Friday, July 29, 2011

The Past Six Months in Haiku

Where’s Armenia?
Former Soviet Union
It’s east of Turkey

More volunteering
Another Peace Corps Response

First Christian nation
301 AD – quite proud
That and alphabet

Poor country, problems
As elsewhere, but some unique
Peace Corps here to help

Late January
Four PCRVs started
Bri, Gordon, Jeanne, me

Fell on computer
Major stress for oh, six weeks
Glad it could be fixed

Homeland Handicrafts
Orders, craft fairs, overload
Whirlwind right away

Trip to Syunik marz
Meghri, Kapan and Goris
Assessed needs and skills

Ultimately not
A good Response assignment
For several reasons

Language tutoring
Basics, numbers and letters
Ha, che? (yes and no)

New job – MCA
PR for infrastructure
Right up my alley!

Lots of work events
Canals, trees, pumping stations
Writing, editing

The Ambassador!
Princeton classmate – a small world
Met some great folks here

Good things done here by
Millennium Challenge Corp
Glad to be involved

Yerevan winter
Museums, concerts, and dance
Snow kept us nearby

Restaurants and cafes
And the top of the Cascade
Lots of sculpture here

Foreign getaways
New energy, perspective
Glad I came back, too

With spring, more travel
Many historic sites; not
One church seen ‘em all

Hiking club day trips
Visiting some PCVs
Organized bus tours

Forts, monasteries
Snow, green, mountains, flowers, birds
Khatchkars unique art

Silk Road visitors
Genocide memorial
Easter holiday

Highlights – Goris caves
Gyumri earthquake evidence

World Heritage sites
Shopping at the Vernissage
Views of Ararat

Sights in every marz
Nation size of Maryland
Beautiful country

Dolma, Grand Candy
Lavash, salty cheese and greens
Berries, apricots

Homestay – B and B
Web site, marketing brochure
Secondary work

Comfy bed, good food
Hot shower, host Zina nice
But – not my own place

Six months went by fast
Great PC staff, volunteers
And Armenians

Also, those at home
Support, packages and more
Thank you all so much!

Next? Some travel now
Look forward to seeing friends,
Family. Then – job?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Best-Laid Plans...

It seemed simple enough in the last post – everything scheduled, not that many things to do, and then I would be finished. And I will still be leaving around noon tomorrow, ready to hike once I get to Goris. But it isn’t going as planned. At least things went smoothly for Will and he did get married! I had a chance to meet his family; they all came , just for the weekend.

I left MCA-Armenia on an up note. The interview with the MCA-Armenia CEO went well, and when I wrote it up, it turned into a pretty good piece, if I do say so myself. I brought in some chocolates for everyone as a thank-you, and they had a little celebration for me, with some wine and good wishes. Wine at noon! It paired well with the chocolates. My counterpart was in a meeting at the end of the day though, so I didn’t say goodbye to her in person; that was unfortunate, but we had a nice email exchange and I will keep in touch.

Yesterday, I had lunch with the Country Director. I had happened to run into him at Artbridge on Sunday morning, so I had talked with him then, but not about my experiences here. This was a chance to do that and it was a nice discussion – but his schedule was packed and he postponed signing my paperwork until tomorrow morning. I was supposed to meet with my Program Manager today and he too postponed me until tomorrow morning. So I decided to finish packing last night (good thing I was almost finished already) and bring my luggage and Peace Corps equipment in today and get all of the admin signoffs. As I handed back the CO detector, tears flowed – you know it’s really over when you hand in the CO detector. There’s cake for the PCRVs tomorrow at three, but I’ll be on the road by then. I brought in chocolates as a thank-you for the Peace Corps staff too.

It actually was good that I brought my stuff in today – then there’ll be less drama when I leave tomorrow. Zina has been sad this week; I know it’s hard for her, but I am still going to dinner with the other RPCVs tonight and to see the fountains in Republic Square…. I didn’t get there last night, but I saw fireworks! There was a big celebration in Opera Square because Armenia won the world chess championship; we had a great view from Zina’s kitchen. She said the fireworks were for my leaving, too (Sunday night’s concert featured an Armenian cellist who won the prestigious international Tchaikovsky competition; since it was the closing concert of the season, gold confetti dropped from the rafters at the end, and Gordon said it was for our leaving – so of course tonight’s fountain show will be for my leaving!).

Yesterday was the end of Mid-Service Training for the A-18s – many of them stayed in Yerevan for the afternoon, and I spent some time with them; a complete bonus, actually. I had seen many of the A-17s when they were in town to see of f the early COSers, but hadn’t seen the A-18s en masse. It was nice to relax and have some conversations with them. Several of them are climbing Mt. Aragats tomorrow – I had to chuckle when I heard that, because so many Morocco PCVs climbed Mt. Toubkal after a conference. Ah, PCVs. And my last package arrived, just in time! It was postmarked May 2.

I had brought some things back to the U.S. when I went back for Reunions, and everything I am bringing back now fits in the two-suitcases-and-a-backpack that I came with. No boxes to mail this time. Because I am stopping in Europe I’ll have to pay for the second bag, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both are overweight, so maybe it would have been better to send a box, but the suitcases closed and I have room for things I might buy in Georgia or Holland and that is that. The taxi that took me to the Peace Corps office this morning had a cracked windshield – another thing that made me chuckle. Early on in Morocco we learned the language for cracked windshield and weren’t supposed to get in a taxi that had one. But the reality is that you take the taxi that’s available. So that was also for my leaving!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Few of my Favorite Things - Part II

I rose early Sunday morning to bring some things over to the Peace Corps office; it was nice to walk around on the cool, quiet morning. I went to Swan Lake for a bit, and then journeyed out to Etchmiadzin. I’d thought about it and realized that it would be nice to hear the sacred music one last time. Live, that is – I bought (and also received) some CDs so that I will always have it. The voices, harmonies and acoustics are special. I hear that Georgian sacred music is also worth seeking out….

Upon my return from Etchmiadzin, I did one last cruise through the Vernissage. You can add that to the list of things I will miss. I got a little choked up walking around today, for the last time. I may not have found all that much that I had to buy, but I enjoyed looking. It’s especially all right that I didn’t fall in love with a painting, a rug, or anything else that would have caused stress over how to get it home. I’ve found a couple of treasures, and I like the Vernissage vibe. Then I climbed the Cascade again.

Sunday night, I went to the closing orchestra concert of the season, a Tchaikovsky concert with a cello soloist. The 1812 Overture may never have sounded better; I teared up a bit there too. It’s been great to see so many concerts here! I bought a ticket for Zina as well, as a thank-you present. I’m ready to leave homestay, but she has been a wonderful host. And every night this weekend, I went to see the dancing fountains at Republic Square for a little while – okay, add that also to the list of things I will miss.

An A-10 who had stayed with Zina in the past called to see if she could stay at the beginning of August and again in mid-September; I’m glad Zina will have another guest soon. The A-10 had seen a mention on the internet – my secondary project’s first impact! And Will, the A-14 is back in town. If all went smoothly, he’s now a married man – congratulations and best wishes to the happy couple.

I did my interview with the MCA-Armenia CEO yesterday. That went well! The bulletin should be posted on in September – I have worked on several pieces that will be in it! As I said, a nice way to go out.

I have my exit interview with the Country Director tomorrow, my exit interview with the Program Manager on Thursday, and then a farewell dinner with the other PCRVs that night. For that, I created conversation cards with award topics – best moment, best place, best dinner and the like. We’ll see if everyone is in a reflective mood (already there’s been some discussion over whether it is one last time to vent or if only positive comments can be made). I have to finish packing, and then on Friday morning I will bring all of my luggage and the space heater that I used as a towel rack, fire extinguisher, water filter and CO detector to the Peace Corps office (can’t bring the extinguisher or detector before the last day so I may as well make one big trip) and have my final paperwork checkout. I asked Zina to throw a glass of water out the door after me when I leave her home for the last time.

About the only thing I haven’t done is seen my tutor again – we had said goodbye when she went off to PST, but with the thought that we might see each other one more time. I’ll post the summary haiku (and it is just a summary – as I reviewed my calendar, so many wonderful places stood out! But I had to stop somewhere) that I know you are eagerly anticipating, and then I’m off! I don’t plan to post while I am traveling, but since I will still be in the Caucasus region, I think the posts fit with this blog and not I’ll write when I can (and I still have past travels to write about there… once again, I thought I would write about elsewhere while here and once again I have ended up living in the moment!).

I want to thank you for reading and for sharing this experience with me. I’m grateful for your support. Writing this has been a part of my Peace Corps assignment (it’s Third Goal!), but more, it’s been a way to feel not so far away from loved ones. And it’s also a way to share Armenia and Peace Corps Response with people I don’t know – I hope you too have enjoyed it. This isn’t the end, but it’s a good time to say all of this. Shnorhakalutyun!

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Few of my Favorite Things - Part I

On Saturday, I accomplished two things – one was getting out of hot Yerevan for a while, and the other was visiting Tavush marz for the second time. Actually, I accomplished a third thing too – going somewhere entirely on my own and not seeing a PCV at my destination. Not that that was a goal of mine (in fact, I tried to convince other PCRVs to join me and nearby PCVs to meet me there), but I hadn’t done it in my time here. I’ve had Yerevan days to myself, but no excursions.

Dilijan is the Switzerland of Armenia; during Soviet times it was a retreat for artists, writers and composers. We had passed there on the tour described in the June 6 post, but we didn’t go to the town. In fact, what we did there was have the uninspired group lunch I referred to. So I decided to go back. The town itself is charming, with some buildings in a gingerbread style. There’s an “old town Dilijan” with craftsmen’s workshops, and a pretty good art museum. The town is surrounded by forest – okay, I can now see the Switzerland reference, though it’s still a stretch. And it has an Artbridge! As if I don’t go to Artbridge often enough in Yerevan. But they do have my favorite iced coffee, and nice light meals, so it was a perfect place for lunch.

I then went to the helpful tourist office (there isn’t a tourist office at all in Yerevan…) and asked for a close, short, safe hike in the national forest. It was great (destination: yep, another church, but this one is set in the forest, so you have to hike to it). I’m glad I asked for a short one and took a taxi to the trailhead, because I ended up walking all the way back into town, which Lonely Planet says is 6.7 kilometers. I loved Dilijan – just getting through the tunnel from treeless Gegharkunik marz and seeing the forested mountains lifted my spirits. It’s only an hour and a half from Yerevan; if I were a two-year volunteer I might want this to be my site! Of course, I haven’t seen it in winter. When I got back to Yerevan, I had dinner outdoors at the Jazzve in Opera Square, and then climbed the Cascade – even with a drizzle, there was a nice Ararat view (just after I’d said I hadn’t seen it lately!).

There’s a lot of Armenia I still haven’t seen, but I’ve done pretty well during my time here – I’ve seen most of the main tourist attractions that visitors see, ventured to some unusual and unique places, and gotten a taste of the life and work of the regular PCVs. I don’t know what life will bring, but I can’t say I’ll ever come back to Armenia. I’ve made the most of my six months here – there’s Yerevan and there’s the rest of Armenia, and I have experienced both.

There’s one more museum I plan to return to if I have time this week. One day I was on the way to meet Brian at the Vernissage and I stopped at the Museum of International Children’s Art. It seems I didn’t mention it at the time, but the more I think about it, the more I think it is one of my favorites here. There’s art by the children of Armenia – illustrating folk tales or some other relevant theme – and some of it shows quite a bit of talent. In addition, there’s a large collection of art of the children of the world. I found it fascinating – common things such as houses and animals and people look different in different parts of the world, and that is reflected in the drawings of children. Even the colors used tell a story.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Retreat of Sorts

The MCA-Armenia team went on a retreat today, and I took that as an opportunity to take a retreat of my own, with a tour to yet more churches and other sites in Aragatsotn and Shirak marzes. The western side of Mt. Aragats has a completely different landscape from the eastern side that I’ve traveled past several times recently – it’s dry and stony grassland (reminds me a bit of the Middle Atlas). First, we stopped at a caravanserai near Aruch – not as well-preserved as Selim, but still interesting. Aruch also has one of the biggest churches in Armenia. The cupola was destroyed and now the church is open to the sky, which makes the open air into an extension of the frescoes on the walls.

Marmashen, situated on the bank of a river (as opposed to a gorge or other high point), is huge and red and has interesting architectural details; it’s supposedly the church that is the most like Ani, the ruined former capital that is now in Turkish territory. Harichavank is the summer residence of the Catolicos, and is best known for a little chapel that is alone on a rock that was separated from the rest of the site by an earthquake, so it looks as if it was built on a pillar of rock. But my favorite part of the site was the decoration over the door, which reminded me of Moroccan patterns.

We also stopped in Gyumri, where we toured the craft and home museum. It was interesting to see the tools of many trades of 18th Century Gyumri – jewelry-making, wood and stone carving, tailoring, lace, haberdashery and more. Also interesting were the furnishings. The middle class (mostly the tradesmen) dressed in what I now would call traditional Armenian wear and had locally-made furniture. Rich people wanted a Western look and furniture imported from Europe. We then had a little time to walk around the city center – I’m glad I had such a good tour with Barbara, even in the pouring rain, because there wasn’t enough time for a thorough tour today!

On the previous tour trip, we stopped for lunch at one of those places that caters to groups. The food was all right and not a good value – so I decided to bring my own lunch today. I finished off the jar of peanut butter that I had brought with me. One jar lasted six months; I didn’t really need it at all here, but I had a spoonful or two as a snack every so often. Then again, maybe when I get home I’ll do that more often (as seen on the Everywhere Exercise Facebook page) -

The retreat was a good getaway – as I mentioned, I’ve been just a little stressed. When people ask how I feel about leaving, my first answer is usually, “ready,” and my second is, “stressed.” It’s manageable stress, but I feel it. I’ll probably feel somewhat stressed for the foreseeable future, so a nice day like this – or even moments of calm, when I get them – is welcome.

What will I miss? Well, my first answer there is the swallows/swifts in the morning and at night – I love watching them fly all over and listening to them chirp. And I’ll miss the bells that ring every half hour, not always on the half hour. I’ll miss some of the food at my favorite spots, but I’ve rotated through them often so I can’t say I haven’t had any particular dish often enough. I’ll miss the people I have befriended – I think I’ll keep in touch with some. I’ll miss the beautiful countryside, with the mountains and the wildflowers. I’ll miss walking around Yerevan; it’s been too hazy or cloudy for an Ararat view recently, but I’ll miss that too. I’ll miss Armenia in general, with its complex and unique character; I’m glad I’ve had a chance to come to know it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Medical and More

On Tuesday I had my close-of-service medical exam. It was thorough, and yet I have a litany of things to do when I get home. One of those things is dental –my teeth still don’t feel quite right. One is testing for parasites – the bonding experience we had in Morocco of having to provide three stool samples in three days doesn’t take place for the PCVs here, because there isn’t a facility equipped to analyze for parasites. I’ve been extremely careful about my food and water intake – but the doctor cheerfully said that I might still have some. I don’t have to go through the whole list of what was done or what is still to come, but I do have to say it’s depressing. And except for the dental, it’s all wellness/checkup stuff. I can only imagine how depressed I would be if something were wrong! I love my friends who are doctors, but I don’t want a barrage of tests and I don’t want to deal with insurance. Both of those alone are incentive to aim for a healthy lifestyle!

Tuesday I was also a part of a panel of international development agencies presenting to the PCTs (i.e. the A-19 trainees). MCC/MCA, UNDP, USAID, the EU, USDA, and GIZ (the German equivalent of USAID – of course, this assumes you know what the rest of the acronyms stand for!) presented their programs in Armenia. And there are a lot of them! I haven’t done much PR strategy, which was part of my original job description – in the partner evaluation report that my counterpart wrote, she admitted that the strategy was set before I arrived – but in its place I have been doing PR and increasing awareness among PCVs/PCTs in various ways, and this presentation was another. The audience was receptive and asked insightful questions; many signed up for more information on MCA-Armenia, which may help with sustainability after the Compact ends. It was also interesting for me to hear about what the other agencies are doing here in Armenia – democracy and governance, climate change and biodiversity, economic assistance, livestock programs, and much, much more. Most sobering was the introduction that the UNDP person gave – he said that before the world economic crisis hit, the projection was that the world would fall maybe 23 percent short of the Millennium Development Goals. Now it is dire – by 2015, they may not accomplish even 50 percent of the goals.

There are some loose ends that still aren’t tied up, and I’ve been working on those, plus a new fact sheet and revising my article about the 1000th borrower. In addition, much of Monday was spent getting ready for the presentation and much of yesterday was spent following up on the presentation. Then I was asked to do something fun – interview the CEO of MCA-Armenia for the final bulletin. I’ve seen him give speeches and I’ve talked to him only a little bit when we were in the same car on the way to one of the events, but this is a chance to ask him to sum things up. And it’ll give me a good chance to sum things up too. What a good note to go out on! I’ve been working on my list of questions today. The interview is Monday and then my last day in the MCA-Armenia office is Tuesday; the rest of next week will be Peace Corps checkout.

Last night I went out to dinner with a friend of Zoe’s whom I’d met briefly. She’s a Dutch teacher, and I thought it would be fun to have dinner and get from her a few words with which to impress my family. I am so glad to be stopping in the Netherlands on my way home. It has been way too long since I’ve seen them, and the visit will be far too short, but it’s much better than letting even more time go by. I didn’t get that many words (and my relatives – along with just about everyone else in the Netherlands - speak English so well that I don’t need any at all), but it was interesting to talk with her about how she ended up in Armenia - she came to volunteer with earthquake survivors and now she teaches people who are going to marry in Holland so that they can pass a test to get their visas. She said they are almost entirely women, and fall into two categories – young women who are marrying diaspora Armenians who come here for a quick visit to find a young Armenian wife, and slightly older women who are marrying for love.

Before I go to the Netherlands, there’s Goris and then Karabakh and then Gyumri and then Georgia – I have hotels set and transport mostly planned and haven’t yet wrapped my mind around what I am going to do in each place. I’ll read up a little bit next week and on the transport, and if I have a more leisurely trip rather than a whirlwind, that’s all right – I’ve been feeling increasingly stressed since the beginning of the end (or since the beginning of the hot weather – which may actually have come at the same time – though we’ve had some thunderstorms this week and it’s a little cooler). And after the Netherlands? Well, a game plan of sorts is starting to crystallize, following some recent discussions with friends. I had in mind that I’d like to decompress and adjust, while sending out resumes and networking and either writing or working on a business idea (note – helping my sister figures into this equation too, as needed). That’s still the plan that’s in my head, but the discussions made me feel more focused and ready. I still don’t know what is next and I still say that epiphanies don’t happen on demand, but I think it will help if I go into it with a more positive attitude!

And last for today – my post on the MCC Poverty Reduction Blog was published! It went through edits and approvals so to me it no longer sounds like my voice, but it’s still my story.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Dzor to Dzor

This past weekend I visited my friend Kath in her site. Vanadzor is Armenia’s third-largest city – or maybe second-largest, since Gyumri keeps losing population. Gyumri has those historic buildings from the Tsarist era and all of the evidence of earthquake damage. Vanadzor has tree-lined streets, lots of shops and shoppers, and parks – it’s a pleasant place to be. We did a lot of walking, going through the market and touring the Art Museum. I went with Kath to the YMCA, one of her partner agencies, where I was (on the spur of the moment) the guest speaker at the English club. I thought I would check email while Kath did the club, but one of the young adults in the club suggested I talk about Morocco, and Kath thought it would be good for them to hear another native voice speaking English. After I gave a short introduction, they did most of the talking; I asked questions to keep the discussion going. If you had asked me beforehand, I would have said that English club not my thing, but the time went quickly and it was fun!

I also wanted to see her other project, a proposed park; a while ago she asked me to review her proposal, and every so often I’ve given her suggestions and leads. We didn’t get there, but my brainstorms this time were a Peace Pole and a Sister City. One highlight of the visit was the cooler weather; it’s always about 10 degrees cooler in Vanadzor than it is in Yerevan. Another was a pasta dinner that we made – she had carbonara in mind. We looked at the Peace Corps Armenia cookbook – no carbonara recipe, but there was a recipe for pasta with garlic and dried apricots. That sounded appealing, so we found a carbonara recipe on the internet and added dried apricots that we had soaked in white wine to soften them a little. It was fantastic, as were the fresh raspberries we bought!

On Sunday I went back to Vayots Dzor; interestingly, both places were almost exactly two hours from Yerevan (and so is Gyumri). Beckey is the PCV who has been working on the Jewish cemetery (she built the web site - and I’m glad she was available to show it to me. The road isn’t repaired yet, but they figured out a detour that doesn’t require a 4x4. The cemetery is overgrown and needs work; she has a grant application in the works and will be looking for more funds. The bishop was walking by and noticed stones with unfamiliar writing; a group of visiting dentists was in town and one was Jewish and recognized the Hebrew. This cemetery is an incredible historic find – it shows that in medieval times, Jews were present, and also that they were prosperous and integrated into the community. Finding this means that previous scholarship has to be examined in this new light. An archaeologist has done some work, and Beckey is working on a grant proposal for both restoration and study. I’m really glad I took the trip back down there to see it. All of the pictures in this post are from this excursion; I’ll put Vanadzor pictures into the next post!