Archive for June, 2011

Mashup: Past and Current Passions

June 29, 2011

If there was a Peace Corps where your work was skateboarding, this would be it. Check it:


Nagorno Karabakh

June 24, 2011

Today and tomorrow mark a very important meeting for the South Caucasus. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia will discuss Nagorno Karabakh in Kazan, Russia. The significance is high because of recent pressure put on making progress in the Azeri-Armenian dispute by the international community.

I wrote briefly about NKR (Nagorno Karabakh Republic) in my list of worries. Basically, it is a disputed territory, still a part of Azerbaijan, but ethnically Armenian and basically under Armenian control.

Along with NKR, Armenia occupies 13% of Azeri territories. These territories act as a buffer between NKR and Azerbaijan. Since NKR is not directly connected to Armenia, the occupied territories serve as supply lines into NKR. One of these is right next to Vardenis, called Kelbajar. In fact, just this week I rode with a group of soldiers on their way to Kelbajar. It is almost a no-man’s land. They told me that of the 400 people in the whole territory, half are soldiers.

Anyway, Russia, France, and the US all highlighted the importance of tomorrow’s meeting when they met at the G-8 Summit in May. Violence along the line of contact has been fierce in recent years, with many Armenian and Azeri soldiers dying every year. And Azerbaijan is always quick to point out that they will turn to war to get back what is rightfully theirs.

The international powers don’t want to see a war here (neither do I obviously). Russia has really been trying to broker the situation. From Russia’s point of view, war could be pretty bad. They are closely linked with Armenia militarily, so if war breaks out, they will support Armenia and NKR. Turkey would likely aid Azerbaijan. And Iran, which holds 25 million Azeris and shares a common religion with them, could also hop in. It would be an international mess to say the least.

Common belief is that Azerbaijan, while touting a much larger military budget than Armenia, would not fare well at all in a war. In fact, a few things I’ve read have said that war would an opportunity for Russia and Armenia to wipe Azerbaijan off the face of the map once and for all. Something tells me Baku and its oil riches would go to Russia.

This poorly organized and random string of thoughts I’m sharing with you is basically me trying to say that I’m very excited/anxious to read about what happens tomorrow. Either these guys are going to agree to the “basic principles” and move slowly forward towards peace, or somebody will get pissed off and things could escalate.

While the international pressure for a good result is nice, I’m not sure it will help much. There have been predictions that the countries are already close to agreeing on the basic principles (the thinking goes that otherwise the big guys wouldn’t have put the pressure on them publicly to do so). However, the 2 sides are pretty far apart still.

Armenia wants NKR to have the right to self-determination. Like a Kosovo. They want the 100% Armenian population there to be able to vote for its independence and become an internationally recognized country. Boom. Done.

Azerbaijan wants its territories back. It also wants NKR to be, at best, an autonomous region within Azerbaijan.

Neither side will accept anything less, apparently.

So how do you reconcile those two? Each side will have to give something up, right? Maybe Armenia gives back the territories if Azerbaijan agrees NKR can self determine. But wait, that really won’t make anyone happy.

There is a lot of political pressure within Armenia for the president to not concede anything. From an Armenian viewpoint, they won the war and should not have to give anything up. Even the occupied territories are seen here as “liberated” Armenian lands that belong to this country. So it’s a very complicated situation.

I will watch eagerly and hope for the best.

But it’s hard not to think about the worst, too. War could break out if things go sour, and that could be the end of my service here. But more importantly, it would probably be a big setback for a place like Vardenis, if things escalate.

Consider the Azerbaijani army:

Soldiers? Or boy band dressed as soldiers?

And then think about the Armenians:

Soldier? Or resident of St. Louis?

Who do you want defending your country?

So, while I may be in the Peace Corps, I can’t help but think about war.


June 21, 2011

I remember reading about the program while freezing my ass off in my host family’s house. A walk across Armenia for children’s health? It sounded amazing. It also seemed crazy and really far away. I had a few hesitations about helping out, thinking about all the marshrutka rides it might require, but I decided to submit my name anyway. Yesterday we celebrated the completion of that crazy walk.

On Thursday I met up with the northern team in Martuni just as they were starting their day in the 2nd school. I witnessed a surprisingly organized event for about 40 students. There were 3 classrooms that the students rotated through. Then there were snacks and exercises too. Despite the chaos of dealing with that many students during summer break, I was impressed. The walkers were disappointed and frustrated, venting that it was the worst seminar so far and that the rest were not this crazy. Whatever guys, I think you are just tired and ready to finish. It was a very cool event!

Friday morning we packed up and hit the road. There were about 60 km left on the walk. They had already walked north of 200 km, while I was fresh. My only concern was that I would suffer some embarrassing injury and have to drop out of my own mini B2B. We wound our way out of Martuni to the waves, honks, and greetings of curious Armenians. We continued on through a peripheral village and headed up a switchback that shot us into the countryside. The day was sunny and had a pleasant warmth – the kind that feels like a nice blanket rather than a beam of radiation. The rolling Gegharkunik landscape hid much of our approaching path behind subtle hills and twists in the road. To our right was an ancient volcano that now is filled with water.

After another hour of walking we were well into the countryside on this desolate road. Traffic was sparse, but passersby tended to honk and wave. We soon came upon a tiny cluster of buildings that appeared to be a herding settlement. They were different from the typical Armenian abode in that they were rectangular with flat sod roofs. I had to laugh when I saw one that looked to be on the verge of collapse – broken windows, overgrown everything, and of course, satellite dish. Then a teenage girl scurried out towards the road with a big shepparding stick. After being surprised that I knew Armenian, she invited me in for coffee. With 4 people far ahead of me and 2 behind me, I had to decline. But the thought of her life and what the coffee conversation would have been fueled me for many more kilometers.

Three or four hours into the walk we took a break. I was beginning to feel the beating of the road. I couldn’t imagine what the others must feel like. We tried to gauge how much we had left, but that was hard to do. Random villagers would tell us one thing while the map painted a much different picture. It didn’t really matter though – the only thing to do was to walk whatever the distance was and get to our destination.

One massive hill later, we came upon a sign denoting the Silk Road. Surely we were on top of some sort of mountain, although it felt just like a big plain. A tiny sheppard’s outpost could be seen on an adjacent hill. Other than that, it was just us, a big empty road, and wildflowers creeping to the edge of the distant mountains. One other thing was obvious: there was a mountain in the distance that did not have the distinctive gentle slopes of Gegharkunik. This mountain was craggy, dry, and brown. After seeing that I knew we were close.

Silk Road. This is Mythril Gauntlets +2 stuff.

Sure enough, after we came to the edge of the plateau, we were met with one of the most incredible views I’ve had in Armenia. Below us was a massive gorge, a distant village, and a windy road that we would walk the next day. Beyond that we couldn’t be sure, as a light dust hung in the air and hinted at the climate that awaited us. Also enjoying the view was a friendly Russian couple with whom communication was a comical mixture of single English words and the very few Russian words we’ve picked up during our time.

We continued down the next bend in the road only to see our home for the night appear from behind the rocks. A little clearing that contained a long building and a picnic table turned out to be the caravanserai we were seeking. The building was perfectly situated to take advantage of the gorgeous (hah) view. We explored this 14th century building immediately, marveling in the skylights that let fingers of sunlight penetrate the deep darkness of the main building. The inside was so cool we could see our breath.

CouchSurfing for 15th century Persians

The rest of the afternoon was spent outside resting, eating, and interacting with a constant flow of visitors. We met Armenians, Americans, Russians, Poles, and even an A-15 PCV who was back in the country with his Armenian wife. John and I explored a potential shortcut only to find that it wasn’t feasible. That little journey cost me about 100 mosquito bites. It was the first time I have run into mosquitoes here actually.
I gathered some wood and we did a small fire as people went to sleep. The group was tired and most turned in at about 9:00 (it doesn’t get dark until at least 9:45 now). I was the last to bed, sitting on the picnic table and watching the stars come out over the twinkling lights of the village below. Now it was windy and quite cool, as we were at 2400 meters (about 7,900 feet). Despite an inadequate sleeping bag and clothing, I drifted off to sleep.

Suddenly I was awoken from a dream by Lada Niva headlights coming right at me. It felt like a dream itself. Frightened, I woke John up and we proceeded to watch the Niva circle the lot and finally park. 6 Armenians spilled out, the hatchback was opened, and a big pile of wood removed. Khorovats.

The Armenians discovered us some minutes later and were then persistent that we join them for a toast. I was cold, grumpy, and in my boxers. For once, I declined the hospitality and told them to leave us alone. After much badgering, John finally appeased their pleas and took a shot. In their quest for firepit stones, they scared the bejesus out of Kath. After that, John and I just stayed up to watch them and make sure nothing happened. The khorovats was surprisingly quiet and fast, lasting only an hour. Then they left and it was 12. Finally, time for some sleep.

A fitful night of sleep was interrupted for good when a group of Armenian tourists arrived for some reason at 6. Since we were sleeping outside, there was a sense of vulnerability. You are laying there in your little sleeping bag like a caterpillar just trying to rest, and here are these people walking all around and exploring the caravanserai.

We headed out at 7:30 down the mountain pass. The air was cold and windy. I was in shorts since packing space was extremely limited. Luckily things quickly warmed up as we walked down the mountain. It took us a couple hours to reach the village below, where I refueled with a couple cheap ice creams. One of them was named “Charlie”. It was a vanilla bar shaped into Charlie Chaplin’s head with chocolate shell for his hat and pink colored ice cream for his eyes and smiley mouth. Some of the things I eat here still amaze me.

As they day went on, the downhill really began to take a toll. And the lower we got, the hotter it became. The stretch beyond the mountain pass was especially hot and dry. We were entering Vayots Dzor Marz. The name means “Valley of Woes.” With the unbearable heat, I could understand why. It reminded me of the Arizona desert, except that we were surrounded by craggy ugly mountains.

For a while I thought we would never reach our destination. We walked 27 km the first day and had at least 30 more on the 2nd day. I began to be thankful that I wasn’t walking the whole thing. My feet were howling, my arms were screaming, and my skin was burning alive. The tail end of the walk took place on a long, flat, boring, dusty road that seemed to go on forever. The worst part was that next to the road was a river gushing with snow-melted waters. The sound of water in such a dry hot situation makes forging ahead that much harder.

When we knew we were getting close, we gathered as a group. We made the turn onto the road that would take us to Yeghegnadzor and began up a very steep hill. I wasn’t sure how much farther I could go, but after about 5 minutes we could see the sign for the city limits. We stopped, took a group photo at the sign, and then continued on into town to meet the other group.

The next 36 hours were spent relaxing and preparing for Monday’s seminar and celebration. We stayed with PCVs in Yegh, who did an amazing job hosting us. Luckily some of the best cooks in PC live in Yegh. So we were treated to lasagna, pb/banana pancakes, and pizzas. The food was much appreciated and extremely delicious. As I tried to rest and recover on Sunday, I couldn’t believe the heat of the town. It was almost debilitating. Combined with the very hilly streets, it made me glad that I can call flat, cool Vardenis home for the summer.

We had a great time together in Yegh. The final seminar went flawlessly. There was a great ceremony afterwards with guest speakers, certificates, and musical performance by one of our very own heartthrobs in Armenian. Then we headed to the café next door to celebrate with our partners and PC staff. The organization of the whole thing amazed me. There was lots of cooperation between groups and PCVs. Our leaders deserve a lot of credit for putting something together that was so successful despite so many challenges.

The company of the other PCVs was great. We had tons of laughs with each other and shared stories about the respective walks. I got to know a few people a bit better. I also got to see a completely new part of the country, on foot. I’m really glad to have been able to participate in something as cool as B2B. The teamwork was amazing, and the end result was too.

The Many Faces of Poverty

June 15, 2011

Recently at our camp, an Armenian was explaining to the Americans the definition of poverty. Her point was this: When we think of poverty, many of us think of that picture of the little African boy with his stomach bulging out, big brown eyes with flies on them, sitting near a pile of trash. Yes, that is poverty. But that’s not the only poverty. Watch this (stolen from a couple other PCVs on Facebook – I’m lookin at you Joel):

Continuing her point: When donors come to Armenia, they see that people have stone houses. “You are not poor!” they proclaim. What they don’t realize is that the face of poverty here is much different. Poverty in Armenia is surviving the winter. Whether that means illegal deforestation, burning cow shit, or freezing your ass off as a family huddled around a wood stove in your kitchen, it is a real form of poverty. As the slideshow illustrated, poverty is also when you depend on the land for your food security and the gods of weather instead decide to torment you.

So yes, I am sitting here in my apartment, full, relatively clean, using wireless internet, and really not sacrificing much at all. But just because I am a member of the Posh Corps, it doesn’t mean the people in this country are afforded the same luxuries. Tourists and visitors to Yerevan fail to realize this fact as the dichotomy between capital and countryside is extremely severe.

On a disparate note, yesterday I went to the village Mrgashen to give a training session for our new volunteers. I presented on business culture to about 20 noobs there. This training involved me acting out a couple skits with other volunteers. Acting is not a part of my life (save for the production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 4th grade), but it went rather well I must say. More than anything it was a direct flashback to the PST times. I think I almost had contact diarrhea just from being around them.

Tomorrow I join up with Border2Border. Full report to follow early next week.

Sauntering into Summer

June 12, 2011

Now I am in the midst of a fun couple weeks to begin the summer season. Last week we had an international camp. On the near horizon I will participate in a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) training and also meet up with the Border 2 Border walkers for the grand finale of that event.

The camp was a pretty big success. There were tons of Armenian kids together making cool memories, great staff facilitating a fulfilling few days, and several Americans doing their best to ignore the culture shock, language barrier, and jet lag. We went to our Daranak Camp building for 3 days. The first day was just the core group of Americans and their penpals doing icebreakers, playing games, and getting to know each other. The second day was scouting-themed, which included cooking food over fires near the shore of Lake Sevan and an evening bonfire. The final day was eco-themed, where we did a service project planting trees around the building.

I think it's safe to say we had fun

For me the camp was twice as interesting because there were all these Americans there from Alabama. I served as sort of a liaison between them and the Armenian way of life. It was interesting to hear an Alabaman accent after months of hearing everything but a southern accent. Connecting with the Americans was rewarding but also eye-opening. It made me realize that I have changed and am in some sense a bit Armenian now. Or at least I feel like a citizen of the world at this point rather than of either country. Something weird like that.

The camp ended with a moving TenSing show, heartfelt goodbyes, the Vardenistsis planting the remaining trees, and pictures.

Shat lav nkar e – Kevina varrvats dempkov (It’s a really nice picture…Kevin has a burned face). I took one of myself just to illustrate:

This will be in the running for craziest look during service

The high mountain sun scorched me during the 2 days planting trees. My arms look Armenian, but my face is undoubtedly a European red.

Tuesday I travel to a place called Nor Hajn to participate in the new PCTs’ CBD tech training. I will be part of a panel of 3 PCVs that will discuss business culture in America and probably answer a bunch of random questions. Nor Hajn is the new central location for training. The trainees are living in villages around this town. Last year (and for the prior 2 years) PST had been held around Charentsavan. PC switches the location every 3 years to spread the economic wealth around. Although this new site is suspiciously close to Yerevan…I guess all the PC staff doesn’t like commuting very far from home!

Meeting the PCTs will be exciting and probably a slap in the face. The “you’ve been here for 1 year already and now you should pretend to act like you know what you’re doing so that you can advise them” slap.

While I’m busy indoctrinating the noobs, my other friends will be continuing their trek through the countryside in pursuit of health awareness. Border2Border, that thing we funded back in April thanks to your support, is in full swing. In fact, it will be concluding on the 20th in a town called Yeghegnadzor in the middle of the country. Yours truly will be tagging along with the northern team starting from Martuni on the 16th. The 16th is a teaching day. The next 2 days will be spent walking through the supposedly beautiful Selim Pass, sleeping overnight in some sort of silk road-esque caravanserai, and arriving in Yegh for the final presentation and celebration. It’s been a huge effort from many different people, especially our fearless leader Austin. To see the completion of the walking will really be something special.

Flood of Americans

June 5, 2011

As Bruno would say, “Armenia is so hot right now!” And by that I mean it is swarming with Americans! The sources vary, but our goal of world domination remains the same.

Right now I am hosting a student from America via CouchSurfing. I hope I remember to get a picture today because I think he is my long lost brother. Actually he is a French citizen but has basically spent his whole life in the US when he’s not traveling. A very cool dude and also my first couchsurfer!

Yesterday the group of new volunteers arrived in country. Craziness. We are basically forbidden to see them due to some questionable changes from the PC Armenia suits, but the idea of them being here is exciting at least. I think back to that time and am glad I’m not going through it again this year. They will be in their training villages until mid-August when they will be sprinkled around Armenia like the windblown wisps of a dandelion.

Finally, in T-6 hours another group of Americans will arrive. They will be transported straight from Yerevan to Daranak village, which is like going from Chicago to Mt. Zion. Does that analogy even make sense? It’s not important, because it’s late and I’m tired. Anyway, they will go to our camp building a pile of confused, tired tourists to partake in a camp with the YMCA. They are mostly teenage girls who have been penpals with our teenage girls. It should be a really cool/interesting camp that tests my cultural associations. For some reason I see myself being confused as to whether I am American or Armenian during the next few days there.

Speaking of that, I think I broke a personal record for amount of Armenian spoken over a weekend. I visited Solak with my friend Chris. We had a great time and each visited our families. I also visited his family, had beers at our old hotel hangout, talked with random incredibly friendly villagers, and played soccer with my 15 year old neighbor and his minions. Today I rode back from Solak with a string of Armenians who chatted me up. I was touched on three different occasions during that journey. First, one guy called me several hours later to make sure I got home safely. The next was a guy who noticed that all the Armenians at the gas station were staring at me. He said to me, “Wow, it must be bad to be the center of attention wherever you go.” What empathy! And finally, a couple guys who went well out of their way to make sure I got home safely. The whole weekend was a wonderful adventure, and most of it happened in Armenian. I was happy for that.

I think my favorite line of the weekend came from little Armen, who is a pretty sweet football player.
“Gndaka gndak chi!” (while dribbling around yet another defender)

“The ball is not a ball!”

It was completely flat. But they couldn’t have cared less.