From Armenia with Love

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hey Everyone,
Sorry for not writing in awhile, I have been swamped with projects and some other busy work. Over the past week or so I have been periodically cleaning out another volunteers’ house. He was medically evacuated over a month ago for stomach problems, but he didn’t recover completely during his stay in the States. So Peace Corps did not allow him to return. I’ve heard from many people that if you get sent to the hospital Peace Corps’ uses near D.C. for stomach problems you are most likely not returning to your host country. This is due to the fact that Peace Corps usually gives volunteers 30 to 45 days in America to recover, yet to get rid of many stomach ailments it usually takes 6-months to be sure your stomach is healthy.
In Armenia, and probably most of the countries that Peace Corps is located in, volunteers are constantly battling stomach problems. In Armenia the biggest problem for us is giardia, a nasty parasite that reproduces in our small intestine. I have had a couple horrific days of stomach problem, but I haven’t been lucky enough to get giardia so far. One of my friends, a fellow A-16 (since we are the 16thgroup of volunteers to come to Armenia (‘A’), starting in 1992 till now, 16 years of volunteers helping Armenia), had giardia and he look deathly ill after having it for 2 days. His face was stark white and he looked like he was now only made up of 60% water, before he was a fairly big guy from Wisconsin. I think he is better now, but I’ve been told everyone gets giardia during their tour in Armenia.
Anyways, upon hearing the news that the fellow volunteer was not returning I knew the task of cleaning up his apartment would fall on my shoulders. His house was full with an overwhelming amount of stuff. There have been several volunteers who have lived at my permanent site over the years, so their things have accumulated here. There were spices, jars of peanut butter, candy, notebooks, winter clothing, dozens of books, electronics equipment, board games, water guns, a Christmas tree and stockings, dradles for Chanukah, groggers for Purim and hundreds of DVDs; pretty much a Peace Corps volunteers dream come true.
Although I removed over 30 boxes of trash, personal belongings, and just random stuff, I am very happy to have such a stockpile of things. Not only have I filled up every nook and cranny of my apartment with the former Peace Corps volunteers’ things, but I have 15 more boxes stored in the building where my family’s old cheese factory is located.
However the best part of having helped clean his old apartment was seeing the confrontation when the Peace Corps staff came up to my site to settle the paperwork with the landlady who owns the place. It was quite a show and I saw just how good Armenians are at the bargaining table. Although I had spent around 20 hours cleaning, removing, and organizing the stuff in the apartment; the apartment was still not in tip-top shape by any means. There were a couple of broken chairs, which were reportedly broken before the Peace Corps volunteer moved in, and there were some other problems with the place. The landlady was not pleased to say the least.
At my site I have been told by many Armenians this particular landlady is not the most, how should I say this, well I guess tactful person in the world. Many of the people in my town aren’t exactly good friends with her. I don’t know whether this is due to the universal ‘tenet-owner’ relationship or because this lady truly is not the friendliest person in the world. Anyways the whole time she was negotiating with the Peace Corps staff she would bring up rather trivial things like the stove not being in perfect condition or the floor not being swept in the corners. I couldn’t help but smile a couple of times. The Peace Corps offered her an additional $30 USD (10,000AMD), just to hire a maid to clean up the place, but originally she said it was not enough. In reality, $30 US dollars still goes a long, long way in Armenia, especially outside of Yerevan the capital. I’m not trying to say that Peace Corps can just swoop in, throw money around and clean up messes created by former volunteers, because they truly don’t do that. Peace Corps made her a more than reasonable offer and she refused. The same thing would happen in the US or Europe when somebody moves out of an apartment. Finally, she agreed to the clean-up price and I thought that was that.
The next day the landlady’s mother and the cleaning lady came to my house and demanded more money. The amount Peace Corps paid to clean the house was more than enough, but she wanted more. She brought a huge bag of cleaning supplies over to my house and told me I had to pay for them and only then she would clean the apartment. I told her that she had agreed with Peace Corps the day before on the price to clean the former PCV’s apartment. I knew she was just going to pocket the money, return the cleaning supplies, and smile.
At first the landlady’s mom was very amicable, trying calmly to posit her argument and get what she wanted. Once she realized I was holding my ground her calm demeanor quickly changes. The landlady’s mom began to lay into me saying that I should pay her more and that she was going to go to the police if I didn’t. Then, out came the infantry. My host mom and two other ladies from my apartment building came out and laid into the landlady’s mom. I was very grateful for their help and I am glad that I have tried hard to make good relationships with many of the people in my apartment building. Then, the land lady threw the key into my host mom’s pocket and said “we don’t want the apartment.” It was quite the scene and a good learning experience for me.
Many times similar types of situations have happened to me. Never has anyone become enraged with me, yet several times people have tried to get more money out of me. Whether I’m trying to catch a cab or take kids to the marze peteran (regional capital) for FLEX testing, many times people have tried to rip me off. Sometimes it really does ware me. Inside I feel like I am trying to help, trying to make life just a little bit better for the people of Armenia, but then someone raises the price of an already agreed upon sum. I really try to help everyone, but sometimes it’s not appreciated or it’s taken for granted.
That is one of the biggest problems I see with Armenia. I feel like the Armenian government and many of the people I have met in Yerevan are really trying to make Armenia more self-sufficient, but Armenia had it so good under Soviet times. And now half of Armenia’s population doesn’t need to work a day in their life, because the amount of remittances coming into Armenia from abroad. Many economists’ believe more money comes into Armenia from abroad then actually is produced in Armenia every year. Although there are pockets of extremely motivated people in the marzes, or more rural areas, the vast majority of these motivated people are goaded into the cities or abroad by the complacency of the rural areas. Although this is probably true in any nation, the sluggish way of life seems somewhat worse here. With the amount of money coming in from abroad and the nostalgia for Soviet times many of the people are content with the current standard of living and are unwilling to change.
I guess that is where my job comes in. The Armenian people are extremely intelligent and have an amazing history of great achievements, but they spend too much time resting on their laurels. Although the geopolitical situation Armenia finds itself in is not a particularly advantageous one, to be a bit sarcastic, the country has the potential to become extremely successful and I feel somewhat wealthy in the next 20 to 30 years. I feel Armenia’s main assets are its people and its geographic size. Overall the Armenian people are incredibly smart and can be extremely driven. Although complacency is now ingrained into the being of many Armenians the potential for a better and more comfortable life is extremely persuasive.
Soon, by next spring, Armenia is supposed to have nationwide, high-speed, wireless internet, one obvious benefit of having a geographically small nation. Armenia can adapt quickly to most modern advances in technology if it so chooses. Although its infrastructure, roads, water supply, and utilities, continue to decay since the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia’s ability to surpass other nation in terms of technological availability should be a strong point. Now the availability of computers, laptops, and other essentials needed to tap into wireless internet is very limited in the marzes. Yet, as the nationwide, wireless internet comes online people’s want for easy internet access will be followed by a huge boom in computer sales. Now computers are extremely expensive, as are most high-end items imported from abroad, but soon the oligarch who controls computer imports will have to give in to rising demand and lower the prices on these commodities.
Other news last week was another exciting weekend or day in Yerevan. Another Peace Corps volunteer, named Sarah, and I rode together on a marshutka/mini-bus to a city near Lake Sevan. Before getting on the bus to leave a man in my town came up to talk to us. His first question was the usual asking if we were married or not. I said no and said that she was my co-worker, or gortz-anker. Then this random guy said that he wanted to talk to me alone. It took me a second, but I finally figured out why, he wanted to see how much Sarah, my volunteer friend, cost. By the time I realized what he was talking about, Sarah was already giving him her two cents, in Armenian, telling him how shameful he was and if he would ask the same question to a random Armenian girl. Since we were at the bus stop near the center of town the scene was quite dramatic and the guy scurried off hoping to avoid any further confrontation. That was definitely the first time in my life I was mistaken for pimp and hopefully the last.
After that little incident we got on our bus and waited for an hour and a half. Finally the two people we were waiting on finally showed up and we were off. On Friday night it was me and 6 female Peace Corps volunteers. We had a great time, but I felt overwhelmed with all these ladies. Throughout my life I have had few female friends, I usually preferred hanging out with guys, I guess because I had more in common with them. I also have always been a bit shy around the ladies. Yet for some reason over the past, say… 4 or 5 years I have made a lot of really good friends who are female and I guess it is carrying over in the Peace Corps.
Early Saturday morning we went into Yerevan for initiative meetings. Initiatives are projects, other than our primary project that Peace Corps assigns to us, where we work with other Peace Corps volunteers. They are generally a fun time for us, since we get to hang out with all of our other Peace Corps friends in Yerevan, but also these initiatives can accomplish a lot of positive things. There are 4 initiatives that Peace Corps Armenia currently has and they are GAD (Gender Awareness Development), IT, PR (Public Relations), and Environmental Education. So each initiative comes up with new projects to help the people of Armenia or to provide peer-support amongst volunteers. Things that have been done in the past include: setting up a computer repair center in order to keep the few computers in the marzes (rural areas) up and running, creating a PR campaign of T.V. ads to help educated Armenians about environmental problems in their country, and running BRO and GLOW camps, which educate adolescent boys and girls about everything from career options and goal setting to gender relations and safe dating habits.
Overall the trip was both fun and rewarding. Although I came back with a fuller plate than before, I am happy to have the work. Right now I am juggling 6 projects and sometimes they seem to be too much. I have been neglecting my language learning, but yesterday I had a lesson with one of my tutors. During training Peace Corps’ continuously says focus on language and integrating into your community the first years and then the second year you can work on the development of your projects. The problem is that some of the projects I hope to do are fairly complex and they will take a year or two to just see though to fruition.
Although I wish to continue typing all night it is currently 1:50 in the morning and I have to wake up early tomorrow. About two hours ago I had a delicious cup of Gevalia coffee, thanks to Holly, but now I am having a bit of trouble going to sleep. I miss everyone so much back home and every time I think of my friends back home I think of how much more time I should have spent with them before leaving for Armenia. I value my friends so much, but sometimes I feel that I don’t express to them their true worth. I love you all; all of my friends and family and thank you so much for the continued support. Although most of the time I am consumed by a flurry of tasks and work, when I sit down to write this blog my homesickness and need for wonderful people in my life becomes apparent. I do feel like I am doing great things here in Armenia, but if I wasn’t I might have second thoughts about staying here for 2 years of my life.
Tuesday, September 30th, 2008
The weather here is starting to change and everyone seems to be scurrying around to prepare for the winter. I see stacks and stacks of firewood outside of everyone’s house. Most people in my town use firewood for heating purposes since the forest is nearby; even though deforestation is a major problem in Armenia. Some people burn the hay they collected during the summer months in the field, while others burn animal dung. All throughout the summer the villagers in my PST (Pre-Service training) village prepared the dung. They did so in a similar way to how we lay concrete in the USA. First, the villager would cordon of a relatively big and flat piece of land. Next, they poured and dumped tons and tons of cow poop in this flat area. Then, they graded the cow poop so that it would be flat and level. After that it was nature’s turn to help out in the act as the sun baked the cow poop into hard sheet. Finally, the villagers cut the huge slab of cow poop into small bricks, which they stacked underneath their house. Obviously, I haven’t been in a house that burns cow poop during the winter, but I’ve heard they are not the best smelling places in the world and the amount of carcinogens in the air can’t be healthy.
Today one of my PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) friends, Jay, texted my cell phone telling me that his town, near Lake Sevan, received their first snow of the year. It is not even October and it is snowing. I am very fortunate since my village is at a lower elevation and the climate is more temperate in general, but still I haven’t lived through a cold winter since I was two years old when I lived in Iowa. I am as prepared as a Georgian can be prepared for winter in the Caucuses; I just hope its good enough.
On Sunday night the 28th of September we had a great time and a bit of a party at my host family’s house. About three months ago my host family went to a big wedding in Yerevan and now the bride and groom had to come and visit our house. Also, the newly married couple is about to leave for America to work for a couple years. Both of them were very intelligent people and both were at least trilingual.
At almost every party in Armenia we watch a wedding video and this party was no different. Although at this party it made more sense to watch a wedding video, the fact that Armenians are always watching weddings shows the importance they place on the institution of marriage whether the couple is religious or not. Their wedding was definitely the biggest wedding I have seen so far, since most weddings I have been to are village weddings.
Initially all Armenian weddings start off the same, but dependent on where the weddings takes place the order and location of the wedding ceremonies can vary drastically. First, in all Armenian weddings that I have witnessed so far, the grooms immediate family goes over to the bride’s family’s house, so that all of the family members get acquainted with each other. This initial step of the wedding process usually last anywhere from 1 to 3 hours. After this the two families together with all of the bride’s belongings go to the location of the actual wedding. In villages this generally occurs at the groom’s house or a small conference like hall, but this couple’s wedding was in Yerevan. So, the caravan of people headed for one of the four major churches in Yerevan. At, the church they had a short ceremony. At the end of the liturgy of this ceremony the priest put a king’s crown on the groom and a queen’s crown on the bride. Next, they walked outside, similar to what we do in the U.S., but the bride and the groom each released a dove, which I thought was not only beautiful, but also a good idea.
After the religious part of the ceremony it was off to a wedding hall type place. At this location the whole entourage ate, danced, and socialized. There was a lot of dancing and another thing that I thought was interesting, the tamadaran (or toast-master/ mike man), forced the people at the wedding to have a dancing competition. Each table had to produce one couple to enter the dancing competition. I thought this was a cool way to get everybody involved, plus every table was cheering for their respective couple. The atmosphere was great.
What differs in a village wedding is that usually wedding halls, or venues to have the weddings at, do not exist. So the wedding takes place at the groom’s house. Also, the two village weddings I have been to have no religious component whatsoever. The families just intermingle, talk and everyone has a good time. In addition, at the wedding in Yerevan the bride wore a beautiful white gown similar to the ones you see in America; whereas in the villages the bride’s wear nicer clothes than normal, but I have never seen them wear an actual wedding gown.
Another unique thing that occurs at ultra-traditional/village weddings is the gift that all attendees bring- apples. This is where the story gets a little PG-13/R so yerekaner(children) please stop reading. Each attendee brings an apple dependent on what color they think the newly married couple’s bed sheets will be the next morning and sometimes the groom’s mom hangs up the sheets outside for the whole village to see. If the people think the bride is a virgin they bring red apples, not a virgin green apples. Since Armenians are spread out all over the world there is even a system of sending this traditional wedding gift via internet. Similar to sending electronic Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, or birthday cards; Armenians send green and or red apples cards via the internet, a modern way to keep this ancient tradition alive.
My family always seems to like having parties on the nights when I have to go to work the next day. We were up till about 2 o’clock in the morning having a good time, watching the wedding video, and as always doing some Armenian dancing (khomp/ amjuit). They all love to watch the American dance and I don’t disappoint. This party was a little bit better since there were other people dancing with me. Oftentimes, they convince me to dance with someone and then everyone sits down and I am left dancing by my lonely self. Hey, if I can provide a little entertainment at the party then I am down with that job.
On Mondays I have started going to a neighboring village which is a little bit bigger than mine. My village/town has about 5,500 people, whereas this other village has about 7,000 people. Anyways at this neighboring village there is an art school for college age girls and guys, but mostly girls. They sew, weave, use Adobe Photoshop, paint, sketch, and do other artsy things. The studio is beautiful and full of artwork and it reminds me of going to Lamar Dodd at UGA, which I guess is no longer an art school. When I go to the neighboring village I have language lessons for the students there, many of them are almost conversational in English and have a fairly large vocabulary, which makes communicating with them a lot easier than communicating with the average Armenian.
Yesterday, the 29th of September, was one of the guy’s birthdays at the art school, so of course we had to have a little celebration. They had brought a jug of homemade wine and it was delicious to say least, but I had to go to my counterpart’s house after the art school. My counterpart is the lady at the school who I work with, she has 3 kids and her husband runs the largest bakery in my town. So every Monday after school I have a busy schedule. First, I run home and having a language lesson with my tutor, and then I collect my English lesson materials for the art school, spend 3 hours at the art school, and then go to my counterpart’s house to do lesson planning and help her kids with English. Usually I get home around 11 o’clock extremely tired, but content with the busyness of my day. It is also a great way to start the week off, not become lazy after a relaxing weekend.
Today, it was colder than it’s been since I have arrived in Armenia and here in my town we are currently living in the clouds. The visibility this morning might have been 5 meters; I couldn’t even see the apartment building right outside the window in our family room. The humidity has to be 100% and a heavy mist to a light rain is continuous. Off the main roads the ground is extremely muddy and on the steep hills roads are impassable to a normal car, but most of the 4 wheel drive vehicles here can handle them without a problem.
Near my village they are beginning to lay new internet lines, so early in the morning and late at night we usually can get internet, but once they start working we have no internet. It is quite a pain in the rear, since I am trying to finish a passport project for the 8th graders and I still need to pull off about 20 more image until the project is finished. I have the entire thing translated in Armenian, a girl her in my town did most of the translating. She finished college, but couldn’t find a job in Yerevan so now she’s back here. She doesn’t have a job, but she is always willing to help me out. I think she wants more out of our relationship, but I don’t. She even said I look like Brad Pitt as well as most nights she text-messages me wishing me sweet dreams. It is definitely flattering, even though I don’t look anything like Brad Pitt. Another problem is that she always wants to be seen with me around town. This is not good for me, since many of the Armenian men, especially outside of Yerevan are extremely protective of their women. So I try to avoid being seen with her public since I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression. Although this entire anecdote might seem silly to western readers, the risks I take being seen walking around with unmarried Armenian women are real. Although I doubt any physical harm would become me, since I have a good reputation amongst most the people in my town, yet the possibility of being ostracized and thus my ability to make substantive changes in my community will be jeopardized.
That’s about it from Armenian. I am doing well here; all of the bad news seems to be coming from the States. Not only are our financial markets facing the biggest crisis since 1987 or maybe the Great Depression, but also an even more distressing thing is that my Bulldawgs lost big last weekend to Alabama.
I just hope the private programs set up to help the lower class in America don’t take too big of a hit. I feel our government entitlement plans will be fine, but I worry about the level of donations that will come into private assistance programs, most specifically I am thinking about Family Promise. Family Promise is a great program that my church near Atlanta is part of and it help homeless families get back on their feet, while providing them with job training, resource centers, free housing, and personal finance skills. I just hope Mr. Cioffi and the rest of the Family Promise board have raised enough money and know of enough donors to keep Family Promise fully operational.


Remember this blog is a reflection of my own personal thoughts and reflections and in no way represents the views of the Peace Corps or the United States' government.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008
Well it has been another fun and exciting week here in Armenia and I am definitely looking forward to this weekend. Coming up on Saturday my school director is taking me to Yerevan for a little bit of work and then we are going to watch the Armenia vs. Turkey soccer match. This is the first time the Turkish national soccer team will come to Armenia for a match; also some 15,000 Turkish fans as well as the Turkish foreign minister might attend the game. Considering the historical relations between these two peoples this game could turn out to be very eventful, but I am just hoping to see a good match played in Armenia.
This past week has also been filled with some fun experiences that I hope I never forget. Last Friday I went on an excursion or field trip with some of the kids from my school. All of the teachers at the school seem to be including me in as many activities as possible and I am definitely thankful for that. Every year, before the school year starts, the grade that is the equivalent to high school Juniors in the U.S. go on a fun excursion of Armenia. Many of these kids have never left our town or the only place they’ve been to in Armenia is Yerevan.
I was definitely excited about the trip, but for the first 4-5 hours of the day was horrific. First, off we had to be at the school by 4:45 in the morning so we would be able to see all of the sites that were on our itinerary. Walking to the school in the pitch black was quite the experience in itself. I was carrying my notebook and an entirely too large sack lunch, my host mom prepared for me. My cell phone provided the guiding light I needed to traverse and uncertain path. The route I take to the school is iffy during the day, I go through the back of a couple of lots in town, but it cuts about ten minutes off of my walk. On the way through the dark, uneven path I realized one of the gates was locked. Not having enough time to back track, so I had to jump the gate which was surprisingly easy for a person as uncoordinated as I.
The kids were, as expected, lively about their big trip which they only have once throughout their time in school. On the other hand I was quite tired from the night before and my stomach was a mess. My host mother had made some chicken soup 3 days before and hadn’t kept it in the refrigerator. About 30 km into the trip my stomach started doing somersaults that would challenge the Gym Dawgs in difficulty. Three times during the trip I had to run out of the bus and at first I had no toilet paper. This was definitely not a good way to get acquainted with the children I am teaching now. Of course there were no bathrooms at any of the sites either. To say the least it was a learning experience.
Other than the start, the day was a good way to get to know some of the kids and see some of the most beautiful and historic areas of Armenia. The first stop of the tirp was outside of Aparan, a fairly developed city in Western Armenia. At this location there is a huge memorial dedicated to the cataclysmic events that shaped Armenia’s 20th century. One area was dedicated to the atrocities committed against the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915, the second was memorializing the end of the Great War in 1918, and the last was a tribute to the Armenians who fought for the Red Army during World War II. There was another memorial nearby commemorating the general who stopped the Ottoman Army outside of Aparan. His name was Dro, and is considered to be one of the great leaders of modern Armenian history. He gathered men from all of the villages around Aparan and led the Armenian’s into the Battle of Bashaparan in 1918. In Turkish, Bashaparan means the “the Head of Aparan”, or the main part of Aparan. I’ve been told that if the Ottoman Army had succeeded in conquering the Armenians at Aparan the entire heartland of Armenia, including Yerevan, would have been easily accessible to Ottoman artillery fire.
After the Ottoman army failed to gain ground in Aparan they swept south trying to flank Yerevan from another direction. It was at Sardarapat, south of Yerevan, that the Armenians finally stopped Turkish advances from May 22-26, 1918. Two days later on May 28, 1918 Armenia declared its independence, for the first time in modern history. Armenian’s also celebrates Independence Day on September 21, when Armenia gained its independence for the second time in the 20th century, this time from the Soviet Union.
September 8th, 2008
Sorry for not publishing and finishing the last post earlier, but it has been very busy here at my permanent site. First, I’ll get back to my first excursion story and then I’ll recount the rest of the events of the past week.
After, Aparan we headed further south in the direction of Echmiadzin. First, we had a quick stop at a field on the side of the highway that was filled with giant stone sculptures in the shapes of the letters in the Armenian alphabet. Each letter was about 6 feet tall and I believe all 39 letters of the current Armenian alphabet were in the field. There were also two statues of Saint Mesrop Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet. He originally invented the unique alphabet in 405 A.D. (C.E.) with only 36 letters, but over the centuries 3 additional letters have been added to accommodate for sounds not native to the Armenian language or to simplify common diphthong letter combinations.
After leaving the field we turned north toward Mount Aragats, the highest peak within the territory of the Republic of Armenia. We past a modern weather station near the town of Amberd, and then we started heading straight up the slopes of Aragats. The scenery quickly becomes very desolate and the landscape is covered by large stones. As our bus drove closer to the top of the mountain the conditions of the road promptly deteriorated and to our left a 500 meter steep valley/canyon dominated the view. Our driver was extremely careful with a bus load of precious cargo.
On the drive up to the top of the mountain I also encountered a very strange community and one that was different from any I had seen in Armenia. These people I later found out were Yezdis, a nomadic group who live off the land and make a living off of cattle breeding. Their community was setup with a couple of huge white tents. Around those tents they had built large temporary pens for their livestock and the women, children, and older people were working around the tents. The men were riding horses and tending to their herds. I couldn’t believe that people could actually live that high up on the mountain, but every day the men take their herds down the steep switch-backs that dangerously descend down the valley. The must do this to get to the little grass that exists in the area.
The Yezdi’s only live this high up on Aragats during the warmer months of the year, since this part of Aragats becomes inhabitable during the winter. Later on they return to their more permanent villages close to the base of Aragats. Even in August, when I was there the weather was extremely cold, compared to the rest of the country. I was definitely not prepared for the weather that was comparable to Atlanta in the depths of winter.
When we finally reached our destination near the top of Ararat I was feeling better and ready to have more fun with the kids. We stopped at Kari Leech, or Stone Lake, the highest lake in all of Armenia. At the lake there was a scientific research center from the Soviet era that is no longer in use and a small restaurant for the tourists who come to the site. There were quite a few tourists there from all over Eastern Europe and Armenia. Mostly Russians, but also Czechs, Poles, and Georgians, well those were the ones I met. Throughout the whole day we saw them since we visited most of the same sites as them.
After Lake Kari we headed back down the mountain and to a historic fort and monastery. The fort’s name has slipped my mind, but it was beautiful and built at the beginning of the 13th century. The fort is situated near the edge of two huge cliffs formed by the intersection of two ancient rivers. The forts walls were a good 3 meters thick and the main wall was about 25 meters high (80 feet). Next to the ancient fort was a relatively new church that still functions every Sunday.
At this site we unpacked all of the food we had brought for the day and ate lunch. The site had a restaurant with large picnic tables reserved for tourist, but I’ve learned any amenity at a tourist attraction is open game for native Armenians to use for free. We took over the small restaurant area and ate boiled eggs, pre-cooked kebabs, corn, cheese, bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelon. It was quite I feast, but I only partially took part since I was still unsure of how exactly my stomach would react.
After eating lunch we headed for Byuriakan, where Armenia’s astraghaditaran, or observatory, is located. I was told during Soviet times every republic that was part of the USSR received an observatory from Moscow. Armenia’s observatory is one of the few that is still working and the facilities are fairly nice with a hotel, a banquet hall, and orchards of various fruits surround the entire compound. The man that gave us our tour and runs the day to day operations of the center was a very interesting gentleman. He was probably 60 years old, spoke flawless English, and had travelled all over the world visiting observatories. He invited me back and I’ll surely take him up on the offer.
After Byuriakan the day was starting to drag on. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon and we had met at the school around 4:45 in the morning. We drove through the town of Vostekaz, if I remember correctly, where storks had built nest on a couple of the utility poles. When I studied in Croatia in 2006 I had seen storks for the first time and I was lucky enough to see them again, they are such beautiful creatures.
Next, we went to visit the grave of Mesrop Mashtots and the surrounding compound. The church where he is buried was built in the 19th century, whereas Mesrop Mashtot’s died in the 5th century, nevertheless the church still claims it is the official resting spot of St. Mashtots. The church was beautiful, but outside in the courtyard was the real gem in my opinion. There were khachkars, or cross-stones, of every letter in the alphabet. Although Armenia you see khachkars all over the place these were quite unique. Along with the letter, carved into the stone so eloquently, there was also a picture carved into the stone. The first letter in the name of the picture was the letter of that particular khachkar. It is like those signs we have in classrooms in the U.S. that say a= apple, b=bear, and so on, but these things were made of huge stones.
That turned out to be our last stop on the trip, but it was around 7 p.m. and we still had a 4 hour drive home. We arrived back at the school a little after 11 o’clock and once I got home I promptly collapsed on my bed. The day was overall a great success and I was definitely grateful not only for the opportunity to travel all over the western part of modern Armenia, but also to meet a bunch of the students in a casual setting.
The excursion took place on Friday August 29th, the next day Saturday I was extremely tired and a little bit sick. I have had a cold for about 3-weeks, but I haven’t really rested. I finally went to the drug store and got some antibiotics, I’m feeling a lot better now. Later, on Saturday, the closest volunteer to me decided to come and visit and just check up on how well this new volunteer is doing. All of the A-15s, or the Peace Corps Armenian volunteers that have been here for a year have been extremely helpful in encouraging us. They call, visit, and encourage us whenever we see them; although they do warn us about the severity of the winters. I guess I would rather be given a realistic outlook on the next two years of my life, instead of having an overly optimistic picture painted for the purpose of encouragement.
On Sunday I hung out with my family almost the entire day. It was a lot of fun combined with a lot of hard work. For about three hours we picked potatoes, a task I have learned to love. This time some of the younger boys came out to help us pick and at first they were just goofing around and weren’t at all enthusiastic about their chore at hand. Quickly I made the potato picking into a competition and the young boys soon became some of the best potato pickers in the world and in three hours we cleared a potato patch that normally takes 2 days to pick.
Monday, September the 1st was the first day of school for the entire country of Armenia. I made sure to show up a bit early and wear some of my nicer clothes, because we had been warned that the first day of school is quite the event. The day did not disappoint. The children, especially little ones come fully dressed up in suits, or at wearing least ties, and dresses for the girls. All of the little kids bring bouquets of flowers for their teachers and often these bouquets are as big as the children themselves. The event is also a community event with parents and other adults.
First we had an opening ceremony, where I accidently found myself standing with all the dignitaries for the event, even though I was the only one that didn’t have a speech. The dignitaries included my school’s principal, a police officer, two male teachers, two members of the city council, and me. Over the PA system, which was really a CD player/ karaoke machine, the Assistant Principal welcomed all of the students. Then a couple of first grade students, 5 year old kids, had to come up to the front of the stage (the front steps of the school) and recite 2-3 sentences of a famous Armenian poem by Charents, a famous Armenian poet. I definitely would have had a nervous breakdown if I had to recite a poem in front of the entire community when I was five years old. After the recitation, the whole 1st grade class which is literally the first year kids attend school (there is no kindergarten at the main schools), went into the school and rang the opening bell for the 2008-2009 school year.
The first day was complete chaos at the school. There are teacher, parents, and other people from the community just walking around the school. Around 11 a.m. my colleague and I had our first class. My colleague is the geography teacher at the school at is one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life. She tries just as hard to learn English, as I try to learn Armenian. We both started to make our own dictionaries with words, we commonly use in the classroom. Also, having a colleague that is a geography teacher is very nice since most countries, oceans, and general geographic features have similar pronunciation in Armenia, as in English. So I am actually already teaching in class, whereas most of the other volunteers are sitting on the sidelines until their Armenian gets up to par. I definitely do more listening and watching than teaching, but I have been interacting with the kids quite a bit in the classroom. It’s also very nice that my colleague is 39 years old, this helps a lot with class preparation. Although I do help quite a bit and she always asks for my input, my colleague can pull lessons out of her sleeve with no problem.
After, the kids left around 2 o’clock we teacher had our fun time. It was a celebration for having finished the 1st day and out came the cognac, wine, and vodka. The teacher’s lounge quickly turned into more of a lounge, but I keep the drinking to a minimum, especially at school. There were also cakes, chocolates, and fresh fruit; it was quite the scene for me to encounter on my first day.
After the festivities were over I went down to the NGO I have been helping at. The people there are very friendly and I needed them to scratch my back, hoping they would return the favor after typing up a 20-page grant proposal for them the week before. I wanted to take some of the kids at my permanent site for FLEX testing. FLEX stands for Future Leaders Exchange Program and is run out of the U.S. State Department. It is a program in almost all of the former Soviet satellite republics, in which students in their last year of schooling have the opportunity to go to America and study. The students live with an American host family and go to an American public high school. If you want to host a child look up the program on the internet.
I wanted to bring 10 kids from my permanent site to be tested so they could have the opportunity to study in America. In the past very few students outside of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, are chosen, but we’re trying to raise the ratio. The only problem was that none of the moms in my town wanted their kids going America, it is just too far away and they also think it is dangerous. After hours of negotiating with students, teachers, and parents I was finally able to convince 7 of the students to go for the first round of testing. On Tuesday, September 2nd, I took all of their pictures and went to the local Kodak store to get their pictures developed. Beside their birth certificates that was the one thing all of the students had to bring.
By that point I was ecstatic to have 7 kids to take for testing and on Wednesday we were to go about 49 kilometers for the first test. The night before I called up the minibus driver I previously arranged to take us, just to confirm he was still going to be at the school at 7:30 the next morning to take us to the test. He said he was in Yerevan and couldn’t do the job. GREAT. So, I have 7 kids, 14 parents, and 3 directors expecting me to take these students for testing the next day and I had no transportation. My original driver did offer me the number of another driver, but he wanted to charge me about $10 USD more than I had agreed to pay. I told him thanks but no thanks, but I think I forgot the first thanks; I was extremely perturbed by this point and ready for this FLEX experience to be over.
I went to the NGO and they helped me again. We went to the taxi stop in our town and found 2 drivers that would shuttle the 7 kids and I to and from the test for about $10 USDs cheaper than the original driver’s quote. So I saved $20 dollars deciding to refuse the other driver. At that point I was a bit happier and more optimistic about the next day.
On Wednesday we left around 8:15 even though I told all of the students to be at the school at 7:30. We were still the first group at the testing center and I soon learned that the test proctors from Yerevan were going to be extremely late, because their car broke down. So we waited for about an hour and a half for them to arrive, the whole time I was trying my best to entertain a classroom of 15 kids. When the proctors arrived they were extremely cool nice and one was a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan.
The first round test was only 15-minutes in length. The first section was 10 basic fill-in-the-blank questions testing fairly simple vocabulary word. The next section was a reading comprehension test, in which the students read a short paragraph and had to answer questions regarding information in the paragraph. Most of my students said the test was very easy, but the time limit was too short.
Later I found out that 3 of my 7 students passed the first round, which made me happy, but it also kind of stunk. Why? Well the next day was the second-round of the FLEX test. This time we even had to travel farther and I had little money left in my budget to pay for transportation. I wanted to take the marshutka, or mini-bus, but the parents didn’t want their kids riding the often overly crowded buses. So I made sure the parents agreed to pay for their child’s share of the taxi this time, which was 2,500 dram or about $8.30 USD.
We left for the second round of FLEX testing early the next morning, since we had to travel nearly 100 kilometers, and I00 kilometers in many mountainous parts of Armenia is quite a haul. I had the kids bring sack lunches, and in general I felt 100 times more prepared the second day. Everything was running according to schedule on Thursday, which was good because I was planning on meeting some of my Peace Corps Volunteer friends in the city. However, once again I had to entertain the kids as there was a bit of confusion between the FLEX proctors, but it was only because they were trying to go beyond what was required of them. One of the girls that passed the 1st round wasn’t notified she passed, so the two FLEX proctors worked for 30 minutes or so to make sure the girl was notified and she finally showed up for the test.
After helping with set-up and making sure everything was going well I left to meet two of my fellow A-16s (A-16- is a Peace Corps term referring to my group as the 16th group of volunteers in Armenia, thus A- 16) for coffee and lunch. We had a good time catching up and just being able to speak English. Their permanent site was extremely nice and I was a bit jealous. On the other hand I had done a lot of work, whereas their colleagues weren’t so active. After hanging out for 2 hours and getting the grand tour of the city I returned to the test center and helped finish administering the test. The second round test lasts about 2 ½ hours and includes, listening, reading, and writing two essays. The students said this phase was much more difficult, but I still hope they did well. Now the tests are sent to Moscow, where FLEX headquarters are located and in 3 weeks we will hear the results.
When I got home from the testing center I went straight to the NGO, since we had a meeting concerning an environmental program we’re trying to finalize for our community. In our town USAID piloted a trash collection projection, where they bought my town a garbage truck to be used instead of everyone burning their trash outside their house. Whether it is right out on the street or in their backyard there are always fires burning consisting of the trash created by business, the government, and citizens in general. So right now my town is not using the garbage trucks effectively and we are just trying to amend the problem.
September 10th, 2008
This post is taking far too long to put up on the internet, I currently have little free time and right now I’m sacrificing some of my class time to write. I didn’t plan the lesson for this grade level today; so I could provide only minimal assistance, except providing the English names for geographic features on the Eurasian continent.
Now on to last weekend in Yerevan which was an experience in itself. From the time I initially visited my permanent site in the middle of July I talked to my school director about going to the Turkey-Armenia Fútbol (soccer) game which was on September 6th in Yerevan. At first my school director said he would take me to the game from my site, buy our tickets, and provide any food and beverages we might need.
Well two weeks before the game I talked to my school director about the game and he told me he had no tickets for the game. I was quite dismayed. I had been talking with many of the other PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) in Armenia and planning on meeting up and it turned out I had no tickets for the game. So I called a volunteer who lives close to Yerevan and he was able to pick up a couple of tickets for my school director and myself. One problem averted.
Then on Friday at school, the day before the game, I kept asking my school director when we would be leaving my town for Yerevan. In Yerevan I had to meet up with an NGO that I will be helping out this weekend, so I wanted to have a ballpark estimate of when I could meet with this NGO. My school director kept telling me he did not know when we would get to Yerevan, finally I figured out that the reason for this ambiguity was that we had no ride to Yerevan. Not good. So, until about 8 o’clock Friday night we worked on trying to get a ride to Yerevan, without success. My school director did not seem worried, but I on the other hand started looking at the public transportation schedule, just in case I had to ride into Yerevan by myself.
The next morning I came into school and immediately found my school director. Still, he had not found a ride for us, but this time he assured me we would have a ride. His assurance fell on deft ears. Not only did I want to be in Yerevan for the soccer match of the century, well at least for the Armenian nation, but also I had to meet with the Sunchild NGO to plan the events for the next weekend. I had to be in Yerevan. I decided if after my third period class he had still not found a ride I would take the 12 o’clock marshutka, or minibus, into Yerevan for the meeting and the game.
I helped teach the first two lessons and still nothing about the ride. Then during my third period class, one of the director’s secretaries came to my classroom, and told me Rubeek wanted to speak with me, that his name by the way. When I got to his office he asked if I was ready to go, even though I wasn’t, I said yes since I didn’t want to jeopardize a potential ride to Yerevan. He said lets go. I told him I need to run back to my classroom to get my camera and then we could go. I wanted to go home and grab my jacket and sunglasses for the long trip, but those things weren’t absolutely essential, even though it gets pretty cold in Yerevan at night during the fall.
We ran down from the school to the place our taxi was to meet us and waited. Finally after about 20 minutes our taxi arrived and 4 Armenian men and I piled into the car. My school director had bought 10 beers for the road, but I wasn’t feeling too well since it had been an extremely crazy day to that point. I had one drink while the other men, except the driver, downed their beers and prepared for the game. That is one thing we must always be careful of here in Armenia, drunk driving. While most men in my area don’t drink and drive, it is fairly common though out Armenia. I say men, because women rarely drive in Armenia, especially in the marzes (Armenia provinces) outside of Yerevan. Although I don’t know if alcohol was involved, when we were on the road the other day, we saw a big truck that careened off a cliff only a couple of minute before we pulled up on the scene. Most of the Armenians treated it like a fairly common experience, and only among some of the older women did expressions of horror surface on their face.
September 11th, 2008 (7th Anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon)
The drive to Yerevan was a relatively fast one from my site. Usually the trip take 3 ½ hours by taxi or 4 ½ hours by marshutka(minibus), but it only took us 3 hours with only one stop right outside of Yerevan. We arrived in Yerevan around 2:00 in the afternoon and there was a noticeable temperature difference between my site and the always hot and humid Yerevan. Once we were in Yerevan my school director knew I had a meeting with Sunchild NGO so we split ways. First I made it to the Peace Corps headquarters in Yerevan, that part wasn’t too difficult since I took a taxi. There I met up with some friends, used the internet very briefly, and turned in some paper work so I could be reimbursed for some expenses.
Then after spending an hour and a half at the Peace Corps headquarters it was off to my meeting at Sunchild, which was suppose to start around 4. This was a bit more challenging feat since I was suppose to find two random guys on a street corner and then they would walk me to the place where the meeting was to be held. After wandering around for about 10 minutes I finally found the Grand Candy store I was to meet them at. Grand Candy is the biggest candy producer in Armenia. Their candy is not always the best, but it’s usually the cheapest and it is 100% Armenian. Waiting at the Grand Candy story were two guys who looked quite amiable and people who I could trust. One was a 30 something year old German guy named Phillip from Cologne. He was a big guy, who had just arrived in Armenia to help Sunchild with program development. He spoke no Armenian, but was rather proficient in English and of course German. The other guy was pure Armenian. His name was Hayk, which is an extremely common Armenian name for men. Hayk is the person Armenia is named after in the Armenian language, Armenians call Armenia, Hayastan, or the land of Hayk. The original Hayk was the son of Togarmah, who was the son of Gomer, who was the son of Yapheth,, who was the son of Noah and his Ark. Sorry for going Old Testament on y’all, but I think it is interesting to learn where a name originates.
After brief introductions Phillip and I started walking to one of Sunchild’s buildings. It was a bit weird going through the back alleys of Yerevan with a German guy I had only met a couple of minutes ago, but he was a nice guy and I trusted him. We arrived at the place where we were to have our meeting, which was a large house compound with a big courtyard where the meeting took place, but there were only a very few people there. Soon all the other people started rolling in. There were Iranians, French, Germans, and a couple Dutch people and tons of Armenians. Most of the Armenians were girls from the Yerevan State University and were in the film program there. The three Iranians were also students in Yerevan and two of them were from Tehran. They were both extremely chill and laid back; and the girl had on the shortest shorts I had seen in Armenia, Dolce and Gabana sunglasses, and had braces. The Iranian guy looked more European than most people in Armenia and even Yerevan. He had caprice on and was rocking the faux hawk mullet. They probably wanted to escape the conservative atmosphere of their own country so they high tailed it to Yerevan, although in general Armenia too is very conservative. The Armenian girls were all pretty cute and shy like they always are, but I am still waiting on someone back home.
The meeting was about an environmentally themed Painting Party that will take place this Sunday, September 14th in Yerevan. I am in charge of recruiting as many volunteers from Lori and Tavush marzes (a marze is an Armenian province or state) and so far we have quite a few people coming. On Saturday night we have to help set-up tables and everything else needed for the next day. I’m really excited about the project and making another group of friends in Yerevan.
After the meeting I went with the German guy Phillip, an Iranian named Ibrahim, and an Armenian-American living in Yerevan to a restaurant area near the beautiful Opera house. In front of the Opera house there were protestors from the Dashnak party, a hardcore nationalistic party here in Armenia, protesting Turkish people on their soil. One little 4 or 5 year old boy was telling every Armenian going to the game that they were ‘a disgrace to their race’. First we had to swing by Kami’s apartment, Kami is the name of the Armenian America, his apartment was pretty large and he had a hookah lounge built into one room. Finally I arrived and the outdoor bar/restaurant where the rest of the Peace Corps volunteers were hanging out. It was so nice to see everyone, even though I only had an hour and a half to see them before I had to go find my school director. I was able to catch up with everyone and have a beer.
Finding my school director was probably the greatest challenge of the whole day. I had lost the map that I had marked the location where I was supposed to meet my director, but I remembered what street our meeting place was on. Still I could not find the store where we were supposed to meet. I thought I would be able to spot him somewhere on the street, but I had no luck. So I found an old taxi driver and handed him my phone with my school director on the other line, and asked him to help me find my friend. Within minutes I had found my school director even though he wasn’t where we originally agreed to meet.
By this point it was nearing kick-off and we had 25 minutes to run 2 kilometers through a mass of people, get through security, and find our seats. The mass of people was seemed never ending, at every turn we made there were more and more people. One cool thing that was present from the center of Yerevan all the way out to the stadium was the overwhelming amount of street vendors, so there are the signs of entrepreneurship that Armenia needs so badly. Once we got within a kilometer of the stadium the police presence became overwhelming as well. At first the cops were just making sure the mass of humanity stayed close to the side walk and did not wander on to the street. Yet, soon they began making sure no one was becoming too rowdy. I have to admit both the fans and the police were well-behaved throughout the evening. Most of the police looked like they could either be my grandfather or a couple years younger than my little brother. They definitely were not intimidating and they seemed passive to most minor disturbances. On the other hand the internal security service guys looked extremely hardcore and they seemed to be running the show, at least outside the stadium.

Soon Rubeek, my school director, and I made it to the gates of the stadium and everyone’s bags were being checked. Lucky for us we had nothing on us and we scooted right by. Rubeek asked a couple of police officers inside the stadium where are seats were and before I knew we plopped down in our seats about 5 minutes till 9, when the game was to start.
Once in my seat I could properly take in the vastness of the stadium. The seats in the stadium were normal seats you would have at a baseball game, but they were painted the colors of the Armenian flag; orange, blue and red. The fans were already going crazy, but the stadium was not full yet. Our seats were located behind the goal on the south end of the stadium, I was a little disappointed and Rubeek said he liked the seats, but he wished we were a little closer to midfield. The teams were still warming up and we were nearest the Turkish teams half of the field. The good thing was that we were seated next to a lot of other Peace Corps Volunteers so I could continue catching up with my fellow volunteers whom I only get to see every once in awhile. In total there were about 50 PCVs from Armenia went to the game it was definitely a lot of fun. The best thing about our seat is that we were very close to the Turkish contingent that came to the game. Overall the Armenia fans near them respected them and the Turkish fans even brought an Armenian flag to show their unity with the Armenian people.

The stadium was packed with police, military police, and internal security services. On the first row every third seat was occupied by a policeman. Then, in the every section there were large pocket of police stationed in the upper rows, usually 30 or more cops. I have been trying to figure out how many police and security forces were at the game, but it is truly impossible to tell. I called up a friend I know who is in the military police and he had no clue, either that or he didn’t want to tell me. All of us at the game, including my school director, guessed there were between 5,000 and 10,000 security related people at the game. Armenia didn’t want an embarrassment in their home stadium and they definitely overcompensated on the security front.

Finally, the teams left the field and then they came back and lined up for the lineup announcements. As the announcer called out the Armenian players’ last names he strongly accented every syllable so the crowd could yell along with the PA system. Since 95% of Armenian last names end with –yan, the crowd was always the loudest when pronouncing the last syllable. I have never been to another country where the homogeneity of a people and their surname are so pervasive. I guess Wilson’s principle of self-determination truly played itself out in the Caucuses, as well as the Balkans.

The game started and you could tell the Armenian players were overly excited. They played an extremely sloppy game and the only reason the Turks didn’t score in the first half was due to the level of energy exerted by the Armenians. I believe the Armenians only had one shot on goal in the first half and I wouldn’t even consider it a shot. At points two or three Armenian player's collided with each other as they fought for the ball. No doubt, their effort and energy was unprecedented, but the Turks just sat back and played calm, disciplined soccer not wanting to expose themselves’ to a counter attack and give the Armenian national team a glimpse of hope. I think the Armenians tried to turn it into a sloppy, scrappy game since in set play, against a strong Turkish team, the Armenians had little chance of winning.
The second half started much like the first half and I was amazed that the Armenians could keep up their level of play for much longer. The Armenians made it to around the 65th minute without giving up a goal, but the Turkish pressure was unrelenting. The Turkish national team scored one goal and then put another one in the back of the net about ten minutes later. I was very impressed by the Armenian keeper/goalie. The score could have been much worse, but he had 2 or 3 nearly impossible saves. The game ended in a 2-0 loss for Armenian, but I can’t say they didn’t leave it all on the field.

Although it was sad to see my adopted country’s soccer team loss on their home soil, it was still a great experience. My school director and I both lost our voices due to the intensity of our cheering and many of the police near us were quite angry with us for banging on the seats in the rows in front of us. One disappointing thing was that the Armenian fans had no coordinated cheers and they quickly become quiet after kickoff. After the game we headed home dreaming of the day when Armenian puts a whoppin’ on Turkey, on Turkey’s home pitch. Upon returning home I turned on Bloomberg Europa, which we pick up on my family’s satellite connection, and along the bottom of the screen a blurb read, “Turkey reconsiders trade relations with Armenia.” Maybe a peaceful soccer game does have positive consequences for international relations, but who knows.

One of the saddest things I have ever seen happened this Monday. A little girl, who I often play sports with her and her friends came up to me crying. She kept saying ari, are or come, come. She usually says this because she wants to play, but I could tell this time there was something seriously wrong. Her already crippled dog had been shot in the head. The dog is the nicest dog I've met in Armenia and it limps around on three legs since one of its legs doesn't work. The dog would always run around with the kids as they called out his name, Bobbi. The scene was extremely gruesome. There was blood everywhere, its left ear was blown off, and you could see its skull. It's body was spasming in shock, but suprisingly 5 days later the dog is still alive. It is not the same, but it still limps around on three legs and now it is missing its left ear.

So far the second week of teaching has been much different from the first. The first week my co-worker and I had to do mainly administrative tasks, but now we have a fairly regular schedule and routine. One weird thing about this week is that teachers who have a break must go and observe other teachers who are teaching. I don’t know if schools in America do this, but it seems that all of the teachers are stressing out about it. Today, many of the teachers and students came up to me and said sorry for the September 11th. We also had a moment of silence in all of our classes for the victims of September 11th. It was very touching and I and I made sure to thank everyone who expressed their condolences to me.

On another note it was Armen’s birthday today, he is one of the best teachers at our school. Armen is also one of my closer friends at the school and is the military strategy teacher. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you every boy in Armenia must go through military strategy class where they learn to disassemble and clean weapons, learn basic strategy tactic, and learn how to prepare impromptu explosives. Anyways we had a celebration for Armen in school. The whole day the teacher’s lounge was more like a party room as cognac and wine flowed freely and the teacher’s enjoyed themselves almost as much as the kids do during recess. After school the 4 male teachers and the principal invited me out to go celebrate. We went to a horovats/barbecue restaurant where we ate kebabs, lamb meat, and steaks. The food was delicious and they even toasted to their new colleague, or co-worker, and they said they enjoyed working with me.

Also this week there has been a three day film festival in my town. The festival relates to trying to make peace in the Caucus region and it was organize by an NGO from Tblisi, Georgia. The first day of films had to do with Chechnya and both films had a very anti-Russian overtone. On Tuesday the films dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and some of the ideas both Palestinians and Israelis have and use to help solve the conflict. I had already seen one of the films called, “A Bridge Over Wadi”. Yesterday’s film was about a very pro-active teacher in rural France who was extremely attentive and taught his pupils about tolerance and peace. It was probably my least favorite movie, for readily apparent reasons.

On a sadder note, the other volunteer who has been living in my town for the last year is not coming back to Armenia. My site mate or the other volunteer has been in Washington D.C. trying to recover from 8-months of diarrhea. I guess his stomach has shown no signs of improvement so now Peace Corps is not allowing him to return to Armenia. Overall I am definitely sad that he is not coming back, but there are a couple good things about him leaving; yet I would definitely rather have him here to help me get through my first winter as well as have someone to hang out with when things get tough. Get well Kevin!

So far after being at my site for almost a month I feel like I have done pretty well integrating into my community. However, I am very lucky since my community is also a very active one, which has had several volunteers who have lived here in the past. So not only are the NGO’s constantly asking me to do work for them, but also strangers in town are not afraid to approach me, since the volunteers before me have been great ambassadors of friendship. This obviously has its positive and negative aspects, but overall I am happy with my situation.

Well that’s enough for now. But I hope to post another blog soon. This weekend should be exciting with our trip to Yerevan. I hope everyone is doing well back home and I can’t wait to see my little niece Charlotte pictures of her were great to see. Miss y’all.


Remember this blog is a reflection of my own personal thoughts and reflections and in no way represents the views of the Peace Corps or the United States' government.


A little more about my new life at my permanent site

Thursday, August 28, 2008

It’s early in the morning here at my permanent site and I just can’t get to sleep tonight. I am excited about tomorrow and in general the time I have spent so far in Armenia and especially at my permanent site. I have been busy working on or preparing to work on so many projects that it is beginning to get difficult for me to fit everything in my schedule. I thought the opposite would happen once I got to my permanent site.

However I am very happy to have all of this work since it is definitely not the norm for most of the other Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) I’ve talked with here in Armenia. A majority of PCVs are located in very rural areas of Armenia, where the local populations live almost entirely off of subsistence farming or very small business. These towns/villages receive little in the way of aid, whether it is from NGOs, the government, or foreign aid assistance. The PCVs there must start from scratch and try to build something from nothing; much like the Armenian Diaspora community has down for about 100 years and longer if you count prior historical circumstances. Right now many of my PCV friends are bored, because they have not acquired a high enough proficiency in the language to get down to business with their Armenian counterparts and within their communities. My Armenian is not much better, but I am lucky in a way that there are many patient people here to listen to my broken Armenian.

My village has had several well-liked volunteers before me, because of this there is a very strong pro-American sentiment at my permanent site. Although I am still the new volunteer in town and I receive suspicious gazes every day, the people in the town are overall friendly to me and there is a large segment of the population who has worked with PCVs before and loved them. Another thing that is interesting to me is that I am regarded as a volunteer here at my permanent site. They have had so many PCVs here in the past that the local population is used to having a new volunteer every couple of years. Yet, I definitely don’t just want to be another volunteer, I want to do a lot for the people of my town and I feel like I am off to a good start even though it is just a start.

The projects that I am working on, in some fashion or another, right now are diverse in scope and nature. Even though I know these projects are partially a product of my environment, I have also tried to be very open and visible in the community. I am out and about in the community everyday, even if I’m having a bad day, and I put myself on the line quite frequently since currently my Armenian language skills is not that great.

My first project that I worked on and completed was writing around a 20 page grant for a local NGO who is trying to raise political awareness in my town and the surrounding villages. The NGO I have been working at is kind of a one-stop shop in terms of what types of projects it performs. Personally, I believe this is the future of grass-roots, based NGOs throughout the world for three primary reasons. For one thing it is very difficult to sustain multiple NGOs in small communities. Personnel, overhead, and traveling expenses add up, it is easier to have a fairly permanent staff and basic equipment that you can rely on project after project. Secondly, the NGOs in these local communities generally have members who are interested in a wide variety of development topics; not just women’s rights, or the environment, or health improvements. Generally, the people that I have met at the NGOs represent a small percentage of the local population that wants change and will try to improve most aspects of life in a specific community. Third, initially having just one NGO prevents initial start-up squabbling in the case of multiple NGOs in a community; it is hard to build coalitions within a small community when people are fighting over projects. The key in initial NGO start up within a ‘new’ community is consciences. Although some would argue that multiple NGO’s in a town is good and necessary for development, just as competition is a must within the free-market, but at this point I would have to disagree. Local NGOs like the one I work for already face fierce competition in the international market of grants and donations. If an NGO doesn’t perform well on a single project a donor organization will look elsewhere when donating later on. However, I do think if the NGO becomes too large or if it is located in a large enough town or city then multiple NGOs are preferable. I have only been at my permanent site for 2-weeks so I am sure more realities of the NGO business will soon become apparent.

Okay, now for the other projects I am currently working on. Another project I’m working on is with the same NGO is an environmental project, for which I have a meeting tomorrow at 3p.m. The entire ‘staff’ of our NGO, plus around 10 people from Yerevan will come in to discuss our future plans. In early September, I want to take some of the best English speaking students to a nearby town to be test for the FLEX program run out of the State Department. FLEX is a 10-month program; where high school aged students from all over the world have the opportunity to study in a high school in America. This project will be tough to organize with such short notice and since most, if not all, parents are too worried to let their kids leave home and go to America. The next project I will be working on is more of just a fun day, but fun days are good every once in awhile. In the middle of September I will be going to Yerevan to help out with a “Save the Nature” open air painting day, which will be organized by Sunchild NGO. It sounds like fun, but it will be quite the trip for me. The other project that has recently come to my attention is a forest beautification project. There are several little parks around in the nearby forests and all of them have trash scattered all around the park area, usually just out of sight of the horovats (barbecue) pit and the picnic tables. I want to clean up 5 different sites and install permanent trash cans, whose contents will be disposed of after every weekend. I also want to put up sign explaining local fines, environmental consequences, and the different decomposition rates of certain types of trash. The last project is kind of another fun one, but some local men, one of them being my host brother-in-law, are starting up a judo/karate dojo here in my town. They are interested in getting a tumbling a mat for their dojo. Getting grant money for this might be more difficult since at this point I don’t know exactly how this tumbling mat will help the community at large, but I ‘m sure we can think of some way it will positively impact the community. Armenians love judo and most large towns I have been to have a dojo for young boys to train. Maybe that will be the key to receiving grant money, advertise to girls in our village, Eureka! If we can have lessons for girls than maybe grant money will come about easily. We’ll see.

Okay now my paragraphs are just rambling on, I probably should go to bed. It is 2:50 in the morning here and I want to wake up kind of early and go running; that probably won’t happen, but there is always tomorrow.

I hope everything is going well back in America and all over the world. I heard there was flooding in Melbourne, Florida a couple weeks ago I hope nobody was hurt and that not too much property was destroyed, I don’t know if the insurance industry has fully recovered from Katrina and the storms of 2005. I also heard there was a threat of tornados and flooding in Georgia, because of the tropical storm that also caused the flooding in Florida. I hope everyone in Georgia is safe and that little Miss Charlotte was not scared by the storm. I hope the Bulldogs have a great weekend against Central Michigan and that Bud and Holly have a fun joint birthday party. I’ll talk to y’all later and I love everybody back home.


Remember this blog is a reflection of my own personal thoughts and reflections and in no way represents the views of the Peace Corps or the United States' government.


My second weekend a my permanent site

Sunday, August 24, 2008

My day of rest was wonderful and much needed, but I didn’t really rest much per se. All week I have been helping an NGO prepare a grant proposal, which has to be sent into different donor organizations next week. I don’t know what the NGO would have done without me since I have been helping them for an average of 4 hours per day with translating their proposal from Armenian to English. Although there are people at the NGO who can speak English, most notably two English teachers from my town, their English skills are okay and it would have taken them weeks to type-up the information I have prepared for them this week. As noted in a previous blog I have created a line-item budget, a detailed description of that budget, a timeline of the projects duration, and various things to make the grant proposal look official.

In addition to my work load, last night I told my family that I would prepare dinner for them; this was not as a relaxing occurrence either. Even though I knew from previous experiences that cooking in Armenia is never quite as calming as it is in America, due to the constant supervision, language barrier, and uncertainty about how hot the oven really is; I still was not ready for how mentally taxing the meal would be to prepare.

First-off my host mother is a very sweet and adorable lady, but she is even more overprotective then… well let’s say a couple of my friend’s moms back home in America. Early in the morning on Saturday, before going to work I asked her to pick up some ingredients from the store and to pick a couple things from our garden for the pizza. I wanted two circular loafs of bread and Dutch cheese (Hollandicacan panir) from the store, this cheese is the closest thing you can get to mozzarella in most parts of Armenia. I should have realized because my family owns a cheese factory, which obviously doesn’t make Dutch cheese, this request was not going to happen. Upon asking for the cheese my host mom immediately became defensive asking what was wrong with the cheese they made and saying that their cheese would work just fine on the pizza. In addition, she asked me why I wanted loafs of bread when she could buy pre-made pizza crusts, which they sell at most stores here at my permanent site. I told her I liked the bread better because I knew it was freshly baked that day, whereas the pre-made pizza crusts could have been a couple of years old. Still she insisted and since she knows better in the kitchen, she won out on this ingredient. They already had tomato paste so that was one thing I didn’t have to worry about. Also, she kept questioning me about what kind of meat I wanted on the pizza I told I just wanted to make vegetarian pizza (ban-jan-aren-i pizza). Yet from her experience with other volunteers, I am assuming they always had meat on the pizzas they made, because she was absolutely convinced that all pizzas had meat on them, and that it wasn’t pizza unless it had meat on it.
After going over the two things I wanted from the ha-noot or store, it was on to things I needed from the garden. As I was telling her each ingredient I wanted on the pizza, if she liked that particular ingredient she would smile and agree, but if not she would tell me that that ingredient would not taste good on the pizza. Also, my host mom has diabetes and if she really didn’t like the ingredient she would tell me that she wouldn’t be able to eat the pizza, because that particular ingredient had too much sugar. Time after time I told her vegetables from the garden wouldn’t affect her sugar level, which she knows, but once again she was again trying to dictate exactly what ingredients to put on the pizza. I finally told I would not make the pizza if I didn’t have the ingredients I wanted and she finally agreed. To my amazement my host father also picked up some cheese from the store for, I don’t know exactly what kind of cheese it was, but it tasted pretty good. My host mom was also a great help collecting the ingredients for me, she didn’t have to go pick the ingredients, but she did nevertheless.

Now to the actual preparation of the pizza, it too was a rather exhausting affair. My host mom was trying to be super helpful in the kitchen, probably the same was true during the ingredient negotiation process, but this time she was a bit more lax on trying to push her methods of preparing the pizza. I don’t exactly know why this was, maybe because she doesn’t have too much experience making pizza, maybe because many of the men were around, or maybe she was just tired, since I didn’t start making the pizza until around 9 pm. Anyhow, if she suggested a certain way of doing something once and I disagreed then she wouldn’t push the issue any further. A lot of times she offers some really good suggestions, but every time I acquiesce to these suggestions the control I have over what I’m working on slowly erodes. I guess I was determined to make the pizza my way and I think eventually she realized that.

The pizza was similar to the one I made before for my LCFs (or Language and Culture Facilitators, my language teachers during Pre-Service Training). The two main differences were the frozen pizza crusts, which ended up tasting alright, but still not as good as the fresh bread crust and also I kind of made my own sauce this time. Although my host mom said we had tomato paste and I saw the jar of it earlier in the day, I didn’t realize how little was left in the jar. So I diced up a couple of tomatoes and manually pureed them into a bowl and added the tomato paste. Also I added garlic, black pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper to the sauce, I though it tasted fabulous. During the baking process another problem emerged , even though I knew my family didn’t have an oven, since my host mom only cooks on the stove-top, to my distress the oven I was going to use in the next apartment over wasn’t working. This meant I had to run up to my host sister’s apartment, on the fifth floor, every time I wanted to use the oven. Also, the machine I used was not really an oven, but a large toaster oven, which could only fit one pizza at a time. So first I brushed some olive oil on the crusts of the two pizzas and ran them upstairs to put in the oven, one at a time, so that they would be a bit crispy. Then I ran back downstairs to add the sauce, cheese, and the fresh ingredients from the garden which included: more garlic, onions, green peppers, eggplant, a hot pepper, and juicy tomatoes. After that I ran back upstairs to finally cook the pizzas, one at a time. My host family loved the pizza and I think the entire apartment loved the entertaining night of me running up and down the stair with the partially completed pizzas. Even though it was a pain in the rear-end to make the pizzas, after the fact I was glad I did it and would do it again anytime.

Even this morning, on Sunday, I worked a little bit more on the project’s timeline, but most of the day was spent having fun with my extended host family. About a week ago I was showing my host family some of the things I had brought with me from America, since they were a bit curious what were in the 8 bags I had when I moved in with them. Also, my host family has hosted several volunteers in the past, so they are always comparing me with them, what I brought with me compared to what other volunteers brought with them and so on. One thing they found very interesting was the telescopic fishing rod I had picked up from Bass Pro Shop before coming to Armenia (Thanks to a suggestion from my brother, thanks Andrew). They said they had only seen people fishing in movies, so they were excited to see a person go fishing live and in-person. Recently, I have also expressed an interest in going swimming. I haven’t been able to swim since I arrived in Armenia and that is one thing I enjoy doing in the summer time.
A couple of days ago my family said they were going to take me to a place where we could swim and fish; and also where we could have a big horovats (Barbecue). This morning I was unquestionably stoked about the prospects of my exciting day out in nature. After I finished my NGO work at home I was ready to go. However soon it started to get late, around noon to be exact as I watch the morning hours drift away. I began to worry that our supposed trip was just another thing lost in translation. Then, around 1 o’clock the motions that occur before a trip were set in action. My host family started to change clothing, but this time they weren’t wearing their Sunday best, which they usually wear when we have horovat’s/barbecue parties on Sunday afternoons. This time they had were wearing a more outdoorsy attire, which I didn’t notice until we were leaving. My host mom started packaging up the dishes, cups, and silverware, a necessity of every feast. My host father cut up the meat, brought the kebab skewers or shish, went to the dairy factory to get some tan for the horovats, and also to get the portable propane heater so that we could make coffee later on.

We loaded up 11 people and all of the equipment, including my fishing pole, into two small cars and headed off to our destination. It turned out to only be a couple of km outside of town, which was a relief to me since we are not supposed to leave our permanent sites right now, but I was pretty confident it wasn’t too far away. The park/campsite area was beautiful. The area was fenced in by beautiful iron work and the ground was covered by colored pebbles. There were 3 nicely built horovats/barbecue pits, 4 picnic table areas, and a gazebo that was completely surround by water and only accessible by a small foot bridge.

There was a river nearby that was more of a mountain stream with a couple of short waterfalls and fairly deep swimming holes, maybe deepest part was about 10 feet deep. At the river there were probably 20-30 boys all there to swim, but no girls were present. The boys ranged in age from 10 to about 19 years old and of course my 57 year old host father and his 31 or 32 year old son was there swimming with us. The boys there were from all over the Caucuses (well Armenia and Russia) and a bunch were also from Russia, the city of Kursk to be more exact. They were all extremely friendly and were asking me questions about what I was doing in Armenia, why I spoke Armenian, and why I wasn’t married, being the old 23 year old that I am.

Then I started to fish and they were very interested in what I was doing. The fish there were extremely small, only a couple inches in length, but I had a fun time trying to teach my host family and the random boys how to fish. Usually in the States fishing is another thing that I do to relax, not so much here. It was relaxing, but more importantly I had a fun time sharing with them something I like to do in America. Though most of the Russian kids had fished before, they had never seen a reel quite like mine and they were convinced my ultra-light rod was going to snap in half with any fish I caught. Another thing that is quite different from America is that none of the kids wore swimming trunks, they all wore their underwear. This is fairly common knowledge for those who travel to Europe or other parts of the world, but it still catches me kind of off guard when the kids just drop trou’ and jump in the river.

Well on that note I’m going to try to see if I can find the closing ceremonies of the Olympics on the TV, but I’ll write again soon. I hope everyone is doing okay back home. I can’t wait to see pictures of my niece Charlotte, just to see how much she has grown over the past couple of months. I am also happy to hear that a special someone had a good birthday party at Speakeasy and the Winery last Wednesday in Athens.



Remember this blog is a reflection of my own personal thoughts and reflections and in no way represents the views of the Peace Corps or the United States' government.


Last couple days at my permanent site

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hey everybody,

Yesterday was a crazy, unexpected work which I was very grateful to have. I actually was one of the first teachers at school and I had to wait on my counterpart for a little while, but once she arrived we immediately started working. In somewhat of a comical way our work is slowed, because we both have a slight cold right now. The rest of the faculty enjoys teasing us, because on more than one occasion we have both sneezed or coughed at the same time.

I have been trying to translate the geography books enough so I can understand what is going on with each lesson. My counter-part is the only geography teacher in the school and she teaches students who range in grade level from the 5th form thru the 10th form (form is the Armenia way of saying grade level). For a perspective, 5th form students are 10 years old and 10th form students are 15. In the school that I work at there are students whose age’s ranges from 5 to 17 years old, but the school is massive in size and has 400 students and 39 teachers. So, my counterpart would like me to supplement a lot of her lessons with multimedia presentations slide shows, movies, and so on. Over the last few days I have been collecting material on the internet at my schools computer lab which is fairly nice, but only has 4 computers. However, in the school there are a good number of computers, but due to the slow internet connection they only have 4 currently connected to the internet.

While I was working in the computer lab one of the English teachers started talking to me about the school newspaper. I was floored that the school had a newspaper; and she continued explaining how a former PCV in the school helped obtain the funding for the newspaper’s equipment. The newspaper’s equipment includes: a new computer with Quark and Adobe Photoshop, a scanner, a laser printer big enough to print on 11 x 17 sheets of paper, and a digital camera. The paper so far has produced four issues and this year they hope to start turning out monthly issues. By definition it is not a school paper, because it prints the news for surrounding schools as well, but it is completely produced at the school I work at. One thing I want to work on is to have a training class for students to learn Quark and become proficient at using the other equipment the newspaper has at its disposal. The teacher who runs the newspaper now is severely overworked and for the paper to be truly beneficial and sustainable for the community the students of the school should learn how to produce the newspaper from start to finish.

After visiting the newspaper I hung out with my school director for about 30 minutes. He is a funny guy, who has a hard time ever being serious, which is generally fine with me. The difficult thing for me is that he uses a completely different set of vocabulary words than currently I know or am familiar with. This would usually be fine, since it would be an opportunity to increase my own vocabulary, but the words he uses are infrequently used in common conversation. So even if I learn the words he uses they will be of little use to me.

On the way back to the computer lab, through the dreary corridors of the school, which can also be fairly confusing, I ran into the other English teacher, named Lusina. Lusina wanted me to help her out at the NGO she works at after school hours. So I told her I would meet her there at 2 p.m. I went back to the computer lab and finished my work for my counterpart the Geography teacher.

I left school and started heading down to the NGO. The directions she gave me were completely confusing even thought they were in English. Lusina finally flagged me down and I went into a very nice office set-up that was her NGO. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I arrived, but I was ready to help. It turned out they wanted me to type up a grant proposal, a budget proposal, and a line item explanation for the entire budget. I was at Lusina’s NGO for 4.5 hours working on Excel and Word. I really have little experience using Excel; I think I remember learning how to use the program in 7th grade with Mr. Beard in an elective class. Anyways, I entered all of the data and typed the proposal and budget information in record speed. The whole time the other people at the NGO wanted me to eat food, drink coffee, or eat chocolates with them. It wasn’t the best work environment, but it worked.

I did receive a free meal out of all of the work. The NGO gave me hachapouri which is a Caucus dish with croissant like bread on the bottom, filled with grease and cheese. It is delicious even though it makes my stomach rumble every time I think of it or even look at it. Yet, when you bite into a freshly made hachapouri it is extremely scrumptious and you wonder how you could of ever doubted it’s tastiness. Sometimes we also have Georgian hachapouri which has two sunny side eggs cracked on top in addition to the grease and cheese. For lunch at the NGO, we also had fresh honey, bread, village cheese, and more coffee.

As I was leaving the NGO at 6:30 pm I heard that there was going to be a concert that night in the town center and the band was from America… seriously? Once again I was pleasantly surprised, but the concert started at 7 pm and I was completely worn out. As I was walking home I realized that I had to go to concert, when would be the next time I would have an opportunity like this. When I arrived at my house the men, my host brother and father, were preparing to go, but my host mom was going to stay home. I convinced some of the other ladies in the apartment block to come and eventually my host mother, Anaheet agreed to come as well.
Anaheet got all dressend up, put make-up on, and did-up her hair all nice and fine like she does on Sundays. Just kidding, nobody that I’ve met in Armenia goes to church, nevertheless they are extremely proud of their religious history. Finally we were off. Humorously, it was 4 older ladies from the apartments and me walking down the street together to see the band. I definitely felt a little out of place when we arrived. To my astonishment it was probably the biggest social event in my town’s history and I was escorting 4 fifty plus females to the event, call me what you may, but I was feeling pretty good about my entourage. There were hundreds of people in attendance and the band was actually a Mariachi band from Texas. The event was put on by the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan (the capital of Armenia) and there were a lot of personal from the Embassy in attendance. The Mariachi band also learned two songs in Armenian, which the crowds loved. This was probably one of the best uses of American tax dollars I had ever seen.

After the concert was over I met the band members all of whom had interesting life stories and ranged in age from 25 years old to the their mid-30s. The band had travelled to China last year and was part of a State Department initiative to display America’s cultural diversity abroad. Also, at the event was the Cultural Director from the Embassy and guess what... she’s from Iowa. She grew up in Iowa City and Muscatine and did her undergraduate work and the University of Iowa. We talked for awhile about Iowa and she said she was going to Moline in October so if I needed anything from the heartland to let her know. She is a Foreign Service officer and she was explaining all of the cool places and people she’d met throughout the world. Although I had thought about joining the Foreign Service before, she really gave it a good pitch and who knows it kind of sounds like an interesting and productive way to live out one’s life.

The night still was not over and by this point I was extremely tired. After the concert we walked to my host mom’s brother’s house which is pretty immaculate. He worked in Russia for a number of year laying tile and working in construction and is know through Moscow as one of the best in his field. When he returned he had saved up enough money to buy and remodel a house. The house has beautiful tile floors and walls in almost every room and not the drab colors that are prominent hold-overs from the Soviet era in Armenia. He used a variety of pastel colors for the bathrooms and the kitchen was done in bold primary colors that gave it a life that most Armenian kitchens are lacking.

We had ice cream, watermelon, and coffee there, a normal late night snack here at my permanent site, along with that we talked about a variety of things. I drifted in and out of attentiveness throughout the conversation, but I did manage to talk about a few things. I also got the numbers of some contacts in Yerevan that will definitely be useful. My host mother’s brother’s son lives in Yerevan and was the Junior Olympic karate or judo champion for all of Eastern Europe. He will definitely be a nice ally to have in the rough streets of Yerevan.

I hope everyone is doing well. I’ll talk to y’all later love you all. I hope everyone is ready for school. I heard that Ankur had a wonderful time in the Netherlands this summer and I hope Dane, Isaac, and Justin all have good starts to their next phase of life.

Peace Out.

Remember this blog is a reflection of my own personal thoughts and reflections and in no way represents the views of the Peace Corps or the United States' government.


My first couple of days at my permanent site

Tuesday August 19, 2008 and Wednesday August 20, 2008

Hey y’all,

Its 2 o’clock here in Armenia and the summer weather at my new site is definitely more intense than the temperatures at my PST village. It is really not that hot just in the high 980s, but here at my new site there is little wind even though the environment is more reminiscent of an alpine village, plus there are few place in Armenia that have air conditioning.

The past few have been rather relaxing. Yesterday was a holiday, but not for anything in particular. I asked several people in Armenian what the holiday was for and everyone said it was for anything in particular. Being my inquisitive self I really wanted to find out. So I went to the 3 semi-proficient English speakers in town and ask them what the reasoning for the holiday was and they too, in English, just said it was a work-free day for anyone in government, but they had no clue why they actually had the day off.

This phenomenon of not knowing, but just doing is fairly common in Armenia. Many of the holidays or traditions are still performed, but the reasoning behind celebrating these things has been lost during 70 years of communism. One prime example of this is vathavar or water day. On this day Armenian children run around and dump large quantities of water on each other and just unlucky people passing by. I was in Yerevan on this day, which was sometime in the middle of June, but it was completely crazy. Gangs of kids were collecting water from the public fountains and soaking each other and random people. The kids mainly stuck to the streets, but many times they would drench people in taxis, marshutkas(buses), and in hyanoots (stores). Although I think roaming in place other than the streets broke vathavar norms and etiquette. Anyways vathavar falls on different days throughout the country, but it always falls on a Sunday between the last Sunday of June and the last Sunday of July. It was originally a plea to the gods for bountiful rains during the summer months. Now it is a celebration for the children of the country to have a fun day before the long work days of summer begin in the fields. Yet, the cosmopolitan kids of Yerevan were completely unaware of the significance of this event.
The day before yesterday on Sunday was also quite relaxing. I actually studied for about two hours and to my amazement I found some weights to work-out with only two floors up from my host family’s apartment. The weights actually belong to my host brother-in-law, if that makes sense. Anyways he has a 16 kilogram cow bell, a 12 kg dumb bell, a punching bag, and a bar to do pull-ups on. In the mornings I have been trying to run to a nearby by village which is about 10 kilometers away, but my knee has been hurting a little bit and I was a bit sick over the weekend. The run is extremely hilly, but it is also goes through one of the most beautiful mountain passes I have seen so far in Armenia.

The region that I live in now used to be considered part of the Armenian industrial heartland. Once Armenia became an independent state late in 1991 it lost the Soviet technical know-how as well as the logistical infrastructure for carrying out operations at factories. Many of the raw material, partially manufactured goods, and markets to sell these goods either no longer existed or were in complete disarray during the early 1990s. For the most part entirely new business arrangement needed to be set-up, yet still to this day they are lacking.

Interestingly, Armenia initially did not want to leave its dependence on Russia or at least to not completely distance themselves from the Soviet power. As the Soviet Union was collapsing in the early 1990’s, Soviet Premier Gorbachev repeatedly tried to resurrect the failing Union. Political force within Armenia ousted the Soviet Party leader of Armenia, Suren Harutiunian, in favor of the Armenian Nationalist Movement party or the HHSh under the leadership of Levon Ter-Petrosian. Even under a more nationalist government in Yerevan, Armenia on October 18, 1991 signed into an economic cooperative agreement with Gorbachev and the faltering Soviet Union. Then, on December 8th 1991 Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus- the three predominately Slavic republics of the former Soviet Union, announced they were forming a sort of Commonwealth which all satellite countries were invited to join. This commonwealth would have provided military inter-dependence, strong economic relations and a standardized monetary system.
Ter-Petrosian, the newly elected, strongly nationalistic Armenian leader, was fully supportive of this commonwealth initiative and he indicated Armenia’s intentions of joining the commonwealth. On December 25, 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed altogether along with Gorbachev’s dreams of preserving even a sliver of the old regime. Ever since the early 1990s Armenia has continuously fostered good relations with Russia and has generally supported Russian initiatives and proposals in the international community.

Although most Armenians are extremely proud of their county’s sovereignty and independent status now, I think Armenia’s reluctance to leave the mutually beneficial relationship with Russia has been forgotten by a majority of Armenian people. This reluctance to be more independent on the international scene is also something that I believe has stymied Armenia’s growth to a degree.

However, Ter-Petrosian’s calculations in wanting to keep extremely close ties with Moscow were logical, pragmatic, and foretelling. Armenia needed the Soviet Union much more than the Soviet Union needed Armenia. In 1991, Armenia only made up 1.1% of the Soviet population, it produced only .9% of the USSR’s GDP, Armenia exported 63.7% of its national material product (NMP) to other Soviet republics, while only exporting 1.4% of its NMP abroad or outside the Soviet Union. Even more statistically disturbing for the Armenian leadership of the early 1990’s was that 40% of all enterprises in Armenia during the Soviet period were dedicated to defense procurement. This would have been a benefit to the newly independent nation at war, yet most of the raw materials and engineering expertise had already left Armenia as the Russian’s began to re-allocate resources within Russia proper (whatever that is).*

As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union new border wars started among old enemies. The period know as Pax Sovietica ended as lands with heterogeneous populations or at least regions with large minority contingencies began to fight in hopes of reclaiming land. The same thing that occurred in the Balkans between Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, and Kosovo’s citizens were occurring simultaneously in the Caucuses as Armenian, Georgians, Azeris, South Ossetians, and Abkhazians tried to settled centuries’ old territorial disputes. The situation in the Balkans has become relatively cold and non-confrontational in recent years, as seen by amicable diplomatic relations and the success of the UN Peace keeping force on the ground. Internationally, the Balkans’ conflict of the early 1990s seems to have cooled, even though the local population’s still hold strong resentment toward their former foe. This underlying bitterness can be seen in terroristic acts committed in the cities of Mostar, Belgrade and Sarajevo; and in the continued use of nationalistic symbols, especially by Croat ustache followers.

In the Caucuses the case is quite different and maybe this is due to the fact that the Caucuses are not directly on Western Europe’s back door step. Rather the Caucuses are situated between the giant bear to the east, Russia, and the Middle East, an already uncertain and tumultuous region. In general there are many enclaves within the Caucus region that are still disputed, mainly on historical grounds. Now, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are fighting for their independence from Georgian suzerainty, even though most members of the international community recognize both regions reside within Georgian borders. So there is still quite a bit of controversy in the northern part of the Caucuses. While Georgia, a pro-Western nation, has strong economic and thus diplomatic ties with Baku and Ankara. So in effect the Georgia-Sunni triangle (Azerbaijan and Turkey) geographically isolates Armenia from its historical friend and ally Russia and has forced Armenia to become more dependent on their Shiite friend to the south.

Currently Armenian has few friendly neighbors and those nations that Armenia has good relationships with, in the region, are not on the best of terms with the United States. Most Armenians I’ve met still have a very strong nostalgic yearning for the calmness and certainty that existed during the Soviet years and Armenia as an independent nation maintains friendly ties with Moscow. Calmness and certainty are probably two of the rarest conditions the Armenian people have lived under throughout their history. By de facto geographic arrangements Armenia has very good economic relations with their Persian friends to the south—Iran. While most Armenians still strongly dislike Turkey, who still has not taken any responsibility for the acts the Ottoman government committed against the Armenian civilians around the time of the 1st World War. Then during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over several disputed territories, but mainly in Nagorno-Karabakh. Most Armenians classify both Azeris and Turkish people as Turks and there is a general dislike of both nationalities. Still today Armenia and Azerbaijan are officially at war and each country loses several men every year mainly due to sniper fire. Currently Armenia’s borders with both Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed, which has negatively affected Armenia’s transitional economic growth from a Soviet Republic to a member of the international free market.

Today I went for quite a long run in the morning, but went at a little bit of a slower pace from the previous run which I was completely excited about doing. Lately I have had a runny nose and a little bit of a cold and running in the morning I had that wonderful mucous build-up from the night before. When I got back to my host families apartment I wanted to take a shower, but like most things here it takes a bit longer to do everything. First, we had to move out the washing machine, redirect the water supply to make sure it was going to the bathroom, and assure my host mother that I knew how to take a shower. My ever-so-loving, but occasionally over protective host mother was convinced I didn’t know how to turn the hot water for the shower on, so she sent her 32 year old son in to help me when I was completely naked. I reassured him that I knew how to turn on a water faucet and informed that I first wanted to shave and that is why I didn’t have the shower on.

After having that lovely experience I sat down to eat my scrambled eggs and hot dogs in a big juice pile of grease. I think that why I haven’t recovered as quickly from my cold, since most of the stuff I eat here would not exactly be considered health foods and I don’t even know if a family from the Deep South could stomach the quantity of grease ingested with every meal.
After running, showering, and eating I finally made it to my place of employment, school number #1. I walked into the teachers’ lounge where the entire faculty of the school was present. At that point I was very happy that I had shaved, but also that I dressed up in nice clothes because you know what they say about first impressions.

The school director, who is named Rubeek, is a cool guy and he was the one who actually invited me to go to the Turkey versus Armenia soccer game on September 6th. The school director jokes around quite a bit and so it makes him a bit more difficult for me to understand, but overall we have a friendly relationship. My counterpart, the lady that I work with is named Susanna. She is the geography teacher at my school and is just as enthusiastic about learning English as I am about learning Armenian. She is probably in her late-40s and has a daughter and husband who are both very friendly and patient when we communicate.

My counterpart and I really didn’t do much work at school, but we did go over some vocabulary words both in Armenian and English that each of us want to learn. I suggested that we both start a dictionary of words that we use frequently and she was up for the idea, so I have started my dictionary, but let’s see how long this project lasts as the craziness of the school year is about to start.

When I got home or to my host family’s apartment, no one was home and it was quite hot so I decide to make a peanut butter sandwich, the peanut butter was a gift a former volunteer gave me, it was by far the most delicious thing I had tasted in my entire life. I sat down to watch some Olympics coverage but the only thing I could thing about was that peanut butter sandwich, so of course my disciplined self ate two more scrumptious peanut butter sandwiches. By that time my host mother had returned home and I was thinking about offering her some peanut butter, but my altruistic spirit faded when I thought of all the possible repercussions of parting with such a rare commodity in this part of the world.

As I was enjoying my peanut butter sandwiches I was also watching the Olympics. Armenian television stations rarely show any Olympics coverage so I am kind of lucky that my family has satellite t.v. Armenians love watching wrestling, judo, and weight lifting, but many team sports don’t seem very popular. Anyhow the only channel that I can pick up regular sports coverage is Abu Dhabi Sport. It is actually pretty cool. The set looks very similar to a Sports Center set, however the announcers are dressed in their traditional wardrobe, which I sadly forget the name for.

After studying for about an hour my family said they were going out to the field to work. My host mother’s daughter lives in a village a couple of kilometers away and there we worked for about 4 hours. The work was very relaxing and calming. I dug up, gathered, and bagged about 100 kilograms of potatoes. They told me if potato gathering was an Olympic sport I would surely win gold. I don’t know why, but I really enjoyed the work. I also received a nice perspective of what some of my ancestors probably went through in Ireland during the 19th century and the kind of work people across the planet do every day. When the truck came down to get us I was pretty confident that the axel was going to snap in half as the driver bounded in and out of pretty large ditches. It was also enjoyable loading up the 35 kilogram bags of potatoes into the back of the old Soviet era truck. After loading up the truck my host father and I jump in the bed with all of the bags of potatoes and headed back to the farm house. We constantly had to duck as we swiped the limbs a number of trees on the way home. The roads were iffy at best and the Armenians keep the quality of the roads sufficient enough to transverse only on the best of days.

Today August 20th has been a bit slower of a day. Surprisingly, my cold has not subsided and I still have a runny nose. I arrived at school early in the morning and to my surprised there were wine and cognac bottles spread throughout the teacher’s lounge. It was one of the teacher’s birthdays and I guess the style of celebration in Armenia is not dependent on the location of celebration. Or rather birthday celebrations at home are conducted in a similar way to birthday celebrations at the work places.

After celebrating for a little bit my counter-part, Susanna, and I went to the school’s library to see what text-books the school had this year for geography and in general what resources were available. The library, although looking very dreary and in disrepair, had a wide-range of books and resources and I was fairly impressed. There were books in Armenian, Russian, French, German, and English. The English selection at the school was comical at best, when considering that these books are available so that students can begin reading elementary English books. There was a book on how to remodel basements and attics, a text-book for advanced accounting, an anthropology text-book, and several scripts of bad American movies that never made it to theater.

After school I went into to town to get some pictures developed and use the internet. I was able to get the pictures developed they were from the one year olds’ birthday party I went to last weekend and her father liked some of the pictures that I took and he really wanted a couple of them. Yet the internet was definitely down and the computers were running extremely slowly in general. I have become convinced maintenance of property, equipment, and capital is not a priority in Armenia. The computer’s fans could no longer run probably due to the fact there was a good half inch of dust collected on every fan blade. I also began to de-frag the computer’s hard-drive, but I soon realized this would be a two day process. So I promptly cut my losses and left the computer lab after paying 100 dram or about .30 cents.

The rest of the day I have spent organizing resources that I received from Peace Corps and preparing them for presentation tomorrow. For lunch my host mother tried to feed me a range of hot dog looking things and I declined politely. I decided to only eat the fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and bread which are delicious as always.

My new host mother has a variety of remedies that she claims will cure my runny nose and slight cold. Usually I accept her tea and fresh honey which always makes my throat feel better, but since it is so hot here I am usually sweating profusely after drinking the tea. She also wants me to eat straight butter which she continuously claims will help my cold, but I am a bit weary of that. I think she gave up trying to feed me straight butter and so now she tries to put it in my tea. Just seeing her trying to put a big chunk of butter in my tea makes me cringe in disgust.
Life has definitely changed completely over the last week. While, I was in Pre-Service Training every hour of everyday was planned out. Now, at my permanent site the days are completely free which I love. I have time to go running, work out, type blogs, read, study Armenian, and in general have more control over my life. This fact is very comforting especially in a country where your language skills are limited.

I hope everyone is doing well in the states. Overall things are still going well here in Armenia.

Mark Jensen

*Suny, Ronald Grigor. “Soviet Armenia”in The Armenian People From Ancient to Modern Times.

Remember this blog is a reflection of my own personal thoughts and reflections and in no way represents the views of the Peace Corps or the United States' government.