Friday, April 29, 2011

So, How's Work Been So Far?

My first day in the MCA-Armenia office was last Wednesday. Yes, OSCE convinced me to go to Goris after all; writeup to come. It was fine with MCA-Armenia; they were catching up from the events with the President and the Prime Minister. Actually, it’s still a stressful time; the MCC CEO is coming from Washington next week. Then things should calm down a bit. But in the meantime, there’ve been some things I could help with.

April 20 was the kickoff of ten days of tree planting. For every tree that was cut during construction, MCA-Armenia had pledged to plant a new one, and they chose the ten days around Earth Day to do it, two communities per day. I was sent to write up a small piece for the MCA-Armenia web site. And I was invited to plant a tree – a Peace Corps dream come true! I had asked environment volunteers in both Morocco and the Philippines to invite me if there was ever a tree-planting, and somehow it had never worked out. It finally did here! A pine, in front of the village hall. And then I watched 40 schoolchildren plant oak and ash trees near the school and cultural center. It was great. Coincidentally, I had donated money to the tree-planting partner organization when I saw a sign for it in Artbridge. You can too! Armenia needs trees! Also read[tt_news]=217&cHash=da5fd59d940c3938bd555cf996ee153c to find out what happens to the two tons of flowers that people left at the Genocide Memorial on Sunday. Two tons!

On Earth Day itself, we went to a tree nursery; again, I wrote up a small piece for the web site. Here we learned about saplings and rootstock that had been given to this nursery; when the fruit sold well at market, nearby farmers ordered it and the nursery is propagating them. So from a few trees, many farmers will now be able to plant high-value trees and berries of their own. It did give me some pause – an example of one of the successes is the Fuji apple. Does that mean that the world is going to be one Fuji apple? What about local varieties and variations in the gene pool, plants that are adapted to their very specific environment? That’s a debate for another day – in the meantime, the farmers’ income will rise and that is the objective of the program. We were supposed to plant more trees that day, but it rained all morning and was quite muddy. We still walked around the nursery – so on Earth Day I got lots and lots of earth on my shoes!

I went to yet another event this week, this one in preparation for an article about how the program has impacted policy – new legislation will make things easier for the Water User Associations and the farmers. I was there just for the opening sessions of a two-day conference. It was all in Armenian and there wasn’t a translation so I didn’t understand much, but at least I have some background and a visual and can write the article when I get more information. The conference was near Charentsavan, where I went my first week; it looks beautiful now that the mountains are green!

I was supposed to go to the final tree-planting event yesterday, but there was a transport issue; it was fine to have a full day in the office. In addition to the events, I’ve been asked to do other writing – summarizing CVs into bios, wordsmithing fact sheets. I enjoy the writing and editing. I also think the program is very interesting – there are many components to it, and seeing things come to fruition is rewarding, even though I haven’t been in on it from the start. I did some background reading about the gender component and next week will interview one of the consultants (and from there, some of the female farmers) for the gender article; I’m also enjoying the reading. I still feel stressed, but it’s more because everyone else is stressed than because of my own workload. We’ll see what it’s like after the CEO visit. Busy as they are, everyone has taken the time to welcome me and thank me. I might have been thanked more times in the past week than in my entire corporate career! Well, maybe a slight exaggeration, but every time I get thanked I realize I’m not used to it. So this assignment is a definite improvement.

I don’t have my own space, but I was put in a conference room that is rarely used; last week I shared with a visitor from MCC in Washington (the third one I have met in three weeks – there are only 300 MCC employees and I have met one percent of them!); he was pleasant company. I don’t like carrying my computer back and forth – it’s heavy, and it means adjusting my routine so I can go home and put it down before going back out. I haven’t found all the lunch places yet, but at least there are a few places where I can go for a little walk, get something quick, and get back. There’s filtered water there, which I very much appreciate. And in “my” conference room, there’s a window I can open. All in all, off to a good start.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Visitors from the East

Katie and Theo are RPCVs from the Philippines with whom I overlapped. In one of my most memorable moments there, we went for a hike towards a waterfall in Sagada on Thanksgiving Day. The rice terraces were flooded and the walls were unstable, I fell and was stuck in the mud, and Theo had to lend a hand so I could get up (I gave him permission to laugh; he was trying so hard not to). While reminiscing, we realized that we really saw quite a bit of each other while I was there. They COSed (close of service) in October and have been traveling the Silk Road ever since. Six months from the day they started, they arrived in Armenia (along with Theo’s brother William, who joined them a few weeks ago). It’s been wonderful spending time with them this past week.

Much of our conversation has consisted of tales of their trip. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. Two months in China, first in the not-so-visited southeast and then starting the Silk Road in Xian. In winter. Uighur “Stan” – if the British hadn’t played with the map in yet another part of the world, they might have their own former-Soviet-Union country now. Kazakhstan – the most Russian of the Stans, and the bleakest Peace Corps country they went through. Had to miss Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – too much snow, passes closed. Uzbekistan – their favorite Central Asian country, the only one with intact Silk Road cities, and the one that sounds most intriguing to me…. Turkmenistan – had to have a driver and guide every day; only way to see the country. Ferry across the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan – not that interesting and too expensive. Georgia – they loved it and spent three weeks there; I do think I should go for at least a couple of days before I leave the Caucasus. Next will be Turkey and then they will see how much time they have before meeting her parents in Italy and going home from there.

I greeted them on Sunday night and gave them a map and some suggestions, based on what I had heard (since I haven’t been many places myself – yet). They went up north for a few days and returned on Thursday afternoon with more tales. I found myself defending Armenia or at least telling the Armenian side of the story – for example, they had heard that the world’s oldest wine was found in Georgia, but Armenia has a claim to it, and they had heard the (Peace Corps) Azerbaijani side of that conflict….

Thursday evening we ate at an outdoor café by the Opera House (hooray for spring!) and went to hear an organ concert. I’ve looked at that organ while attending orchestra concerts and wondered what it sounds like. Well, now I know; unfortunately the concert itself left something to be desired. We then went back to the hostel where they were staying to talk some more. We did that every night, in fact – it’s the latest I’ve stayed out since being here, for several nights in a row. Hence, pent-up blog-writing demand!

Friday night I had them over to my home stay for Zina’s dolma, one of my favorite meals. We went to see “Spartacus,” the other major ballet composed by Khachaturian (we PCRVs saw “Gayane” when we first got here). It was great! Made up for the organ concert (either that or Verdi’s Requiem, which they saw on Sunday, did).

On Saturday we went to the Vernissage. As I have said, I like going with different people because I see different things. Katie bought a duduk, Armenia’s most famous traditional musical instrument (a kind of flute) and Theo bought a wood-carving. We went to the Cafesjian Museum and up the Cascade (no Ararat view, but they did get one on their way out of town). We discussed other things they had bought and somehow they had – not necessarily intentionally – bought silk in every country so far except Georgia and Armenia. We then went back to the Vernissage – in the drizzle, at the end of the day (they say that is the best time to buy) so they could get a couple of silk scarves. That night, we went to the Genocide Memorial; I’ve already talked about that and Sunday.

I treated them to a farewell breakfast at Artbridge on Monday morning; I had brought Lonely Planet with me so we could read its intro to Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeris say that the people there are descendants of the Christian nation of Albania (not related to present-day Albania); that is the version Katie and Theo heard. The Armenians say that the people are Armenian and that Stalin handed the territory to Azerbaijan so that everyone would be loyal to the Soviet Union and not to their own territory. PCVs are not allowed to go there, but many do after their service. U.S. Government employees cannot go there. Katie and Theo thought about possibly not being able to go some other time, flipped a coin, gave William a say (but overruled him), and decided to go! The lure of another passport stamp and visa was just too much. They come back into town tomorrow – I’ll probably see them for coffee or maybe a quick dinner, hear more stories, wonder whether I too should go when I COS (or decide that I don’t need to), and then see them off on the 7:00 overnight train to Georgia (I hope they buy some silk there before heading to Turkey…). So, so glad to have them visit while I’m here!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter and Genocide Memorial Day

It’s been a busy week… I’ll start with Sunday and then write more later. Sunday was both Easter and Armenian Genocide Day. Easter moves around, of course, and it was unusual already in that “Western Easter” and “Eastern Easter” were celebrated on the same day this year; usually they are a week apart. April 24 is Genocide Memorial Day – on that date in 1915, the intellectuals were rounded up in Turkey and killed.

For breakfast, my host mother had dyed eggs with onion – natural dye! The red (it’s more brown than red but that’s a technicality) is supposed to represent the blood of Christ. Some people put leaves on before they dye the eggs, so they make kind of a stencil pattern. I learned at dinner that an Easter tradition is to have an egg fight – one egg taps the other and person whose egg breaks the other wins both. One strong egg can amass quite a collection of broken ones! Breakfast also included rice pilaf with dried fruit and fried lavash – I hope I can convince her to make that again when it’s not Easter.

Katie, Theo and Theo’s brother William stayed through the weekend, in part to experience the day (more on them next time). They hadn’t been to Etchmiadzin yet and thought that it would be interesting to be there on the holiest day of the year. We arrived around 10:00 am; we had been told to get there really early but didn’t – and I’m glad, because it wasn’t very crowded, and we would have just been waiting. As it was, we waited a while – once we were in a good spot, we didn’t want to walk around the complex. We saw dignitaries, including the Ambassador, the Prime Minister and the President, the last of whom came in with the Catolicos. The altar and icons that had been covered when I was there before were on view now. The singing was beautiful – this time by a mixed-gender choir – and the Catolicos spoke from the altar. It was an impressive service. We didn’t stay inside until the end, partially because we were getting squished, partially because we thought it might be nice to let some Armenians have our spots if they could! Walked around a bit, listening to the rest of the singing over speakers, and went to nearby St. Gayane Church again.

Then we went to the Genocide Memorial. We had gone there the night before, around 11:30 pm, and the commemoration had already started. There were several other people there, laying flowers down and staring at the eternal flame. I had heard there would be lots of candles; there weren’t, but it was nice to have the time to contemplate. Katie had taken a Comparative Genocide class in school and shared some of what she remembered from it. When I got home on Saturday night, my host mother had tears in her eyes, and she thanked me for going and for caring about her people.

I knew that on Sunday there would be a procession of people but I didn’t really know what to expect. When we arrived – around 4:00 pm – there was a huge stream of people – thousands – and I know it had been like that all day. The only other time I have seen thousands of people walking purposefully in one direction was at the Mackinac Bridge Walk. This was all the more amazing because it wasn’t for fun – it was for determination, the determination to remember and to pay tribute. The pace was about the same, though – not slow and solemn, but purposeful and proud. You walked up a long path and then down the sidewalk to the flame, you put your flower down, you got out of the way so the next person could put his down. The walk to the Memorial might have been a mile, and then there was maybe another half a mile out the other side, down the hill and into free buses that took you back into town – extremely efficient. We also went to the museum – most people did not. I am so glad I went – and glad I had company!

They went on to Verdi’s Requiem (which I listened to today, on the internet); I had a prior commitment – dinner with the Ambassador! Yes, this is whom I had the egg fight with – my egg won, but since I am a Peace Corps volunteer she said she I should take the eggs anyway – along with the leftovers (and she treated!). Though we have seen each other several times now, we hadn’t had a chance to really talk, so she invited me out to the finest restaurant in Yerevan, where I had by far the best meal I’ve had in Armenia (this would be a candidate for best dinner worldwide!) – same Armenian food (eggplant rolls, tomato with goat cheese, dolma), but with superior ingredients and preparation – and wonderful conversation. It was really special.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Few Armenian Recipes

When I eat at my home stay, my host mother/sister cooks; I haven’t made anything for myself! But here are recipes for some of my favorite Armenian foods so far, from the Peace Corps Armenia cookbook (along with my comments). Looking at the cookbook has me looking forward to cooking for myself again – when I get back.

Note – macun is the yogurt here; I wonder if Greek-style yogurt would be the closest thing available at home.
Սպաս/spas (sometimes pronounced səpas).
Ingredients: ½ C wheat (or rice), 1-2 T flour, 1 L մածուն/macun (well-stirred), 1 onion (sautéed or raw: optional), 1-2 C cold water, chopped fresh cilantro (optional), 1 egg (beaten)
o Cook the wheat as you would cook rice. When finished, remove from heat and let cool a little. Add the մածուն/macun, water, egg, and flour. Mix well, until there are no lumps and it doesn’t separate.
o Heat on a low flame, stirring constantly to avoid separation of մածուն/macun and water. When the soup boils, add the onion and cilantro. Let boil for 5 minutes, watching closely (it will boil over) and stirring constantly.

Note – there’s a “summer” (or Lenten, i.e. vegetarian) dolma too – I have not had this yet, but when I do (and I am sure I will like it) I will post a recipe!
Ingredients: grape leaves or cabbage leaves or vegetables, 300 g butter (cut small), 1 kg ground beef, 2 C chopped fresh herbs, 4 big onions (chopped), pinch of salt, 1 t red pepper paste, ¼ C dried cilantro, 1 T tomato paste, 1½ C uncooked rice
o If using grape leaves, use canned grape leaves. If using cabbage, boil it first to soften, then peel off the leaves.
o Combine everything except wrapping material to make a fine mixture. Roll a small amount of mixture into the leaves or stuff the vegetables.
o Line the bottom of a large pot with dolma; invert a plate over the dolma; cover the dolma with about 2 inches of water above and boil until the water boils down to the level of the dolma. Serve with garlic and yogurt; makes 50-70.

Note - my host mother/sister made this with added pumpkin – yum!
Ingredients: 200 g milk, 80 g rice (⅓ C), ½ g cinnamon, sugar to taste
o Pour rice into boiling milk and cook over low heat, stirring from time to time.
o When rice is cooked, add sugar, and cinnamon. Can be served both warm and cooled.

Note – I might have to bring a jazzve home!
Ingredients (per person): 1 demitasse cup of water, 1 t finely (finely!) ground coffee (i.e. Armenian style), ½ t sugar
o Place water, coffee, and sugar in a jazzve (long-handled coffee pot), and place over medium-high heat. Coffee and sugar will dissolve in the water and a slight foam will form on top. The coffee will appear to thicken slightly before it begins to simmer around the edges. Hold it at this state for about a minute, watch carefully to be sure it does not boil over.

More recipes to come.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Holidays and Observances II

On Palm Sunday, as I walked around I saw people with crowns of willows on their heads and/or carrying willow branches (the branches were sometimes green and sometimes were pussy willows). I asked my tutor if people save these until next year and then burn them the day after Lent begins, and she said no. Lonely Planet says it is a true celebration of spring – trees are brought into the churches and hung with fruit.

This year Armenian Easter just happens to be the same as the Easter most Americans might celebrate. It also happens to be the same day as Armenian Genocide Day, April 24. Two very different holidays/observances….

Some of my PCV friends in the regions said that their families planted lentils or other sprouting grains at the beginning of Lent and that they are starting to sprout – so it’s not just something in Lonely Planet! The “grass” becomes the table centerpiece. They dye eggs – it’s traditional to dye them red to symbolize the blood of Christ, but I have seen pastel colors too. Braided bread is traditional as well.

For Armenian Genocide Day, thousands of people join the procession from the center of the city to the Genocide Memorial to pay their respects, leaving a flower at the eternal flame. This holiday is celebrated in diaspora communities across the globe. The concert hall has a memorial organ concert on Thursday night (a chance to hear the big organ!) and a free concert of Verdi’s requiem on Sunday night. I haven’t decided whether I am going to any of these events yet.... but if I don’t it’s still interesting to be in Armenia at this time of year.

Hambartsum (Ascension Day) is 40 days after Easter. I am going to quote Lonely Planet verbatim here – "In the old days, young women had the freedom to sing in the fields and socialize on this day. It’s also a festival of fate. At midnight, space and time pauses and nature speaks to itself. Witnesses to such a moment will have their dreams fulfilled.” That is my kind of holiday!

Vardavar is a holiday occurring on the third Sunday of July – rooted in the country’s pagan past, people pour buckets of water on each other’s heads. In the past, people worshipped Astghik, the goddess of love and beauty, who spread love through Armenia by sprinkling rosewater across the land. Since July tends to be hot, this is still a popular tradition. I wonder if I’ll experience it! My guess is that I’m unlikely to in Yerevan, but if I am in the regions I should prepare to get wet.

Astvatsatsin (Holiday of the Mother of God) is in mid-August, when the priests bless the grape and fruit harvests. Khachverats (Holy Cross), in mid-September, is a day for commemorating the dead. As for state holidays, there are two independence days celebrated here – May 28 is the First Day of the Republic, marking the short-lived republic formed in 1918. September 21 is the anniversary of the day in 1991 when Armenia voted to secede from the Soviet Union. These are marked with various levels of celebration – in the early years the country was preoccupied with war and shortages, but more recently there have been parades, concerts and fireworks.

Other state holidays (many of which seem to fall on weekends during my service… so not a lot of extra days off) – May 1 is Labor Day. May 9 is Victory and Peace Day (commemorating the Second World War). July 5 is Constitution Day. And then December 7 is a Day of Remembrance for the victims of the 1988 earthquake. I’ll cover New Year’s and Christmas (in that order) in another post!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Another Big Event and Some Little Ones

On Friday I went on another trip with the MCA-Armenia and MCC folks. This time it was two different canal openings and a meeting at a village mayor’s office. In addition to the MCC head here, there was the Ambassador again and this time the Prime Minister of Armenia; with me in the car was an infrastructure specialist from MCC in Washington. This day had some contrasts with last week’s: At the first stop, one of the farmers started to complain about paying for water, and then others chimed in. The Washington person remarked that this was really democracy in action. The President didn’t mingle with the local people at all last week, but the Prime Minister did – he listened, he had answers (your fees help pay for the maintenance of the canal – water isn’t free so it can’t be free – that kind of thing); I was impressed. One of the farmers mentioned that the recent rains could mean another bad crop – I was wondering whether that was the case. But if it didn’t rain maybe they would mention lack of rain leading to a bad crop…. We also saw (a first for these events) some village women outside the mayor’s office (several of the press were women, but urban ones) – outside the fence, that is. When the Ambassador remarked about it, someone told her that in Armenia men and women gather in separate groups, and that it was nice that the women were there to see what they could. My counterpart told me that one of the things she wants me to work on is a success story about how the project is helping women. Gender and Development!

At the next stop, the news crews split up – some asked the Prime Minister questions and others surrounded the Ambassador. I was impressed with her answers! Yes, there are some things that America would like to see Armenia do, but it is up to the people of Armenia (of course she put it much more diplomatically!). After the meeting in the mayor’s office, a select group went into the next room – I followed the infrastructure person and suddenly realized maybe I shouldn’t have been in there. But since nobody said anything to me and I might have drawn more attention to myself by leaving, I stayed – it was another big buffet (showcasing local produce and including my now go-to buffet favorite, lavash with cheese and greens) with many toasts. There were two tables – the dignitaries were around one and a couple of us, including I, stayed in the back at the other one. And even though I wasn’t sure I should be there I am glad I was – I was hungry! Chowed down as if I hadn’t been fed in a while – that is, I showed quite an appreciation for the local foods. The Prime Minister shook my hand (even as he probably wondered what I was doing there). I am glad I was invited! I have spent most of the rest of the week reading all of the MCA-Armenia materials – now I am ready to get going! I’ll get going on Wednesday now – the OSCE women persuaded me to go to Goris after all.

As for the little events – this was quite a social week for me. Several of the PCVs who I have become somewhat friendly with were in town this week, and I had coffee/tea/dinners out almost every night. One of them introduced me to a gelato place and I found myself back there with the other visitors. After all, they don’t get to Yerevan much…. I may have to limit myself to getting gelato only when people come into town. Otherwise I could be there a lot! Another event was going to the dentist. I get my teeth cleaned often at home and knew it was time. The dentist discovered (or invented?) a cavity! My first in decades. And he wants to replace an old filling. Once he mentioned it I did start feeling it – so I will go back next week. He didn’t find a tooth-related cause of my tooth-area almost-daily headaches; I wonder if it is dehydration. Or stress? And it occurred to me that the cold I feel I have been fighting for weeks might be allergies. I feel on the verge of one and it never seems to become one – and then I saw the flowering trees and new leaves and thought, aha, that might be it. I don’t wish for the flowering trees to be over soon though – they are so pretty! Also eventful is that in tutoring we review a new letter or so in every session – I now know enough of the alphabet to start to read signs and make out words. Very exciting. Reading opens up a world of possibilities! My vocabulary is still very limited though, and I don’t study or practice enough. But I do enjoy the tutoring.

And I have been hitting some of the smaller museums in town and still exploring Yerevan. Recently I have been to the Modern Art Museum (a variety of styles and subjects) and the Museum of Russian Art (someone’s private collection – I like that type of museum), and today the Sergey Parajanov Museum. Parajanov was a filmmaker who earned international acclaim and also lifelong persecution by the Soviet regime, including years spent in prison. This house museum contains collages, installations and assemblages that he put together, for the films, while in prison, or just because. Very interesting – see some at

I’ve also been for a walk along the river down in the Hrazdan gorge – you go down a set of steps and it is easy to forget you are in the city – and to Surp Sargis, an interesting church nearby. And back to the Vernissage – every time I go, different things capture my interest – this weekend it was leather jewelry and ceramics. The carpets are growing on me, too. I didn’t get a runner in Morocco because I thought the imaginary studio apartment wouldn’t have a hallway, but what if it does?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Day Trips

Every spring, there are a few days when winter returns – it gets cold or even snowy – and then spring is here for good. In Armenia, those days are called “old woman’s goats.” April started out with showers, but warm, so I thought I would start taking day trips. The days I chose were rainy and even snowy, so I think I will stay in Yerevan this weekend, but I am glad I finally did some sightseeing out of town!

First was Etchmiadzin, the Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church. We went on Sunday so that we could hear the singing in the Mother Church. Etchmiadzin was founded on the spot where St. Gregory the Illuminator saw a beam of light come down to earth. The main church is built on the site of a former pagan shrine with fire altar (as Lonely Planet put it, left in situ in case the whole Christianity thing turned out to be a fad – but no longer accessible to visitors). The complex also includes the palace of the Catholicos, the patriarch of all Armenians (we saw him at the service), a monument built when Pope John Paul II visited in 2001, and a seminary. There are beautiful khachkars (cross-stones) assembled from around the country. The museum inside the church contains many treasures – vestments worn by the clergy, ancient and precious crosses, relics of some of the apostles, and, most impressive, a fragment of Noah’s Ark and the point of the lance used to pierce the side of Christ during the crucifixion. There are some other notable churches in the area; we went to one, St. Gayane, but were too wet, cold and hungry to walk to the others. Still, it was a great visit!

On to Garni temple, a Hellenic temple dedicated to Helios, the Greek god of the sun. After the Christian conversion, all other pagan temples in the country were destroyed, but this became the summer house of Armenian royalty. The temple was built with magic numbers – the number of steps and columns as well as the dimensions all had meaning. Next to the temple – which was reconstructed – are the ruins of a church destroyed by an earthquake, the ruins of the summer palace, and the ruins of a Roman bathhouse with a mosaic. The setting is dramatic as well – there’s a wall with an entry gate, and on the other three sides there’s a steep drop to a gorge below.

Geghard Monastery is named for the holy lance that pierced Christ’s side; the lance itself used to be here until it was moved to Etchmiadzin. It’s located in a scenic canyon, and most of its chapels were hewn out of the rock. There are crosses carved into and cross-stones carved out of the rock – centuries old. When they were carving one of the chapels, they hit a spring – legend has it that if you splash some of this holy water on your body it will keep your skin youthful (but, as the guide pointed out – and Tug McGraw would have rephrased – you gotta believe). Above the church complex, caves contain monastic cells. The proportions and acoustics of one of the churches in particular are amazing, considering that it was carved from the rock around it. As with other Armenian churches, there is little adornment, because that would distract you from concentrating on God, and everyone stands for mass (though now there are seats for the old and infirm).

All three of these destinations were fascinating and have whet my appetite for more of Armenia! And also for finally downloading my pictures so that I can share some with you! I've gone back and added some; more to come....

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

In with the New, Out with the Old

There will be some challenges in the new assignment. One is that MCA-Armenia may be better known for what it didn’t do than what it has done: “Through rehabilitation of high-priority rural roads in the road lifeline network the Rural Road Rehabilitation Project was aimed at ensuring better access to economic and social infrastructure. The project successfully encouraged the adoption of important road maintenance legislation, rehabilitated 24.4 kilometers of rural roads and completed detailed road designs for more than 570 kilometers. However, as a result of the June 2009 meeting of MCC’s Board of Directors, after Armenia experienced declines in the MCC Ruling Justly category, the MCC did not resume funding for this Project.”

They fixed only 25 km of roads out of a planned 570! Of course, this makes PR for what was accomplished all the more important! Another challenge is something that the MCC-Washington person said – there is always an issue with farmers. The ones she spoke to last week were having a major rodent infestation. I guess the way to overcome that might be to note what might be better this year than in the past.

And speaking of the past – how things ended with Homeland Handicrafts. Well, I went into the office on Thursday morning to tell Tim I was finished. I didn’t have a lot of time because I had been invited to the gravity system event. When I got there, he was upstairs on the phone. I had one loose end to tie up – getting feedback on some items I had left at the Cafesjian Museum and getting the items back. I did that (and learned that she wants the items! Nice to leave with a success story) and Tim was still on the phone and I had to leave… so I emailed him to say that I had found another assignment. Not the best way to tell someone, but maybe for the best, because then he had time to process it.

I had worked on a final report for Peace Corps, and I left a copy for him. I offered to have coffee with him – I suggested Friday morning and he said no so I shifted my day around and then he said he could but I had already changed my plans so I suggested the afternoon and late in the day he texted to say he couldn’t make it…. So we finally met face-to-face today and had coffee. I hadn’t had Armenian coffee in a while and I was in the mood for some! He seemed to have already moved on and to have many other irons in the fire. I did offer to consult as time permits, and that was that.

It was harder to break it off with the OSCE – the handicrafts in the Syunik region are a big part of their sustainability plan, whether they do it through Homeland Handicrafts or not. I wrote a final report for them as well, with ideas on next steps – trainings and local initiatives – and I met with them in their office earlier today. They want me to go to the next meeting with them, which is back in the south next Monday. Next Monday is supposed to be my first day in the new office! I finally agreed to ask my new counterpart – after all, if they are so busy recovering from the big events of last week and this, maybe Monday isn’t the best day to start after all. But if it is, OSCE has my report and they can convey the recommendations. I’ve also been in communication with many of the PCVs who were working with Homeland Handicrafts, and again have offered to consult as time permits. All in all I think I have left things on a good note.

Monday, April 11, 2011

More on the New Assignment

Here’s a nice overview of the MCA-Armenia program, from a brochure entitled “From Reliable Irrigation to Profitable Agriculture”: Over the 5 year period (September 2006-September 2011) the Millennium Challenge Account - Armenia (MCA-Armenia) program expects to benefit more than 420,000 rural residents in around 350 communities across Armenia by refurbishing major sections of the country's main canal systems, modernizing some of the most urgently needed pumping stations, introducing new gravity irrigation schemes, re-building tertiary canals and restoring sections of the Ararat Valley Drainage system. The MCA-Armenia program is also training nearly 45,000 farmers in improved farming practices, delivering technical assistance to water supply institutions and providing 8.5 million USD in credit to farmers and small agribusinesses in support of the program objectives. Millennium Challenge Corporation's investment of nearly USD 180 million in the irrigation and agricultural sectors of Armenia is critical to the development of the country's agriculture and overall economy and the livelihoods of farmers and agribusinesses.

And from the position description given to Peace Corps, the rationale for the assignment: The Program is in the fifth and final year of implementation and at this point of time presenting program results, achievements, successes and ensuring Program sustainability have become the key focuses of MCA-Armenia. In the remaining months of the Program, marketing of Program results, successes and achievements through an efficient, creative and innovative Public Relations campaign is of paramount importance for the Program. In particular, as other donors and private organizations learn about the program they may be able to incorporate and sustain many of the programs initiatives. MCA-Armenia staff can benefit from a PC Volunteer with experience in Western type marketing and PR operations areas.

My duties and responsibilities: Revising any written materials that MCA-Armenia drafts for PR/Marketing purposes including press releases, success stories, brochures, MCA-Armenia quarterly bulletins and other promotional material; Supporting MCA-Armenia PR team with development of success stories, drafting of press releases, writing articles for the MCA-Armenia quarterly bulletin and other promotional materials; Helping MCA-Armenia identify new and creative ways of promoting the program and ensuring its further sustainability in general.

Comments: I learned last week that MCA-Armenia is getting more attention than it expected, as agriculture is becoming more of a priority for the government. Rising prices, a bad crop last year, and upcoming elections are giving it a higher-profile. I started reading my stack of materials today and for the most part I am impressed with the activity of MCA-Armenia and with its communications. I did find some typos and some wordsmithing I would have done, so I will definitely have work! Also – I can walk to work! Peace Corps is in one direction, Homeland Handicrafts another, and MCA-Armenia is in a third direction – it may be closest to where I live of the three. I’ll get to know lunch places in yet another part of town. And I hope to be able to continue to work out of the Peace Corps office or at home at least two days a week – or, even better, to join the nearby hotel pool and add working out, rather than work, to my tutoring days!

Saturday, April 9, 2011


So, no government shutdown. Our jobs as Peace Corps volunteers would have continued anyway. Actually, all of the staff at Peace Corps overseas posts would have continued as well – everyone is considered essential. Recruitment and placement would have been on hold though, and many of the staff at Peace Corps headquarters would have been furloughed. This is what would have happened -
About a third of the people at the U.S. Embassy here would have been furloughed; I wonder how that compares to embassies around the world. Anyway, it’s good that they came to an agreement.

I always like looking at the money in various countries and learning about the people and places depicted on them. Here, most of the people featured on the money are writers and artists – I think that says something positive about the value that society here places on them. The reverse on the bills depicts scenes of old Yerevan and other cities in Armenia. The street names (post-Soviet) are also those of writers and artists, with a big street named after the architect who laid out Yerevan and another for the person who developed the Armenian alphabet.

A new Peace Corps Response volunteer started this week. Her orientation schedule differed from ours based on our feedback – they listen and respond here! We went to dinner with her a couple of times this week, and I am sure we’ll see more of her. But I am glad I arrived at the same time as others – in both Armenia and in the Philippines. It’s nice to have a built-in support group.

We had a warden workshop this week, discussing safety and security in various scenarios – for example, what if all the communications go down, or what if the Peace Corps office is destroyed. Our warden group consists of the five PCRVs and five PCVs whose sites are nearby; getting us together gave us the opportunity to know each other but also the responsibility for one another. Each country I have been in handles its warden system and its safety and security drills differently. Each country has real possibilities for activating the Emergency Action Plan, too. Cited at our meeting were the recent coup in Kyrgyzstan – PCVs were consolidated. The ones near the heaviest unrest never returned to their sites – some were relocated within the country and some just went home. And I’ve mentioned earlier that the Georgia PCVs came here in 2008 following the conflict there – I think I said they were here for a few weeks but I learned it was actually a couple of months. That’s a long time to be on hold. Decks of cards and reading materials will go into any emergency bag I pack! At the meeting we were also formally introduced to our Region Manager – several Peace Corps countries are adding this regional support layer, which covers everything other than programming. He seems nice, and he has already been very helpful!

This morning I paid for the planting of a tree, in honor of Earth Day, through; paying for it via text message allows me to track my tree. Armenia has lots of microclimates so there are many places where trees just don’t grow – but deforestation is also a big issue here, so Armenia needs trees! I invite you to go to the web site and plant one as well, via paypal.

Last, for today – I wrote an article that appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly in December; I accepted my position here right around the time that that issue was going to press, so the fact that I was coming was included in my bio. This week was the deadline for a column in which the picture of the Ambassador and me was going to appear. The new class secretary sent it to me for review – and I had just changed to my new job assignment, so was able to include that breaking news. Timing is everything - twice!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Odds and Ends

Daylight Savings Time did indeed arrive while I was away – so now the sun peeks over the ridge at about 8:10 am and it is bright past 8 pm. The outdoor cafes are starting to open and I am getting a sense of the late-night town that Yerevan will become in summer. I think that being outdoors should help with the cigarette smoke, but not if everyone smokes outdoors!

While I was away, Yerevan was invaded by Iranians – in a peaceful sense! For Iranian New Year, wealthy Iranians and college students come to Armenia to drink, dance together and party in general. I’m told it’s quite a scene! Then again, I am not a drinker, dancer or partier, so I probably would have avoided the crowds had I been here.

Also, an elderly lady in Georgia (the country) was hunting for copper and accidentally cut the cable that provided internet to all of Armenia. True story. The internet was apparently down for hours! And she is being thrown in jail.

On the first leg of my vacation flight I had a sense of how snowy and mountainous this region is. We flew over the Black Sea as well, but all I could see were clouds. Maybe next time?

When I went for my introductory meeting with MCA-Armenia this week, my host mother/sister waited until I left and then threw a glass of water out the door after me (she told me first that she was going to do this). It’s for good luck. When I realized that I had left behind the piece of paper with the address and contact info (even though I remembered where I was going and who I was going to see, I thought I would feel better with the piece of paper), she had to do it again! It must have worked.

April 7th, yesterday, was Motherhood and Beauty Day – another candy and flowers occasion, marking the end of Women’s Month. According to my tutor, the day was set after independence to distance Armenia from the Soviet holiday of International Women’s Day, March 8. But that one stuck as well, so instead there is Women’s Month and April 7 is the end of it. She said there is also a Christian significance to April 7 – this was the day that the Archangel Gabriel told Mother Mary that she would be a mother. Hence motherhood day. And she said that she (and I) were special because our birthdays are just about nine months later.

My tutor also talked about some nomads that once lived in Armenia. I mentioned that someone told me I might be a nomad, looking for a home – and she stopped me immediately and said NO! Nomads do not look for a home. They just pick up and go and then pick up and go again. So if I am looking for a home, a place to belong, then I am not a nomad. An interesting perspective….

I mentioned the Azrou RPCV that I met last week, but I haven’t yet mentioned another connection! Just before I left for vacation, I heard from a PCV currently in Morocco. She works with my counterpart (her site is outside Azrou though), and he asked her to work on a web site for the new artisana (which is still not finished, so I am glad I didn’t push for an extension!); she wants to take what I have done and build on it. He didn’t remember that I had done one, I suppose, but my successor had told her about it, and Tariq, the Program Manager, had used it as an example of a successful PCV project. I am so glad that someone wants to build on my work! She also told me that the new Morocco Country Director is eliminating the Small Business Development program after her stage leaves – so whatever she does has to be sustainable. I know that change is inevitable, but it was sad to see that. I asked the Armenia CD (who had just left Morocco) what he thought and he seemed sad too – and remarked that he didn’t know the impact on the volunteers and staff (not to mention the artisans…).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Change is Coming

Last month I alluded to some drama; I’ll talk more about that now. We PCRVs had a meeting with the head of programming for Peace Corps EMA (Europe, Mediterranean and Asia), who was in Armenia for a week; she was here mostly to discuss programming for the two-year volunteers, but as long as she was here, she met with us to see if there was any feedback she could bring back to headquarters. I think that the meeting led all of us to think about our assignments here. Brian chose the timing of her visit to announce his desire/intention to leave Homeland Handicrafts; Peace Corps staff worked with him to find him another assignment here. Gordon and Jeanne had some good feedback and good insights into what they are doing and what they want to accomplish while here. My feedback was focused largely on the orientation that Peace Corps had for us when we arrived, but I also looked at my job description and realized that I didn’t feel well-utilized as a Peace Corps Response volunteer. A sentence in the job description mentioned the need to roll up our sleeves – and I realized that all I had been doing since I started is roll up my sleeves. I hadn’t really been able to get an actual project going, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to. I rewrote my job description so that it would be more reflective of what I thought the needs of the organization were and what I could bring to it based on my experience – i.e. writing a marketing strategy and plan and doing some of its implementation.

However, I also realized that I felt worn out and unfulfilled and that changing the job description wouldn’t be enough - if I had the opportunity to change the job, I should grab it. One of the options presented to Brian seemed up my alley; he mentioned it to me and I mentioned to Peace Corps that I would be interested. I went to meet with them earlier this week and I said yes! I’ll be working with Millennium Challenge Account-Armenia. This is the in-country implementation team of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent U.S. foreign aid agency created in 2004 to fight global poverty. MCC (per its web site) forms partnerships with poor countries, but only those who are committed to good governance, economic freedom and investments in their citizens (read more about it at In Armenia they have been working on canals and irrigation systems, something I don’t know that much about, but something a civil engineering major could love (read more at – note that if you google it, the first result is an old site; the new site is the second google result). The compact ends in September, and as they close out the project, they requested a Peace Corps Response volunteer to help with PR and marketing.

When I got there late Monday afternoon for a short chat, there was a visitor from MCC in Washington reviewing the communications. She said that Armenia’s communications are a model they use for other countries. There’s a strong team in place here, and they are looking to me to help with success stories, proofreading and editing in English, and writing articles for the quarterly bulletin. They feel I can offer a fresh (and a Western) perspective; the staff has been working on these stories for several years now. I might also write a blog about the closeout events for the MCC team here. There will be new closeout materials to be produced, and materials need to be made more user-friendly for the U.S. audience (i.e. Capitol Hill). All of this is very exciting! They’re busy this week and next with high-profile events, so I won’t start in the office until April 18; in the meantime I have a stack of communications to read and the (new, since I looked at the old) web site to review, so I have already started!

I went to one of the events today – the opening of a gravity system (I’m guessing that as I do the reading I’ll be able to explain what that is), attended by the President of Armenia, the U.S. Ambassador, the head of the MCC here, the Minister of Agriculture, and more. I’m waiting to see the television coverage of it as I write this. I was wondering if and how I would tell the Ambassador that I changed assignments, and I had my chance when I said hello to her! It was exciting to be there. Afterwards, I went with the MCC folks to the opening of a canal that was funded by the World Bank – this one featured multiple toasts and a complete buffet lunch. In trying to stay close to the MCC folks but also out of the way, I ended up quite near the President! The MCC folks then had to go back to the Embassy for a meeting discussing what would happen in case of a government shutdown.

As for when I finish – that’s not confirmed, but I told both Peace Corps and MCA-Armenia that I would like to leave at the end of July. I indicated that I would be willing to reconsider since there will be multiple closeout events in August and September, but I think I’ll be ready to leave after six months in country. They actually wanted someone through the end of the year, so maybe they can get a second Response volunteer to build on what I do.

And as for how I ended things with Homeland Handicrafts – that’s a story for another day.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Back in Armenia

I’m back from vacation – everyone tells me I look refreshed and happy, which leads me to wonder what I looked like before I left. I won’t go into any details of the trip here (that’ll be for – eventually) except as it relates to my time in Armenia. As I was on the way to the airport, I passed some of the familiar sites and streets of Yerevan, and I had a beautiful view of Mt. Ararat. I felt happy to be going away but also happy that I would be coming back – which is a good way to be. There were some Armenian connections – but of course, since there seem to be Armenian connections everywhere! And there were some current Armenia PCVs on the return flight with me – we took the marchutni back into town from the airport. So now I have been on my first marchutni! It’s not that big a deal – after all, I’ve been on a lot of developing-country public transport at this point – but I am glad that I can walk most everywhere in Yerevan. When the time comes to travel out to the regions, to visit PCVs or tourist sites, I’m still not sure I have the language for it. I guess if I know the destination that may be enough (I do know how to ask the price and I know my numbers). But we learned this weekend that outside of Yerevan there’s still snow and slush, so I may not be going too far just yet anyway.

We went hiking on Sunday! I had heard about this hiking group; Jeanne and Gordon went on an outing with them last Sunday and they, Brian and I all went this past Sunday. We went to the ruins of an old fortress (a short hike), an old monastery (a long and at times muddy hike, thanks to snowmelt – but there was also still snow), and Khor Virap, an important church that was built on the spot where Saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for thirteen years in a pit filled with poisonous insects. He stayed alive because he was secretly fed by Christian women. When the king at the time started to go mad, Saint Gregory is said to have cured him, and in gratitude, the king adopted Christianity and Armenia became the first Christian nation (in the small world department, Gregory was from Caesarea, which I had just seen while on vacation!). You can climb down into the pit – apparently it’s well-lit – but since I had hiked so much, I didn’t do it. I’d like to go back there anyway – there’s an iconic shot of the church with Ararat (or, if you’re at the church, an unobstructed view of Ararat) and we didn’t see it because it was cloudy.

There’ve been some April showers this week – I didn’t think it would rain anymore at all, so I welcomed it. More, spring arrived while I was away! Flowering trees are in bloom – apricot and plum and some cherry, I’m told. On the way to our hiking spots we passed several orchards with rows and rows of flowering trees – so beautiful!

Saturday I got back in the Yerevan swing. I had plans for breakfast at Artbridge with some PCVs I’ve befriended. I got there a little early (and they were a little late) and who was there but the Country Director and his family. It was nice to talk with them about my work and about Armenia. They were with another family – I thought I recognized the woman and she thought she recognized me; turns out she works at the Embassy and she had seen me at the event I attended before I left. But wait – there’s more! She was a PCV in Morocco – in Azrou! My site! The Country Director (who had been Country Director in Morocco just before coming here and had also been a PCV in Morocco) never put us together until we were together. Very cool!

After breakfast I met another set of current PCVs and we went to the Vernissage – I’ve been there now with several people, and each time I go with someone different I see new and different things. One of the people I went with is thinking of forming a women’s cooperative at her site, so Brian and I talked with her about it over lunch; maybe we’ll go down there and meet her artisans.

And Saturday night was capped off with an orchestra concert – Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. A fine welcome back!

Friday, April 1, 2011

From Culture Smart Armenia - General Info

I read Culture Smart Armenia on the way here, but now that I have been here for a while, I've been looking at it again. I'll note some things here and add my own observations. Culture Smart is a great series – it’s a quick read. Culture Shock is more detailed – there isn’t one for Armenia; for Morocco and the Philippines I read both. Opportunity? I think you have to be here longer than I am going to be to write Culture Shock Armenia!

One thing that struck me in both readings is the golden summer light around 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm. Yerevan can be very dry and dusty in July and August (it is already very dry now!) but "a phenomenon that shouldn't be missed is the gold-tinged light of the Caucasus region on a summer afternoon. Around 3:00 pm, one is treated to an amber glow that is uniquely special to this part of the world." I look forward to seeing that! That sounds like the time to take an exercise break and walk up the Cascade. Or maybe I will enjoy the light from the office window if it is over 100 Fahrenheit.... Yerevan is located in the Ararat Valley, which has the lowest elevations in the nation and is also the main agricultural region. Here, crops enjoy the longest duration of sunshine in the world (2700 hours a year).

The book says the economy is 17% agriculture, 36% industry and 46% services - without a mention of the high unemployment rate. It also says that 64% of the population lives in cities and towns - based on what I have seen that seems like a reasonable number, but I wonder how that compares to other countries, developing and developed. Literacy is 99% and life expectancy is 73 years.

Armenians call themselves Hay and their country Hayastan, after Haik, a descendent of Noah, who rebelled against the Babylonians and led a return to the land around Mt. Ararat. One of Haik's descendants was said to be Aram, a military leader who expanded the borders of his country; the Greeks and Persians began to refer to the land as Aram's country, which is one interpretation of the origin of the name "Armenia."

During the early days of Christianity in Armenia, masses were sung in Greek. The king wanted to develop and promote the Armenian language, so he assigned the task to Mashtots, who developed the alphabet. In the end, he not only created the language, but also provided one of the first translations of the Bible into a modern language; his translation is considered one of the best in history.

One thing that was mentioned by Peace Corps when we got here is the amount of foreign aid – for a while, Armenia received more money per capita than any country except Israel. The diaspora is still responsible for a lot of money pouring into the country – without it, Armenia would be much poorer. The global economic downturn, therefore, has hit Armenia hard. Another thing noted by Peace Corps is the effect of the war with Azerbaijan – 750,000 Azeris left Armenia for Azerbaijan and 400,000 ethnic Armenians left Azerbaijan for Armenia; of those, 35,000 (if it’s not a typo) have accepted Armenian citizenship – meaning that the rest have not accepted that they may not be going back.

Another thing that I may as well note here is that when Georgia was invaded in summer 2008 (I remember watching coverage of that when we were at COS conference in Morocco – at the restaurant at the American Embassy), the Peace Corps volunteers in Georgia were evacuated to Armenia. They stayed for a few weeks until it was safe to go back. Amazing, to me – yet just the other week there was a big protest here, one of the biggest in a while (we have received texts to stay away from the area when a protest is scheduled and somehow I seem to end up walking near them – this might have been the third since I’ve been here, but this seemed the biggest and most serious), so who is to say that something requiring evacuation won’t happen here?