Stereotypical Trip Turns Into a Complete Cultural Immersion

Posted on July 9, 2010


Ric Gazarian, an entrepreneur in his 30s, was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts.  Having been to all 7 continents and traveled to 70 countries, he had never been to his native Armenia.  In 2003 he felt the need to experience what it is like being in Armenia and asked his father to accompany him.  What started as a “stereotypical trip” turned into annual visits, volunteering and a complete immersion into the native culture.  This year Ric takes the annual visit to his homeland to a next level by participating in a car race during which he will explore unusual routs, meet locals and raise awareness about three charities he works with.

First Visit

Ric Gazarian

“It was a two week vacation,” recollects Ric during our meeting at one of the many Chicago Starbucks Coffee shop.  “We stayed at hotel Ani, the bus picked us up and dropped at Garni, Geghard, Khorvirap.”  They experienced the traditional touristy route: saw the historical temples, ancient churches, were surrounded by the sounds of their native language on a daily basis and enjoyed the organic and delicious food Armenia is famous for. Although Ric remembers the trip as something extraordinary, it was far from the real thing he knew he was missing on.

Immersion into Native Culture

At Ani Plaza Hotel, a stylishly designed high-rise located on Sayat-Nova Street in Yerevan downtown, Ric and his father met a lady who was a USAID consultant for local NGOs.  The idea of coming to Armenia for work truly intrigued Ric.  At that time Ric was part of corporate America and had only 3 weeks of vacation time.  Relying on vacation days to explore a homeland 5466 miles (or 8797 kilometers) afar from the accustomed lifestyle sounds rather insane.   For better or for worse, things at Ric’s place of employment, where he had spent good 5 years, weren’t going exactly well, so he ended up quitting his job.

“I thought this is a once in a life time opportunity,” says Ric with  confidence in his voice.  He found out about The Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC), a non-profit foundation in Armenia which has been placing “motivated and qualified” Diaspora Armenians in Armenia as volunteers since 2000.

Ric applied to AVC, was approved and arrived to Armenia on April 1st of 2004.  And although his arrival coincided with the Fools Day, it seems all his agreements, at least with the volunteering mission, were met.

He was supposed to stay in Armenia for one month and work with Zatik Orphanage.  After the first two weeks, Ric approached the Director of AVC and asked to extend his stay for 2 months.  “I was still getting my feet wet and if I wanted to make a positive change, whether for me or for the orphanage, a month was not going to be significant.  It was simply not enough,” says Ric.  Since then, Ric has been going back to Armenia every year.

Caucasian Challenge

Caucasian Challenge will kick off in August 2010 in Budapest and will end in Yerevan the capital of Armenia. This is an expedition style 16-day trip open to everyone.  Racers will drive through mostly unknown regions in Hungary, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Georgia, Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia.

Ric has been to the majority of these places except for Serbia and Albania. The finish line is in Yerevan where Ric plans to raffle off the car.   The route will take Ric and his partners into the heart of the former (and recent) war or conflict zones of Kosovo, Northern Georgia, and Karabakh.

“It (the trip) is 50% Cannonball and 50% Midnight Express,” explains Ric.  In case this analogy didn’t make sense: Cannonball is a 1978 a comedy, which was based on a real illegal cross-continent road race that took place for a number of years in the United States.  Midnight Express is a 1976 American film based on Billy Hayes‘ book about a young  American student sent to a Turkish prison for trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey.

Racing for a Cause

When the participants enter these places they will not be touring monuments, but rather talking with locals and contributing to grassroots charities.

During the race Ric will be working on raising awareness about three charities he is involved with in Armenia:

Like any vacation the race is self financed, however there are unusual expenses which are rather costly: participants of the race are required to pay an entry fee in the amount of 1600 Euros (a little over 2000 USD), purchase a vehicle for roughly 2000 Euros (about 2500 USD), take care of any additional race related costs like car insurance, spare tires, GPS, accommodations.  The good news for Ric is that participants can have companions.  Ric will take along two friends and will split the expenses in three.   His attempts to find a corporate sponsor have not been successful yet.

This is going to be Ric’s first race and if all goes well, he might look into participating in other similar race challenges in Asia and Africa.  If he happens to reach the finish line first he is looking at earning a free entry to a Rickshaw Challenge in India: yet another fascinating deviation from a routine to explore and discover.

You can learn more about Ric, the race and donate to the charities he is working with by visiting .   Ric will be blogging while he visits all the conflict zones and runs into all sorts of stories.   Stay tuned!

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