Cow Shit Potatoes

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!!

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2 Responses to “Cow Shit Potatoes”

  1. Peter Says:

    Kevin – do you have plow experience yet? hehe

    Sounds like you are really getting to see a lot of Armenia! I think it’s pretty awesome that you will have scoured an entire country at the end of your experience. When I was studying abroad it seemed like so many people left Rome nearly every weekend to go to all over Europe, but they never made it to so many places that were just as fun and interesting, but much closer, in Italy itself! I think there is something to say about getting to know one thing very well instead of getting just a taste of a lot of different things.

  2. icenugget Says:

    Peter I agree wholeheartedly. Being here makes me want to explore more of the US when I get back. Our country is extraordinarily large, which makes it harder to really see everything. The diversity within the US is amazing. Here it is the same general theme with different variations (judging from what I’ve seen so far).

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