Archive for August, 2011

Syunik Marz

August 26, 2011

Yesterday I returned on my most ambitious trip to date within Armenia. I visited the dirty south, otherwise known as Syunik Marz.

Armenia has 10 marzes plus Yerevan. Syunik is easily the most remote and farthest removed from Yerevan. Nestled into mountains along the single 2 lane highway that winds to neighboring Iran, there are only a handful of population centers. Kapan is the biggest at about 30,000. Then there are also Goris, Sisian, and Meghri. My trip was 1 night in Sisian and 3 nights in Kapan. I also passed through Goris, so I can say I’ve seen most of the major cities.

The first day of the trip, Sunday, I traveled from Vardenis to Sisian. I arrived in Sisian in the late afternoon. Sisian is home to a large group of PCVs from my group. There are 4 volunteers in Sisian proper and then another 5 in surrounding villages. As such, they have a tight knit bond. Their distance from Yerevan means that they tend to spend almost all their time together in their community (which is what I think PC has in mind for all of us, but travel is too easy here). It has also led to this legend of Sisian and how great it is. While I was impressed and it seemed like a nice enough place, it didn’t really have a lot more going for it than Vardenis does. Similar populations (around 10,000), some nice parts and some crappy parts, and the same hard life you can find in all the regions of Armenia outside of Yerevan.

Throwing Shit in the River

The biggest difference between Sisian and Vardenis is that they have a river flowing through the town. This resource opens up a world of options. Thus, the favorite past time of PCVs in Sisian is Throwing Shit in the River. They have also used their collective creativity and boredom to create other games, such as Wizards and Warlocks, which unfortunately we were rained out of. It involves a lot of aluminum foil, a whiffle ball bat, and roman candles.

In Sisian I stayed with my Solak friend Ashley, along with a couple other PCVs. It’s always interesting for me to see how other PCVs live. It’s always quite drastic from our perspective as people who have been in-country for over a year, but really it is a lot like communism. We all have almost all the same things, just with slight variations. If the PCV lives in an apartment, then their building will make you feel like you are at home. Open, dirty, poorly-lit concrete stairwells with two tone walls dot the buildings with 3-4 apartments on each floor. Ashley’s particular apartment had the most impressive kitchen I’ve seen so far, with a nice open floor plan, shelf and counter space, and a nice dining table in the kitchen as well. Most of us have galley-type kitchens, or in my case, a room that is maybe the same square footage as a galley but a different squarish layout.

Sisian seems to have a bit more tourist development than most Armenian places. There was a nice looking hotel. They also have a big write-up in Lonely Planet, whether it’s worthy of it or not. There is a nearby stone formation that is like their Stonehenge, although I didn’t see it.

Monday morning a group of us took off towards Goris, where we would catch another marshrutka to Kapan. The ride to Goris was surprisingly quick and easy. Highlights of the trip included a falsetto Armenian song that was even making the Armenians laugh, 4 Americans with big backpacks crammed into the back row all speaking loudly in English, and at the end of the trip the Armenians talking about us and wondering if we knew where we were going and where we should get out, to which I answered, “We all understand Armenian.” Priceless.

A very nice girl from our marshrutka offered to show us the way to the Kapan stop in Goris. As we were exiting the marshrutka and it was driving away, one of my fellow PCVs realized he left his phone in the marshrutka. At this point it was raining, we had a lost phone, and we were holding up this nice girl who was trying to show us the way. A couple of us decided to go with her to see the stop, while the other 2 stayed in hopes that the marshrutka would return (we got out in a place where it usually waits to go back to Sisian). After walking a bit, seeing the stop, getting price quotes on the marshrutka and on taxis, we realized it would only be 500 dram more per person to do a taxi. We were pretty sure we would do that instead, as it affords a guaranteed seat, better ride, and more space. We met back up with the others. Continuing the search for the phone, we were approached by a nice old taxi guy who started asking if we needed to go somewhere. We explained the dilemma to him. He got on his phone and within minutes reassured us that the Sisian marshrutka would come back by so we could get the phone. Sure enough, it did, and then we happily got in his taxi to go to Kapan.

His taxi was old, but that is pretty common here. The guy was really cool and was familiar with some other PCVs. He spoke that kind of clear, slow Armenian that makes having a real conversation possible. Unfortunately, about halfway up the major mountain pass, he admitted something was wrong with his car. We got out and he said there was a rock that got into the innards of the wheel (my car ignorance is shining through here) and broke something so that the tire was obviously further out from the frame than the others. But this is PC Armenia, so we happily waited on the side of the road for about an hour for another taxi to come, fix his car a bit, and then take us the rest of the way. I’m not sure if we are not annoyed by these experiences because that is the kind of person that PC attracts, or if it’s because we have so much time here and no reason to be in a hurry. I think a big part of it is adjustment to a different sense of time and living in the daily reality that anything can go wrong at any time.

Broken down on a mountain side

The trunk of the repair taxi: Spare tire, check. Bucket, check. Eggplant, check.

Kapan is like the Yerevan of the south. When we arrived I was impressed by an array of high-rise soviet apartment blocs, cafes, nice streets, and a river flowing through the city center, which is in a deep valley. I could feel the difference in culture between Kapan and Vardenis. The women seemed a bit more liberated and free, hope was apparent in the air, and you could see a couple walking down the street together holding hands.

Armenians love flying horse monuments

In Kapan I stayed with another Solak friend, Lizzie. She has a nice apartment with an amazing balcony. I ended up sleeping on the couch on the balcony 2 of the nights, which was terrific. Since she lives on a hill she has a nice view of the surrounding hills and all the houses tucked into the greenery.

There isn’t a lot of touristy stuff to do in Kapan, but for PCVs the reason for a visit is usually just to interact with other Americans. There are 3 PCVs in Kapan, so we rotated dinner parties between their apartments. One day we walked up to a big park that has a big pond thing that has old soviet paddle boats. We also stopped in at the American Corner, which is a program from the US Embassy that provides English libraries to disadvantaged regional centers. It was a bit sad to see it basically empty besides the Armenian staff, the books hardly opened if not brand new. Your tax dollars at work, unfortunately. The rest of our time was spent in cafes, at Lizzie’s apartment, or the other 2 apartments.

The city is hailed for its beauty. Unfortunately the weather was pretty crappy while I was there and we couldn’t see their most prized mountain peak in the distance, but despite that I can say it is beautiful there. Green mountains, raging rivers, and winding hilly roads make for an Armenia that I had not yet experienced.

Green is not to be taken for granted in brown Armenia

Since the road to Kapan is also the road to Iran, you get to see a lot of Iranian cars and freight-trucks rolling in and out of Armenia. I have no idea how the massive semi-trucks make it on the narrow winding roads. One thing I saw that really caught my attention, on multiple occasions, was something I would never see back home: a semi-truck with Iranian plates parked on the side of the road with a compartment under the trailer opened up. On the compartment door, propped up like a little table shelf, a hookah and a tea pot brewing hot tea. A far cry from beef jerky and a big gulp.

Yesterday it was time to leave. I had a nice time but was ready to come home, just like you should be after a good mini-vacation. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to screaming bowels that indicated a trip to the bathroom would be a good idea. I proceeded to unleash fury for half an hour while contemplating the herculean trip ahead of me. Should I choose to accept it? Or should I stay one day and try to recover from this sudden-onset sickness? At 6:00 I felt okay enough to risk it. Pepto was a large factor in this decision. I got ready and left at 6:30 in order to make the 7:00 marshrutka.

I arrive at 6:40 to a few Armenians hovering around the dispatcher. He said there was no space and that we had to wait. “Did you call ahead?” No! I didn’t know I needed to do that! I began to worry that I might not get a seat at all. There are only a handful of marshrutkas to Yerevan out of Kapan each day. As more and more Armenians came, the picture looked grimmer and grimmer. At 7:30 we were still standing around and I began having evil thoughts towards the dispatcher. Finally a taxi of 4 pulled up and they took up a lot of the remaining seats. Damn call-aheaders. There were just a few seats left. The dispatcher said to no one in particular, “One person!” I was a bit confused and didn’t really understand what was going on. Then he picked some guy out of the crowd who came at least 20 or 30 minutes after me to sit in the front seat. Damn! I should have said something. Then, “One more person, for the stool.” All of the Armenians refused. The dispatcher looked at me and asked if I wanted it. I was thrown at this point and mumbled some incomprehensible Armenian while trying to figure the best course of action.

You see, the stool, or in Armenian atorr (chair) is the infamous seat in all marshrutkas that they use when all the real seats are taken. It means sitting in the aisle without a back on your seat for a prolonged period of time. Considering my irritable bowels, propensity for motion sickness on switchbacks, and the general uncomfortable-ness of riding on such a thing for 6 hours, I did what any 20-something that joins the Peace Corps would do.

I said what the hell, yes.

And the amazing thing was, despite the gingivitis/coffee breath of the lady next to me, her grandson puking into a plastic bag next to her, and dense fog that really made things interesting along an intense mountain pass, I didn’t poop my pants or puke. Great success!

Anyway, I made the trip all the way from Kapan to Vardenis and promptly passed out in my bed for a few hours. It was a new record for time spent in marshrutkas in one day for me, at about 9 hours. On top of that, not eating anything but half a shwarma and a Fanta, let’s just say I wasn’t feeling so hot.

Luckily today is another day off so I can continue recovering and also take the time to write about the trip. Would I do it again? Totally. I had a lot of fun and the travel was part of the adventure. It was a big check off the to-do list. Now I have been to almost all the PCV marzes. I have stayed with or been in the apartment of 3 more Solakites. And I saw a part of the country that most Armenians don’t even get to see. Plus, it was a great example that a trip doesn’t have to be packed with special activities or entertainment. Great food, conversation, and camaraderie made this trip special. And there is just something about reading a book on a balcony upon waking, after sleeping outside that feels perfect.


Swearing In

August 18, 2011

The last week or so has seen a big change in the PCV realm of Armenia. All of the A-17s are now gone while the A-19s have officially been sworn in as new volunteers. Whoa!

What that really means is that we’re the next ones to go…ahhh!

It was very cool to be involved in the swearing-in ceremony for the new volunteers. I remember our ceremony from last year very vividly. It is one of the defining moments of your service. Nothing brings out the patriotic spirit like hearing something as beautiful as your own national anthem, meeting your ambassador, and swearing to uphold some stuff (I don’t really remember the oath…)

For whatever reason the ceremony is moving for most of us. It is one of the few times during the 3+ years of applying and serving in Peace Corps where you really do feel the connection to serving on behalf of America. There is a pride, for me, that bubbles to the surface kind of unexpectedly. Maybe it’s because you are not at home. Suddenly after living in a developing or transitioning country you have an amazing appreciation for the rights and freedoms we have as Americans. Not that we did anything to earn our place as babies in America. We were just fortunate to be born in one of the world’s great countries. I could just as easily be Russian, Chinese, or Armenian. So you cherish the opportunity, luxury, and spirit that come along with being American. And I know I wasn’t alone, because there were a lot of other PCVs singing along with the national anthem with their hands over their hearts on Tuesday afternoon.

It was also cool to be able to compare this year’s ceremony with ours last year. The biggest difference was location: Charentsavan vs. Yerevan. The Komitas Concert Hall in Yerevan was a nicer venue, although hotter. This year most of my mental energy was spent telling my sweat glands, especially the armpit ones, to not soak through any of my clothing. Another huge difference was in the volunteer groups. Parts of the ceremony are volunteer performances. Last year we had our own heart-throb Joel sing a nice solo song. We also had a small choir do a couple good songs. This year the new group did all that and more. They did a small play which was interesting. But I have to admit their performances were better because of one man. They have an awesome former music professor in their group. He did a wonderful job of preparing the choir and solo acts. It’s not often that you hear a thrown-together choir that is so balanced and in-tune.

With Anna (PST Language Teacher) and Lizzie

Swearing In 2010: Same Clothes, Different Year

As for being the MC, it was easy once I got the opening out of the way. I was pretty nervous at the beginning and wasn’t sure how I was going to make my mouth speak Armenian. Fortunately I spent the most time on the beginning and so I had it nearly memorized. I was able to go on autopilot which is crucial in a situation where your nerves are trying to get you to self-destruct. I got several compliments from Armenians afterward, which was nice. Now I can check “Public Speaking in a Foreign Language” off the bucket list. It’ll be nice to have that experience in the back pocket the rest of my life. Any time I have to give a speech or presentation in the future, I’ll be able to think, “At least it’s not in Armenian!”

After the opening jitters, I realized that we were going to do fine and that it should be about us celebrating them rather than me being nervous about what I’m doing. I liked that thought and was able to enjoy the rest of the ceremony despite the MC duties. It was especially rewarding to be calling their names as they walked across the stage.

In the end, I am very glad I took the opportunity to be MC. It was something I heard them asking other PCVs to do, and at that moment I thought, “no way do I want to do that!” But now I feel honored and satisfied after accomplishing the task. In this time of transition – saying goodbye to departing friends, welcoming new strangers, and contemplating my own place in the cycle of life – hosting the event was a nice responsibility that I will never forget.

A Glimpse Inside

August 14, 2011

Dear Readers,

Finally, a chance to see a bit of my life in Armenia as it goes down.

Live Stream Link

Please join me as I co-MC the Swearing In Ceremony for our new volunteers on Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. local time (5:00 a.m. CST).

Full debriefing to follow.


The Cheapest Year of My Life

August 7, 2011

The data are in. After one year at site paying my own expenses, it turns out I spent a whopping 1,563,880 dram.

That is about $4,285.

It’s easily the cheapest year of my life. If you factor in a couple vacations I took, it’s still less than $5,000.

Not reflected in the numbers:
Long term health costs from 1 year spent in Armenia

As another PCV here says, “You give them 2 years of your life, they take 10.”


August 6, 2011

One year remaining. Better hurry up!!! -said with the Wave Race 64 announcer’s voice.

In one more year, a mere 365 days, I will turn in the government passport and end my Peace Corps Service. As crazy as that sounds, the even crazier thing is that tomorrow I will have less than one year of service left. Wow!

I can feel the implosion already. The familiar faces will all be gone. My group of volunteers, our staff, and the people I work with at the Y will all be scattered like that fuzzy ball thing that dandelions have. These are the people that make up Armenia and Peace Corps to me. The experience is because they are.

Coming in tow with the 1 year left thing is a 1 year anniversary of arriving in Vardenis. On this day a year ago, we walked across a stage, shook the ambassador’s hand, posed for a photo, and sat back down in our seats as PCVs. The next day I was the last one remaining in the PC-driven marshrutka going to the end of the line, aka Vardenis. I can remember it vividly. The feeling of a brave new world. Not knowing what to expect. Dreading having to start all over with another host family. Depressed in being apart from my village-mates. The marshrutka pulled into my host family’s driveway, where we were greeted by Norik the taxi-driving-host-dad. He let the PC driver clean his vehicle with the always-on tap in the garden. Then we went inside and ate watermelon with the driver. He bragged to them how good my Armenian was compared to the others in the marshrutka that we dropped off (I was competing with a 70 year old woman who could barely speak English), unknowingly setting them up for disappointment as I would never be able to decipher their barbar. Then he left, I went to unpack, and found myself sitting alone in my room thinking, “Now what?”

To be honest I am really happy I’m at this point rather than back to the first day in Vardenis. I’ll always remember it as a tough time, as I’ve so often mentioned here. Maybe it’s true that tough situations challenge you to look deep within yourself to assess what is really important in your life. And those who get through tough situations can be commended for surviving. But when I think of “surviving” the first year in Vardenis, luck and random circumstance played just as big a role as any mental perseverance on my part.

Wayne and I have discussed it -making it in Vardenis- before. One of the things he told me before he left was that if I made it, I would be the 5th out of 10 to do so here. At the time I think it elicited an audible gulp and a mental note of, “Oh shit!” It seemed that this place was some barren wasteland where volunteers were sent to ET (early terminate). Since then it has become apparent that I will probably make it and it’s entirely possible for anyone else to do so too. Just as I attribute a good first year to a lot of luck, I think the 50% ET rate is equally based on randomness and crappy luck. There is nothing you can do if you have a sick family member. If you are the crazy party guy, you’re gonna get kicked out no matter where you live. Vardenis is a barren wasteland, but it’s just the same as most other sites. Not German-engineered for ETing.

Vonts es deemanum? (How do you bear it?) – My coworker Tatev upon hearing it was my 1 year anniversary in Vardenis

One thing that I can appreciate about my time here is how they have accepted me as a foreigner into their community, taken care of me, and included me. A sad example took place yesterday. My counterpart’s husband’s mother died. After work we all went to her house to be with the family. As I was mimicking the other men (best way to avoid cultural disasters) sitting in the room with only the men and the casket with the dead body in silence, I had some time for introspection. Okay, I have lots of time for introspection. Rather, I had a unique setting for introspection: Being a foreigner and participating in something as intimate as a wake in a conservative village. I don’t think it hit me when I was coming into this experience just how close you get to be – to them, their culture, everything. Much of the time I feel like an observer, not fully understanding everything that is going on. But there are other times like yesterday where you feel like part of the family and you feel that they care about you whether or not your auxiliary verbs always agree with your personal pronouns. That feeling of family or community is able to transcend many of the lonely moments in an odd way. I spend more of my time feeling like the only western mind here, with no one to relate to, but that feeling does not prevail over the fleeting feeling of being considered one of them in crucial moments like a death in the family. It is so strong, so powerful, that it is able to carry you through the threadbare moments where you wonder if you might just fall through.

So, I would answer, aydpes (in that way).


August 1, 2011

Remember when I posted more than once a week? Well you’re in a for a blast from the past. Unfortunately, in order to do so, I must resort to lackluster topics such as actual work.

You might have noticed a trend in me not really talking about my work here. There are probably several reasons for that, but the main culprit is that I don’t enjoy talking about what I’m not doing. I used that line on a volunteer last week and it elicited a laugh. The reason being that there is kind of an unspoken understanding amongst volunteers: none of us do much, or at least we don’t feel like we do.

That topic could be a whole post in itself. To not get sidetracked, I’ll nip it in the bud by saying that feeling is a combination of our American work ethics, values, and job histories being smashed into the culture of a very different work ethic, meaning of time, and also a role that is naturally ambiguous.

Anyway, from time to time I do actually do something, contrary to what you might believe! Lately it has been these HIV/AIDS seminars. Let me explain…

In May I went to a ToT, or training of trainers (popular term here, but my question is who trains the trainers that facilitate a training of trainers?) where we brought HCNs (Host Country National aka Armenians) to learn about HIV/AIDS and presenting. I brought 2 girls from the Y. There were around 10 teams, each one having 1 PCV and 2 HCNs. The agreement was that we would take what we learned, go into the communities, and present 6 seminars. All of this is part of a thing called PEPFAR (Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). And I thought I left the acronyms at AT&T.

So, we did that training in May and then all 50 people collectively thought, “I’ll do those seminars…later…” But the deadline is September, so my group decided to get our arses in gear.

In July we did 4 of the 6 presentations, which seemed to all be fairly successful. Three of these took place in the Y, which made things much easier for us. The fourth took place in the World Vision office here in Vardenis. I was especially proud of that one because I was able to reach out to them, get an interested response, and actually make the whole thing happen. It was basically 2 NGOs working together in Armenia. Sounds simple enough right? Those are the things we consider successes.

My wonderful teammates

The presentation itself is actually pretty cool. The ToT gave the HCNs the power. They have all the information, games, and movies they need to do a presentation. It’s up to them how they do it. My group starts off with an intro where they ask the audience about HIV/AIDS. What does it mean? Then they get into the worldwide numbers of infected people. After that are methods of contraction. They sprinkle in some interactivity to keep it fresh and lively, since the audiences can be young (14-early 20s) or really young (12-13).

They're never quite sure how to "walk with HIV." Can't blame them.

A couple games are performed too. One takes 6 people from the audience and puts them up on stage. Then they are instructed to walk as if they have a broken leg. As if there is money falling from the sky. And finally, after a few iterations, as if they have HIV. It’s a powerful game (if they participate and take it seriously) that makes you think about your own life and what being HIV positive would mean for you.

We also show a couple movies during the seminar. The movies are in Russian, but those who don’t understand can glean some information from them since they are very visual. Then the HCNs lead a discussion about the movie. Finally, it’s snack time. We do our little “coffee break.” The HCNs call it that even though there is no coffee.

The whole thing is cool to watch. I just sit back, take pictures, and smile the smug smile of a PCV who is watching a couple of young women do a fantastic job. Their presentation skills are impressive. They both command the stage and are great with the young audiences. Plus, they do a great job talking about “amot” (shameful) topics with the utmost of professionalism. I couldn’t be prouder.

Warning to self: the word for “condom” is a couple slight sounds away from the word for “ice cream.”