Archive for February, 2011

Things That Worry Me

February 26, 2011

In the lens of the revolution of the muslim world, I am growing increasingly concerned about Armenia’s current state. There are several major problems facing the country, none of which seem to have imminent solutions.

Economic
Currently, inflation is digging its teeth into the purchasing power of Armenians. Figures for January put inflation at 2.8%, which is about what the US normally sees in a year. Food prices are particularly worrisome. The price of wheat is expected to skyrocket this year. Russia experienced a major drought last year, so they are not exporting wheat. Armenia relies on Russia for wheat imports. Armenia consumes around 650,000 tons of wheat annually, of which only about 115,000 tons are produced in Armenia. They will have to find a new importer, and prices are likely to be higher.

Another major economic problem for the common Armenian is paying for heating. Gas provides the most warmth, but its price is out of reach for many. There was a lot of concern here as gas rates were set to revert back to market rates (after the expiration of a buddy-buddy subsidy from Russia). That would mean a jump from $180 per 1,000 cubic meters to $300 per 1,000 cubic meters. However, I just read that the Armenian president’s current trip to Russia resulted in an agreement not to raise rates. It’s good news for Armenians and Armenia (more below), as they already suffered through a nearly 40% increase in the cost of gas last year.

Finally, the lack of jobs is crippling. Nothing else, in my opinion, factors in to Armenians’ desire to leave their own country more than the lack of jobs does. Why are there no jobs? I don’t think I’m well-versed enough to give a complete answer. It’s a complex situation. Their 2 major borders are closed. Just getting things from point A to point B is a problem. They lack natural resources like we have back home. The political and legislative environment maybe isn’t suitable for foreign direct investment. Armenia continues to rank low in ease of doing business type surveys. Regardless of the reasons for lack of jobs, it means that Armenians have trouble paying for things, there are less tax revenues, and, most importantly, a deficit of hope.

Political
Okay, I hate politics. I might not know what I’m talking about here. But the political situation in Armenia is not great. The 2008 elections that brought Serzh Sargsyan to the President’s office were tainted. Many Armenians still hold that he should not be the president. In fact, due to the crappy economic situation, there is quite a bit of dissatisfaction with the political regime right now. There was recently a demonstration in Yerevan, led by former president Ter-Petrosian, that called for snap elections to oust the current cast.

Another major problem in the political area is corruption. It is hard for me to see corruption, as I am just a dude in Vardenis. But it definitely happens and is a major, major barrier to the development of the country. Take, for example, the Millennium Challenge Corporation. This is a foreign aid agency created by US congress some years ago to foster development in countries of need. Armenia had a compact starting in 2006 worth $236 million. But due to poor governance (corruption) and violence associated with the tainted 2008 elections, the program was descoped down to $180 million. Guess where the extra money probably went? Funny you should ask, because Georgia, our progressive, open, western-thinking northern neighbor, had a similar $295 million pact signed in 2005. In 2008, MCC agreed to amend the compact, increasing it to $395 million. Way to go, Armenia. In my mind, it resembles something like Leon Lett.

The biggest political problem though, is the region. There is a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. NK is currently a little slice of “independence” within Azeri borders. It’s a country that no one recognizes as a country. It is an ethnically Armenian area, which voted for independence right when the Soviet Union was collapsing. That led to a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which Armenia kind of won. There are now Armenian-occupied territories (like, right next to where I live) between NK and the Armenian border. So if we consider NK to be Armenia (which it pretty much is as far as I understand), Armenia occupies around 15% of Azeri territory. So the Azeris are pissed about this. The 2 sides can’t agree to a solution for NK. Azerbaijan is oil-rich right now, so they are increasing military spending. This year it will be $3 billion, or more than the entire Armenian state budget. And the war rhetoric has been heating up lately. There are constant violations of the ceasefire, as soldiers near the border are sniped and killed by both sides.

So that is Armenia’s direct problem, but there are so many other indirect ones. The Caucasus are such an interesting place because of the dynamics between the countries. It is like a group of bitchy high school girls who are friends with each other. Each country likes one of the other ones, despises another, and has issues with one of the major regional powers (Russia, Turkey, Iran). Armenia hates Azerbaijan, is cool with Georgia and Iran, loves Russia, and loathes Turkey. Azerbaijan hates Armenia, is okay with Georgia, is good with Iran (Azeris make up 25% of the Iranian population, crazy huh?), loves Turkey, and is suspicious of Russia. Georgia is okay with Armenia and Azerbaijan, but despises Russia. Simple, right?

I think it’s one of the things we don’t experience in America much…the border relations. Sure, we have Mexico and Canada, but for the most part we are pretty isolated.

Ecological
This problem area is the first you notice when you come to Armenia. Why is there so much garbage everywhere? Why am I having a hard time seeing the end of the street in Yerevan? Why are there trees coming out of the water in Lake Sevan? The simple answer is the level of environmental protection that should be required just doesn’t exist yet. There are no rules or societal taboos about littering. Burning your garbage is seen as being proactive. Recycling is minimal at best. Smog is a major issue in Yerevan. Unless you are there after a rainstorm, don’t bet on seeing the beautiful nearby Mt. Ararats, or the Turkish Mt. Aragats (where Noah’s ship supposedly struck ground). Much of the environment has been raped. The Soviet era was especially hard on the environment. Lake Sevan was drained, then developed, and now is being raised. That beautiful strategy means that you can commonly see buildings, trees, and other things protruding out of the water. The shore is mostly non-existent, as the lakeside looks more like a floodplain than somewhere you would want to take a dip.

Deforestation has been a major problem since independence. When there were no lights, no gas, no heat, people turned to firewood to survive. The countryside has never recovered. And now, gas prices force many villagers to burn firewood. For example, my family in Solak. That’s why the news that gas prices won’t increase is a blessing to forests all over Armenia. As you know, deforestation drastically changes the natural habitat. Native critters lose their homes and soil erosion becomes rampant, not to mention there are fewer ways to clean that dirty Yerevan air.

There are also some major industrial impacts to the environment in Armenia. For instance, a uranium mine in the south is being discussed. As Americans, its proximity to Iran should worry you. For Armenians, everything else about it should worry them. But as I stated in the economic portion, the lack of jobs makes any endeavor, any foreign investment, extremely enticing. Another is the aging Metsamor nuclear power plant near Yerevan. This thing has been sanctioned by international bodies and recommended shut down. It keeps on chugging, just like those 35 year old Ladas everywhere, despite potential disaster. Due to its danger, PC won’t post volunteers within a 30km radius. People who work at the plant are known to have dangerously high levels of radiation, but continue to work because they have no other choice.

There are many other issues that I either don’t know about or haven’t gotten in to here.

So, Armenia is a fragile place. I get the feeling that it is a pressure cooker. Something will happen soon. Peace and prosperity seem unreachable at times. But why do I write about all this? As a volunteer living in this country, I have become attached. I see the big picture every day, but can’t do much about it. All I can do is try to touch a few lives and help Vardenis in some way. I know I am not a player in the major issues Armenia faces. It’s important for me to realize that underneath every smile I meet on the streets, all of these problems weigh heavily on the souls of Armenians. They are an ancient people who have been through a lot, so maybe they are better at dealing with it. But I have to know they are there. Armenia, as much as I enjoy it and think of it as a great place, has many serious issues. And I know deep down that I will fly home next summer to the land of milk and honey; these problems aren’t truly mine and never will be. So I feel for them. I guess I also think about it because I know I have to prepare myself mentally to get sent home early in case something happens. There was a time when I wouldn’t have minded getting sent home. But now, it would sting in a way that I don’t want to know. That’s why I think about these things.

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The Walk to Ayrk

February 20, 2011

The last few weeks have been busy ones full of travel. So when I was invited to go meet up with friends and Georgia PCVs nearby, I had to decline. I was exhausted of people. Instead, I opted for a weekend in Vardenis.

Vardenis is surrounded by mountains, but I’ve only ventured into them once, last fall. I decided that it was high time to do some more exploring. But since we’re covered in pretty deep snow, hiking into the mountains isn’t a great option. Instead, Aga and I hiked to a remote village.

There are 37 villages under Vardenis’s jurisdiction. A lot of them are pretty spread out and not within walking distance. Many were Azeri villages that were landing points for Armenian refugees from Baku.

Yesterday we set out under sunny skies along a lightly driven road south of town. We were soon enveloped in the serene silence of snow covered fields and mountains. The excitement of discovery and newness was palpable. After almost an hour of walking, we crunched around a hill and saw the village for the first time.

The weather changed drastically on the other side of the hills. The sun went away for good and the wind picked up. The road was covered with drift snow. I couldn’t help but think of the book, “The Giver”, where the boy keeps walking down a road out of town, drifting further and further from civilization, while the weather changes from sterile to arctic.

Aga en route to Ayrk

Buildings on the horizon seemed to stay in place no matter how long we walked. After 30 more minutes, a lone taxi came up from behind and stopped. The people inside beckoned for us to sit. But we declined, as the place was seemingly within our grasp now.

We finally arrived at the edge of the village. There was little sign of life. Many of the houses had no smoke coming out of the chimneys. They appeared abandoned. Then, we saw clothes on a clothesline, a dog barking, and a couple of silhouettes walking behind us against the gray sky. We continued on in to the middle of the village, where we could see a dark school building and a 2 story building with a tattered Armenian flag.

Many buildings were in a state of disrepair

The second building was the mayor’s office, where we stopped for a snack and a windbreak. As we sat on the stone porch, we glimpsed a couple villagers hauling hay or tending to animals. It seemed like a sad, quiet place. I kept thinking about how isolated it was, nestled into the mountains that create the Armenian border. Most of these people have probably never seen Yerevan, or maybe even Vardenis. We both agreed that it would be really hard to live in such a place. With that, it was time to say goodbye to this mysterious and sleepy place and make the 2 hour journey home.

There’s a Mouse Up in this House

February 16, 2011

Breaking news: I woke up this morning to a mouse in my bed.

More breaking news: Just got done plastering all the cracks between the floorboards and wall to trap that bastard in his place.

We will keep you abreast of any developments in this story.

Gyumri

February 14, 2011

To fulfill my main goal of 2011, which is to get out and see the country, I visited Gyumri this weekend. Armenia’s 2nd biggest city had been beckoning, especially since there are a handful of PCVs there.

Sometimes it is easier to not do than to do. That is especially true when doing entails 10 hours in marshrutkas over a 48 hour period. But I’m very glad I went and experienced this city.

Gyumri is known for being one of the great Armenian cities. Like all things Armenian, it has a tragic history. The city was once the 3rd biggest in the Caucasus, after Tbilisi and Baku. During the 1900s the Soviets built up Yerevan, while Gyumri stood in line waiting for its primping. But it never came. Just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Gyumri suffered a devastating earthquake. I’ve read that nearly 50,000 died in that earthquake. While the epicenter was closer to Spitak, Gyumri suffered more casualties as it was a bigger city. The recovery effort was also tragically fumbled, as many people lived for years without basics like running water, electricity, or gas. No wonder many Armenians call those the cold dark years.

View from the altar of a partially collapsed church

Slowly, Gyumri climbed back to its feet. But as it was not completely leveled like Spitak was, it didn’t receive a complete overhaul. In fact, when walking around the city you might think the earthquake happened 2 years ago, not 23 years ago. There are still many destroyed buildings. Their main church has been undergoing careful reconstruction for many years. You can also see partially collapsed buildings where one portion has been renovated and someone is living inside. Domik (old soviet shipping containers) housing is unfortunately still a common site. The Armenians undoubtedly tried to make the most of their bad situation, as you can observe domiks that have been upgraded and added-to throughout the years. These were supposed to be temporary housing solutions for displaced persons, but the new house never came. I can only hope the same doesn’t happen in Haiti 20 years from now.

Despite all these things working against it, Gyumri stands out as a proud city with lots of character. It is a noticeably older city than Yerevan. Many of the buildings in Yerevan are new and rather bland. But in Gyumri there is quite a bit of imperial Russian architecture that survived. There are cobblestone streets and a few nooks and crannies that just give it that special flavor.

The people as well are known for their ridiculous sense of humor and their odd dialect. I can’t comment on the humor, but I did notice that Gyumri’s citizens were easily the tallest I’ve seen in Armenia. As I strolled through the streets with fellow PCV and former Solak village-mate John, both of us standing at a respectable 6’2”, there were several Armenians taller than us. And many were at our level. Don’t get me wrong, there were still many short Armenians waddling about, but for the first time there were plenty of tall outliers too. I also noticed we didn’t attract an inordinate amount of attention. There were stares and glances, but it was closer to being in Yerevan than being in Vardenis in that regard.

Since the city is about 120,000 people, there is plenty to do. There are lots of restaurants (maybe 20 or so), several large squares, parks with cafes, and a couple touristy type monuments. The city is rather spread out, which means that there are local marshrutkas scurrying about. No building stands more than 4 or 5 stories, and for good reason.

Schuka

The majority of my time was spent touring the city. There is a fantastic shuka (open air market) where you can buy everything from cow legs to giant grape leaves for dolma. They also have an interesting “mall” which is like a partially covered private storage unit facility. Rows of little garages come alive with old Armenian men and women peddling black clothes, shoes, and coats. It is bizarre to walk through a mall where every store sells nearly identical clothing. I wanted to provide a picture but it was so cold that my camera wasn’t working.

So, that was Gyumri. It was a good experience and something that I needed to do. I don’t know if I’ll be back. I would be going back to see my friends rather than the city. I think next up will be Vanadzor. I have been there once, but it was only for a couple hours; I didn’t really get to see the city.

With that I wish you a happy Valentine’s Day. Even if you are without a special someone, as I am, make it a great day anyway. I taught some Armenians how to say “Be my Valentine!”

Border 2 Border

February 10, 2011

A while back I mentioned I would be applying for a walk across Armenia. In January I heard back that I did not make the walking teams, but I was chosen as the first alternate for either group. I was also asked to help out with organization of the project too. I was more than happy to oblige.

Since we are now in full swing, here is the scoop. The project will take place in June, aiming to raise awareness for child health, raise more awareness for Peace Corps in Armenia and its 50th anniversary worldwide, and connect disparate organizations. How will we do that? By sending 2 groups of 6 volunteers each to walk across Armenia while handing out information and presenting training seminars. The Northern Group will walk from the Georgian-Armenian border while the Southern Group will walk from the Iranian-Armenian border. Both groups will meet in Martuni after about 20 days of walking/teaching.

Several of my meetings in Yerevan last week were for Border 2 Border. We met with a couple big name organizations here in Armenia and are hopeful to soon announce some partnerships. My specific functions are tied to the budget and, more broadly, to a sub-team that is focusing on NGO cooperation and marketing.

Check out more details here at the official blog.

Also, there is a Facebook “cause” page dedicated to this effort. Join up and tell all your friends too!

Musings

February 6, 2011

It was like an arctic wonderland: the early morning sky bleeding shades of orange, red, and yellow as the sun prepared to rise from the mountains separating Armenia from Azerbaijan. The mountains were completely white with snow, as was everything around me as my feet crunched with every stride. I cautiously navigated past the packs of street dogs, not being able to think of anything except the beauty of the moment.

When I first came to Vardenis, I never thought I could discover any beauty here. Now I know that even this place can be beautiful if you look at it the right way. Yes, a fresh coating of snow definitely helps. But I think it’s more a statement on my overall feelings of living in Armenia. What can I say? I am happy here. Armenia is my home now.

A lot has happened. Some things have probably already slipped through the cracks of my memory, but what follows was significant enough for me to remember. Get ready for a disconnected blog post…

After basically hibernating during January, I awoke from my slumber. I think I only left my site once during a large chunk of January. Between Nor Tari, moving, and getting back into the swing of work, I was content to stay in Vardenis. The past week forced me out though, as I had multiple meetings.

Monday I went to Yerevan for a meeting and to handle some PC paperwork. The place was alive with volunteers because there was a conference going on. It was one that I did in the fall. I picked up some books at the office, ate shwarma, and had a good, though long, day. Tuesday night I found out I had a meeting in Yerevan again on Thursday. I wasn’t thrilled to go back again so soon, but then again I knew I had to be there Friday for a meeting as well. However, staying in Yerevan is very expensive on our little volunteer budgets. A night at the hostel is 5000 AMD, which is like $14 or something. Add that to meals and probably some beers (let’s be real), and you can quickly run out of cash. Plus just getting to Yerevan and back is 3000 for me.

To combat this dilemma, I decided to call my host family in Solak. I wanted to visit them this weekend anyway, so staying at their place Thursday night seemed like a good move. Luckily, they didn’t mind that I called them Tuesday night and asked to stay Thursday night. So, after a successful meeting with World Vision, I hopped in the marshrutka and headed to Solak, 30km away. It was my 2nd visit there since training. Just like the first visit, it was a great time. I could speak with them a bit more, understand a bit more, and generally basked in their awesomeness. There was good food, a warm wood stove, and I even got to see their newly opened store. I think part of why the visits are so good is that it brings back so many good memories from the summer time. Living in Solak was not easy because I was going through all the growing pains of adjusting to life here. But in retrospect, I can appreciate the gains I made, the friends I made, and my first home in Armenia. It leaves me with a special connection with the family as well. These people took care of me when I could barely communicate with them. There is also an air of happiness in Solak when compared to Vardenis. On my walk into town, I passed a group of kids laughing and sledding down the hill with a dog chasing them. They warmly welcomed me, as did several other people walking by. I stopped and chatted with a couple girls near the school. All of this adds up to make you really feel welcome.

Friday I got to see a lot of volunteers in Yerevan. I stayed at the hostel and went out for food and drinks with people. We had a meeting, but most of it was just social. I think everyone else was like me – they had been cooped up in their sites since December and were ready to get out and see each other. I’m going to use my momentum while I have it to visit Martuni today for a Super Bowl gathering and to visit Gyumri next weekend. In Martuni we will attempt to watch the game on an internet feed. If it works I will be amazed. If it doesn’t work I won’t be sad since the Packers are playing. By default I must root for the Steelers, even if Ben Roethlisberger is an idiot. We will be watching at 3:30 a.m. local time. My bet is not on the game however. I am betting on the fact that I can stay up all night, watch the game, and get back to Vardenis in time for work Monday morning.

On the way to Yerevan Thursday morning, a car started honking at our marshrutka. We pulled over on the side of the highway. The driver got out. I thought it was due to engine trouble. Then I saw a white Lada pulled over in front of us. Its driver (maybe 30) got out and ran to the marshrutka driver (50ish). He started screaming and shoving our driver against the side of the marshrutka. That prompted the 12 or so Armenian men in our marshrutka to fly outside to participate in the skirmish. The shoving continued even though it was 1 on 13. I found myself alone in the marshrutka, save a tatik and a military guy who seemed uninterested. Memories of the harsanik fight swirled in my head as I watched through the frosty window. After 1 minute, the fight ended. The drivers got back in their respective vehicles. The Armenian men filed back in, climbing over my legs. Then we continued our journey. The driver’s adrenaline must have been flowing, because we kicked it up to about 120km/h. The marshrutka was shaking as if it was going to blast into outer space. Somehow, I am still alive.

I noticed this stencil of Armenia included Nargorno-Karabakh and disputed regions of Azerbaijan in between.  I didn't understand the text though.  After a translation it all came together.

"Liberated rather than occupied"

Another topic of interest over the past few days, among Armenians, was my love life. Or, specifically, lack thereof. My host dad in Solak was asking a bunch of questions about taking an Armenian girl back to the states. When I told him with a laugh that I didn’t know and that I hadn’t found anyone yet, he looked at me in a piercing way. “Loorch” (seriously). “When you find an Armenian girl to marry, I will be the godfather at your wedding. And if you can’t find one in Vardenis, tell me. I will find a girl for you here.” All this promised effort from a man who shouts for his wife in another room to grab a knife out of the drawer that is literally right next to where he is sitting. I am touched, and a little creeped out. Another volunteer explained that it means they really consider me part of their family. That’s fine, but I don’t want an arranged marriage. I would actually like things like, you know, love and compatibility. Plus there is the element of “does she love me or does she just want to go to America?”

Moving on to marinara sauce. I made my own last night for the first time. I took tomato paste and added water, sugar, and spices. It was a bit too sweet, but much better than tomato paste plain. That’s right, I have been eating pasta with tomato paste. Besides canker sores, there appear to be no other ill side-effects, other than the taste. I need to experiment with the marinara though. It is easy, fun to do, and potentially very delicious. I’ve also been foraying into other unchartered culinary territories, mostly due to the lack of Jack’s pizzas. I made fried rice the other day with potato and bologna. If that isn’t a Kevin meal, I don’t know what is. It was really good!

In Yerevan I bought a couple Armenian films. I have no television now, and thus, no access to the subpar Armenian programming that I “studied”. Unfortunately, the films have no subtitles. I also can’t find subtitles on the internet. I watched one last night from 1980 titled, “Xoshor Shahum”, or The Big Win. I understood maybe 30-40%, but subtitles would be a big help. One of the disadvantages of learning a small language like Armenian is the lack of resources. You can find subtitles in 50+ languages for American movies. But I can’t even find Armenian subtitles for Armenian movies. Oh well, I guess I will just watch them until I learn from osmosis.