, grassy areas, we were able to break into a canter, which felt great.  The weather was cool and sunny, just right for an afternoon of trail riding.

Nathan prepares for his first ride.

If horseback riding isn't your thing, you can head to the recreation room on the second floor of the main building for a game of darts, to borrow some sporting equipment for use on the athletic field, or to watch a DVD (there are no TVs in the cottages).  There is also a ping-pong table set up outside next to the building.

It would be fun to come up here to play cards or board games with other guests -- when there are other guests, of course!

And if you don't want to do any of those things, you can just lie back and relax!

The perfect place to enjoy a good book.

Our down time wasn't completely unproductive: Jarred gave Nathan his first lesson in shoe-tying.

Something particularly memorable about our stay was the 24-hour attention we received from the resort's canine residents.  The pack of yellow labs, a St. Bernard, and a couple of large mixed-breed dogs literally followed us everywhere we we went, playing roughly amongst themselves but never harming us.  Nathan is normally afraid of large dogs, but he grew to enjoy their companionship -- we all did!  They were trained not to enter any buildings, but some of them sleept on our front doorstep overnight (which was actually quite comforting).

Good morning!

Playing by the pond...

Whew, I'm thirsty!

Let's go for a hike!

Let's take a rest!

We made it to the top -- woof!

Speaking of animals, we noticed some very interesting species of birds -- and wildflowers -- that we had never seen before, though we certainly couldn't photograph all of them.

White Wagtail

Common Redstart

Can anyone identify any of the pretty little flowers above?

All in all, our stay at Apaga Active Leisure Club was very pleasant, though it would have been more convenient if at least one or two of the staff spoke English (project manager Gayane, who speaks English and communicated with us by email regarding the details of our reservation, was out of town during our time there).  Still, we hope to return, perhaps later in the spring, or in August when Yerevan's late summer heat becomes truly unbearable.  Apaga indeed provides "active leisure" and a refreshing escape from city life...

...both indoors...

...and out!