WHY I WENT TO ARMENIA
by Tom Cavanagh

Sherbrooke Record (Quebec)
August 31, 2009 Monday

My family has never been keen about my overseas projects and the
latest one to Armenia was no exception. I'm getting older, my health
is not as great as it used to be, and Armenia is a place with new and
different challenges in about every sense imaginable. It borders Iran,
Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan which says quite a bit in itself. I
will need a translator and there is no guarantee about conditions and
amenities in Armenia. Yet they chose me, and as I said to my wife,
this will probably be my last one. Probably. Her reply: "Now where
have I heard that before?"

Well, for those who can recall that wonderful children's classic The
Wind in the Willows, Mr. Toad of Toad Hall - and Mole, Badger and
the others also had periodic urges to break away from the sameness
and routines of life. "Let us away to a life of Adventure in faraway
places," Mr. Toad might cry - or something like that. Let us drink to
opportunities for discovery and change. The chances do not come often
and once gone they can never be taken back. Like Badger and Mole,
Toad never followed his dream but he was great at rhapsodizing.

Those who never experienced The Wind in the Willows may remember
comparable thoughts expressed in a more nuanced manner by poet's like
Robert Frost whose famous work "The Road Not Taken" ends with these
three lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I apologize for such a roundabout route to explain why I chose
to go to Armenia on a CESO (Canadian Executive Services Overseas)
project. It was a chance to break away from the quotidian, it was a
short assignment, it looked fairly straightforward, and I had always
wished to visit that part of the world. But like every project I have
been on, there were difficulties. There are always problems - and
sometimes they are incredibly huge. I used to think it was a matter of
bad luck but there is more to it than that. I now finally accept that
serious difficulties are part and parcel of overseas work. Something
will go wrong. If it was a straightforward and problem-free issue,
the requesting country would probably never have contacted CESO in
the first place.

When I arrived at Gugark Summer Camp in Armenia two plus weeks
ago there were over 200 campers ranging in age from about seven
to sixteen. During my few weeks there, the camp was winding down
operations and in just a few more days (August 31) the 2009 Summer
Camp operations will be finished.

Armenians are a friendly people and there were waves of young
campers periodically climbing onto departing trains or buses during
my visit. Campers came for various lengths of time - two weeks,
one month, two months. Hugs and kisses are the order of the day when
the time comes to say goodbye. Even a few tears were in evidence as
campers bade farewell to old friends and new, and to the unexpected
late arrival, Mr. Tom (that's me). On Sunday morning last, before the
remaining one hundred or so campers lined up at attention with their
hands on their hearts, I raised the flag myself at morning assembly
with the national anthem blasting out behind me. Then a few words
of salutation and goodbye (translated into Armenian), followed by
singing and dancing which is an essential characteristic of Armenian
society. Finally I am in the car and away to the capital city and
my flight home. The sun sparkles brightly as we pass through the
forested canyons, crowded happy memories fill my mind - and all's
right with the world. A memorable two weeks which came and went too
quickly. They always do. And I am so glad I came.

There is one relativity new reason for turning down the other road -
the one not taken - the one with the better claim "because it was
grassy and wanted wear." When I was very young, I loved going to
our local library and looking up stories of exploration. I was even
frustrated that just about every place in the world had already been
discovered and explored. How unfortunate I had not been born in an
earlier time I used to think (in the forties no one - at least no one I
ever encountered - dreamt of exploring the moon and outer space). But
there were always those magical names of places that someday I might
visit myself. There actually was a song titled Far Away Places With
Strange Sounding Names. One brief quote from a childhood song for
those readers who have stayed with me this far.

"Goin'to China, or maybe Siam I want to see for myself Those far
away places I've been readin' about in a book that I took from the
shelf. I start getting restless whenever I hear the whistling of
a train, I pray for the day I can get underway and look for those
castles in Spain ... "

Well, that partially explains why traveling to foreign lands is
something I cannot resist. But I did mention an additional more recent
reason that has come into my life: retirement and aging. I could
extrapolate on and on about these items, but there is a simpler and
shorter way to do so. I turn to another writer, Henry James, who in
just a few words explains it all. In his later years he volunteered
to raise money and visit and talk to wounded soldiers during World
War I. When asked, he said it made him feel less irrelevant, "less
finished and doddering when I go on certain days and try to pull the
conversational cart up the hill for them." Finished and doddering
are not admirable qualities. But making an effort to avoid them is
in order. It is worth the effort. I helped no wounded soldiers but
there was the sense of involvement - the bringing of your gift.

What was I actually doing in Armenia? A subject for another article.