Archive for September, 2010

Conferences, BBC, and Giardia, Oh My

September 28, 2010

9/26/10 1:33 p.m.

Another interesting week in the books. After my last post, I got a too-short haircut and an invitation to dinner at the barber’s house, went home to strap on the Asics, and went for a run in the late afternoon sun. I returned to 3 missed phone calls. Apparently the Counterpart/ Project Design and Management (PDM) workshop bus had been waiting for me in Yerevan…

About a month ago my program manager called me to see who was going to be attending the counterpart conference with me. My counterpart has already gone in the past, so she didn’t want to go. She decided that her husband, the President and CEO of the Y in Vardenis, should go instead. The plan was for him to drive us to Tsaghkadzor on Wednesday morning, rather than going to Yerevan on Tuesday to meet up with the big group and go to Tsaghkadzor. It would save us time, be more comfortable than a marshrutka, and made sense since he has a car. At the time I asked her to make sure she told PC that’s what we were doing, which she said she did. Thus my heart sank when I saw the 3 missed calls and later learned that PC had no idea we weren’t coming to Yerevan. Yuck. Lesson learned…I will be following up on my own next time.

The conference was in a very nice hotel in the resortish town of Tsaghkadzor. The town sits on a mountain side above the Marz capital of Hrazdan. It should have a warning label that reads, “Tsaghkadzor does not accurately reflect Armenia as a whole.” The streets are mostly clean, with nice sidewalks, and some appealing architecture. There are also some nice hotels and restaurants around the town square. Our hotel was another kilometer up the road. It is a sport complex, so there is a separate gym building and a track nearby. The gym is nothing much, but it gave us a place to play basketball and soccer, both of which I successfully did in dress shoes.

We had 2 full days of sessions relating to project design. At times it was dry, but it’s something we need to learn. We were split into small groups and were tasked with designing a mock project. There was some frustration on my part because my “counterpart” wasn’t really my counterpart. I can’t see myself working with him that much in the future. Also, the language gap between us was crippling. The others in my group had counterparts who could speak or understand English, which made it more frustrating for me. It was a good practice in Armenian, I guess, but if anything it was the latest reminder of how little I can communicate.

There were bright spots though. I got to see a lot of PCVs I hadn’t seen since PST or Sevan 2 weeks earlier. The cafeteria was buffet-style. I had multiple showers. I also, for the first time in 4 months, got to sit on my ass with a TV remote in my hand, all alone, and watch whatever I wanted. True, most of the channels were in Russian, but they also had BBC, which was like when you order the 9 piece McNugget but magically there is a 10th one in the box. I got to see Obama actually speak English. He was mad about Iran’s crazy president. Things are still the same in the world as when I left. That’s the kind of stability I need.

But with every bright spot comes diarrhea (not sure that is appropriate but it’s all I got). Yes, my friend Diarrhea visited during the conference. He also brought some of his other pals, Fatigue, Sulfurous Burps, and Loss of Appetite. By now I was beginning to know these guys all too well. I texted the PC Medical Officer (PCMO) Friday morning. She called me back and the verdict was Giardia.

Giardia is a parasite that is transmitted through water that has been in contact with fecal matter. The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, loss of appetite, excess gas, and sulfurous burps. I was thinking I might have it when I got sick in early August, but decided it might have been a one-off experience. Then I got a similar sickness in Sevan, and now again. One of the things about Giardia is that you can feel perfectly healthy most of the time you have it.

Now I have medicine that should take care of these bastards. I do wonder how I contracted the bug. I have been very careful to only drink filtered water, but there are so many gaps in my defenses. For instance, I drink tea all the time with my family. They also rinse their fruits/veggies in their own water. Or maybe it’s from brushing my teeth. Or from that one sip I took from the water fountain in Yerevan. Who knows. But I think lots of us here in Armenia get Giardia.

Having Giardia is much better than a lot of ailments PCVs from other countries get. Sure, I barely ate anything at our celebratory banquet dinner at a nice restaurant, and I didn’t enjoy any beers with the other volunteers, but at least it’s not Malaria or Tapeworm. In many ways PC Armenia is the “Posh Corps”; we have a lot of amenities here that other PC programs don’t enjoy. For that I am thankful, maybe spoiled, and cognizant that others reading this might be thinking, “I had it much worse.”

I have to pause here and have a celebratory moment. It has been 4 months since I left America! I don’t care who you are, that’s a long time. It’s a college semester. It’s a third of a year. It’s the NBA playoffs. It’s also weird to think that I was initially supposed to be leaving now, not back in May. And I was probably heading to Azerbaijan, which despises Armenia. Four months doesn’t mean success. In fact, according to the “Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment” graph we received at the conference, we are entering a 3 month trough of vulnerability now. But the success for me is that I’m here. Thank you for all your support, encouragement, and understanding, which have helped me immensely in reaching this point.

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Cow Shit Potatoes

September 21, 2010

9/21/10 10:15 a.m.

Even though Armenia is only the size of Maryland, the different regions can offer very different things. There are 10 marzes, or states. I live in Gegharkunik marz, which is known as the marz that surrounds Lake Sevan, the potato marz, or the cold marz. Yesterday I returned from a trip to Lori marz, having visited the town of Spitak and the city of Vanadzor. I’m not sure what Lori marz is known for, but it was much more mountainous and green than my marz.

We arrived in Spitak on Saturday afternoon after 5 or 6 hours in marshrutkas. When travelling here you basically have to go to Yerevan, the capital, first and then catch a marshrutka to your destination of choice. The main idea of the trip was to see the scout program in action at the Spitak YMCA. I was more or less a tagalong because the scouting project is Morten’s MO. Another staff member from our Y went along with us, which made the travel much easier. We also met our two Polish volunteers in Yerevan so they could make the trip with us as well.

I really didn’t know what to expect in Spitak. The city was the epicenter of the devastating 1988 earthquake, which was the beginning of some very difficult times in Armenia. The soviet union was collapsing, people couldn’t buy food or basic supplies, there was limited gas and electricity, and Azerbaijan decided to attack while the country was down, trying to collect itself in the years after the earthquake. Despite the city’s somber history, it seems as if things there are headed in the right direction. There has been a lot of international support over the years, which means a lot of reconstruction and new construction. So the city looks rather new and polished, instead of a former earthquake zone. But the irony is that the city looks so good now because it was almost completely leveled in the earthquake. The other nearby major cities, Vanadzor and Gyumri, apparently weren’t damaged as severely. Thus, they didn’t receive as much aid or attention. From what locals told me, those cities show much more evidence of the earthquake today.

The WW2 monument in Spitak's park


Spitak, which means “white” in Armenian, is nestled in between green mountains. The scenery offers many gorgeous views. It’s not a big place. It might have about 18,000 residents. The YMCA building is really fantastic. It was built over the last 2 years with most of the financing coming from a YMCA in Zurich. This YMCA more closely resembles what we would consider a YMCA in the states. There is a gym hall as well as a workout room. It has a very nice computer lab, several guest rooms, a spacious café area, classrooms for children, and a puppet room. Not only is the building great, but the location is as well. The YMCA is situated across a babbling stream from the city’s park. The Y also owns surrounding land which it can use for outdoor activities and future expansion.

The scout program we witnessed seemed very strong. It’s not quite like Boyscouts, but it is probably the closest thing Armenia has. They have some outdoor gear like tents and sleeping bags. They go on hikes and do things in nature. During our visit, they did an icebreaker, talked about friendship, played a game outside they called German Football which involves throwing a basketball to teammates ultimate-frisbee-style and then trying to topple the other team’s tower of rocks with the basketball, and then built a rope bridge to cross the little river. There were some bizarre differences from what you would see in America. For instance, many of the boys crossing the river were wearing “D&G” black leather shoes and other nice clothes. There is no uniform to speak of, no ranks, and in general it feels like just a bunch of kids hanging out. Maybe it’s better that way?

We stayed in the YMCA 2 nights (yes, I know. No jokes please. I’ve heard the song a million times here already). It’s a very nice place by Armenian standards. Our room had a shower, hot water, and new beds. The staff at the Y was amazing. They were very welcoming and cooked our meals for us. The strange part about that is the staff was all male. The men here don’t usually do any cooking, so to have men cooking for our female Polish friends was quite interesting. The first night we helped harvest potatoes from the garden and then cooked them on a fire of cow pies, or as Greesha, the scout leader kept saying, cow shit. It was a great stay.

Sunday evening some of the Spitak teenagers, who attended the Vardenis Y summer camp, gave us a tour of the town. It was awesome to walk around with these kids because they were so proud of their town. They wanted me to translate everything they said so that we could all know what was going on. I have to say it was pretty basic stuff, and there’s a ton I still don’t know, but I was able to translate most of the ideas. That was a good feeling for me. Sometimes I need to stop and enjoy the little victories in the language because it can feel like there are way more failures than successes!

Monday we made the short trip over to Vanadzor, which also has a YMCA. Vanadzor is the 2nd biggest city in Armenia at 170,000 people. It’s a former industrial powerhouse for the soviet union. Maybe it was the mitochondria of Armenia. That makes the drive into town a bit odd as you pass all the abandoned soviet factories. It’s a bit like if Decatur got hit with a bomb and then you drove through a year later. I was thinking, “well, I’m glad I don’t live here…it’s just a big spread out industrial wasteland.” But then we hit the main drag, which was literally a mini Yerevan. Nice landscaping, crowded streets, lots of activity, well-dressed people, and more. It was a very beautiful area.

The YMCA is situated near a nice church on a tree-lined street, next to a park with some cafes. Again, this YMCA was quite nice. It had a terrific computer lab, a nice dance room, and was very aesthetically pleasing because it took advantage of the leafy views of the park with tons of windows. The pitched wood ceiling was the perfect finishing touch. It felt like we were in a ski lodge. The building was older, built in 1997. But it is still on another level than the Vardenis YMCA. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time here. We watched the TenSing (Teenagers Singing) group for a while, before they inevitably made us join them in their activities. I also got to spend a bit of time with Kath, a PCV at the Vanadzor Y who was also in my PST village. A group of us went next door to the café for lunch before we had to depart for Yerevan.

I returned to Vardenis with a new appreciation for Armenia, the Y movement here, and my adventure in general. I feel fortunate to be able to see different parts of the country. I hope to visit many more areas in the future. The trip opened my eyes to what a YMCA can be in Armenia. It gives me something to aim for at our YMCA. Of course a Y in a poor town of 12,000 might not have the potential of a Y in a city of 170K, but there are things we can improve.

Today is Armenian Independence Day, so no work. But the break is short-lived; tomorrow I travel with my Y’s president to Tsaghkhadzor, former winter Olympic training facility of the soviets, for Peace Corp’s counterpart conference. It should be an interesting few days to say the least. I might even get to visit Solak again.

Also, I would like to thank my parents for the package I received!!

Sevan

September 13, 2010

9/13/10 9:20 a.m.

Yesterday was a holiday called Supkhach, which is a remember-the-dead day. So we don’t have work today. I am considering it a substitute for the lack of Memorial Day last week.

Friday I went to Yerevan with Morten for a national YMCA meeting about creating their website. I am not the person who will be building the website, but there may be some opportunities to help. From there we headed to Sevan for a weekend with other PCVs.

In Sevan we stayed in little cabin buildings on the lake. Unfortunately it was pretty cold and windy most of the time, but we still enjoyed ourselves. There is a peninsula with 2 old churches that serves as the local tourist trap. It offers great views of the surrounding area. The peninsula actually used to be an island before the lake was drastically lowered during soviet times.

Sevan Peninsula

It was really good to see the other volunteers again, even if it had only been a month. I could see some drastic changes in a couple people after just one month at their sites. There’s no doubt that being here is stressful in ways you can’t anticipate, and your body reacts accordingly. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost weight here, which is common among guys.

'This is OUR trash,' said the cows

Earlier in the week there was a concert at the local park to commence the renovation of the town’s culture house. There were Russian flags everywhere, so I think it might be funded by the Russian mining company that operates the gold mine near town. The Russian ambassador was there. It was a fun opportunity to do some people watching, since I am usually the one getting the stares. At one point some fat guy in a suit came up to Morten and me asking if we were Russian. When he found out we weren’t, he left immediately.

There was also a small gathering for the Polish volunteer’s birthday in her apartment. It was some of the most international hanging out I’ve ever done: An American, Englishman, Pole, and Dane. It made me realize how similar we all are (or maybe that’s just because we are all Westerners). Another Polish volunteer arrived on Saturday, but I have yet to meet her.

In other news, I would like to congratulate Emma on her placement in Peace Corps Cameroon! If you get a chance to read this, I hope you have a fantastic experience.

I do have to wonder what the world is coming to after recently learning that the Nebraska Cornhuskers will be joining the Big Ten, and that the Cardinals probably won’t make the playoffs. But what can you do?

Gaz Chka

September 4, 2010

9/3/10 9:00 PM

I was just reading a book called Blue Latitude, sitting with my back to the window to glean the last of the setting sunlight, eating a mini candy cane that had been expired for 2 months, while occasionally catching a whiff of my own stench, when I had one of the moments where you just think, “ahhhhh.”

It has been a good week. Monday our office was closed. I got my laundry done instead. Tuesday I went to Gavar and met with other PCVs. Today I inhaled a most delicious snickers after dinner. Work was fruitful this week. I had my first week of language tutoring. There is a new volunteer from Poland and another on the way. I got to say my goodbyes to Wayne. I finally memorized the 39 letter alphabet. There were 2 new foods this week too.

The language tutoring is very morale-boosting, because now I feel as if I am back on track, making progress in the language again. Plus it gives me something concrete to do 3 days a week. I do see now that I have made some progress in my comprehension after 1 month at site. I don’t think my speech has really improved, but I am noticing a few more words here and there. I’m also beginning to recognize new words in everyday speech. There is still so much to learn, but I can really see that the better my language is, the more I can get done here and the more I can enjoy my time here.

Okay, time for the food update. This week I had…………..
1. Walnut preserve thingies
2. Fig
The walnut thing was very new to me. They take the walnuts before they are brown and woody. They put them in some kind of magic dark sauce for canning purposes. They then eat the soft yet crunchy walnuts whole after letting them marinade in the syrup. The syrup is quite runny and slightly resembles maple syrup. Apparently they only eat it with tea, not on bread like I would think. It is almost too sweet for me. After trying one, I wasn’t going back for seconds.

Wayne and I after his farewell dinner - a great man!


The fig, or “tooz”, was also completely new to me. It looked like a colored onion. Again, I can’t say I was a big fig fan. The squishiness and mellow sweetness were not the best combination. It degenerated into some sort of mush ball which I wasn’t excited to finish. Most of the food I have tried here has been great. But maybe these 2 new ones just aren’t for me.

Wednesday and Thursday our gas was out, but with few noticeable consequences. My family quickly busted out a small electric coil stove without a plug on the cord. No matter, just plug the two exposed wires into the 2 outlet holes. Armenia!

Also, today was quite windy, which means it was also dusty. For the 3,268th time so far in Armenia, I was glad I wasn’t wearing contacts.

I think tomorrow morning I am going to take my first Vardenis run. It’s long overdue and I need to shower anyway.

PS – Address has been added to the “about” section to the right.