Monday, May 30, 2011

More from Culture Smart - Tidbits

A phenomenon of some supermarkets (such as the one I usually go to!) is the retail “hoverers” who shadow you up and down the aisles (I am glad I read about this so I knew to expect it!). Although they are there to help you find what you want, their presence can be distracting to those accustomed to shopping without assistance. In the mom-and-pop grocery stores, there is usually a woman assigned to each specific area of the store – the bread, the cheese, etc. She won’t help you with an item from outside her area – so you have to go to several areas, get served, and pay each time. For produce, there are the big markets, the shukas (sounds like souk, the Arabic word). I go to a little produce store near where I live – right now, the strawberries are coming in, and might be the best I have ever had!

As for the Vernissage – this open-air market was originally a place where local artists could show their work to the general public. The French word vernissage (varnishing) is used to mean a private display before the opening of an art exhibition. When crowds gathered to view the paintings, local merchants saw an opportunity to sell their own wares. It now sells both everyday items and books, both new and used (mostly to the local market), and tourist-oriented items. Bargaining is the order of the day, and once again I am honing my skills.

Have I talked about dress? People here are very fashionable, though they may wear designer knockoffs rather than actual labels. It seems everyone wears black. And the women wear high heels – even in the snow, even with many steps to negotiate. With all the emphasis on appearance, gyms are still not very popular. People walk everywhere to stay fit! And most people do seem fit, though I have seen plenty of non-trim people as well. And where do all of these people go? In the summer, the cafes. The book says that 65 percent of Armenian men smoke – that seems about right. I am glad that Millennium Challenge Account-Armenia is a non-smoking workplace! (And, I just found out, it has air-conditioning).

Young people in Yerevan often find work in civil service or for an NGO. Older Armenians hark back to Soviet life, when there were jobs available for almost everyone. People in rural areas want to go to Yerevan to work; the other options are government jobs for the fortunate and small-scale agriculture for the rest. Many long to leave the country and find work elsewhere. Young men between the ages of 18 and 26 must give two years of military service – if you are enrolled in a university you are exempt, so many men stay in school until they are 27 and no longer eligible. This exemption may go away as the country attempts to draft young men born in the early 1990s, a period of sharp decline in the birthrate and massive emigration. Not mentioned in the book, but discussed, is the ability to buy one’s way out of military service. Some of the TEFL volunteers also talk about the students buying grades, a common practice. I hope I haven’t written something I shouldn’t have! As for sports – chess is a national pastime, and backgammon (nardi) is common here. Soccer is popular, and individual sports include weightlifting, wrestling and boxing.

Some lavash notes (also known as why I have no recipe for it). It is made with water, flour and salt. It is different from and much thinner than the lavash sold in western countries. It takes a lot of time and effort to prepare, and is almost always made by hand. The dough is rolled out flat and cooked against the hot walls of a traditional lavash oven (similar to a tandoor oven). The length of the lavash must be between 24 and 28 inches and the width 12 to 15 inches. Anything can be rolled in lavash and called a meal; at the buffets I’ve been to, I usually roll up salty cheese and greens. In Gyumri, Judy, Barbara and I were transfixed as we passed a lavash bakery and watched the master at work.

Family names – yes, they almost all end in –ian or –yan. But they can begin with a variety of names, indicating geographic origin, occupation, father’s first name (many of which are biblical), aristocracy or another trait. Interestingly, names that indicate the occupation of an ancestor were often given by tax collectors, who had to identify people for tax purposes. Since the collectors may have been Turks, Persians or Arabs, the names often have roots in languages other than Armenian, and can differ between eastern and western Armenians, as the eastern names have their roots in Persian, Georgian or Russian, while the western ones may have theirs in Turkish, Arabic or Greek.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

From Culture Smart Armenia - Values and Attitudes

Back to Culture Smart! Now that I have been here a while and have talked to more Armenians and to PCVs who live in towns and villages, I can confirm that what I read about is also what I or others have experienced.

Some values and attitudes noted in the book – family, education, hospitality, and intense national pride. The typical family maintains conservative, traditional values. Women marry in their early or mid-twenties and men only slightly later (my tutor notes that women tend to have their first child nine months after marriage…). They typically have two to three children (my tutor notes that unless they have three, the population will continue to decline) and marriages tend to last for life. Divorce exists, but is somewhat taboo. Young married men often bring their wives home to live under the parental roof. “An Armenian is not supposed to be alone.” Aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives are near, and children are doted on. Sound familiar? It is like the other countries in which I have served! Well, except for family size – though in Morocco, families are now about the same size, but for economic and not cultural reasons – the generation currently having children there has many siblings. Back to Armenia - abortions are legal, and tend to be a well-used form of birth control (the pill is available, but expensive). Although birth rates have declined, Armenia is a relatively young country.

Gender roles sound familiar too – in traditional families, a boy is treated differently from his sisters. He is not expected to do chores; a female relative will clean up after him. The man of the house is responsible for the family income and for major economic decisions. Women cook, clean and raise the children. My tutor says that the man is king but the woman is queen – that she is important too, in her domain. Then again, my tutor is not married. Nor is my host mother, nor Gordon and Jeanne’s host mother – she says that due to migration, there is a generation of older unmarried women. I think I have mentioned before that many men have been forced by unemployment to leave the country and work in Russia – so there is even more of a burden on the women who remain behind. People of the same sex often hold hands or kiss, but this is considered part of tradition; gay life here is difficult – and public displays of affection between men and women is frowned upon (again, this sounds familiar). In Yerevan, though, I often see couples necking – on the Cascade, in the back corners of the non-smoking rooms in the tea salons and the gelato place. Since they live at home, they have nowhere to go….

There are vast differences in wealth across the country. Yerevan, with one-third of the country’s population, produces more than half of the gross domestic product. About half of the rural population lives in poverty. An enormously wealthy class of oligarchs has made its way to the top of society and, since independence, this new elite has hampered economic reform. Influential businessmen not only control key industries but also sit in parliament. Why does some of this sound like the United States to me? In recent years, the value of the dram has grown dramatically (now about 360 to the dollar), affecting local producers who want to export goods, but benefiting the few oligarch importers. In general, it is a cash society. Armenia has socialized medicine, though quality of service is sometimes lacking. Retirees have pensions, but the money is barely enough to buy groceries. Dental services are known to have high standards, and many diaspora Armenians fly in to get high-quality dentistry for a reasonable price. I can attest to the quality of the dental care!

Armenians are affectionate (the suffix –jan is used as a term of endearment – e.g. Sharon-jan). They tend to be very inquisitive about family backgrounds and personal life (again, same in Morocco and the Philippines. But here nobody has tried to marry me off; Armenian men want Armenian brides). They are used to keeping in touch with Diaspora family. They have strong nationalistic pride; that’s part of what has enabled the culture to survive for so long.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

At the Two-Thirds Mark...

This week I have been working on a story about a bridge that MCA-Armenia built. It wasn’t in the original scope of work, but the existing bridge was falling apart and dangerous. The bridge spans the drainage system that MCA-Armenia was rehabilitating, and it connects nine villages to Yerevan. The mayor of one of them – coincidentally, the one where I planted the tree – requested the bridge, and the Environmental and Social Impact team agreed to build it. It does have a big social impact – without it, farmers would have a harder time taking their crops to market and students would have a harder time getting to school; they would have to go several miles out of the way, costing precious money and time.

We visited the construction foreman and the bridge itself. We talked to the mayors of two of the villages and then went out to meet some beneficiaries. It was a chance for me to experience authentic village Armenian hospitality – everywhere, cups of coffee and trays of sweets appeared, and we couldn’t leave without sitting and visiting for a while. It was fun to talk to little kids, too – I haven’t had much of a chance to do that! The story of the bridge is compelling but so is the context of the larger project. Without the rehabilitation of the drainage system, the beneficiaries had standing water not only in their backyard farms but also in the ground floors of their homes – we could see the water line on the walls and I would say it was several feet high. We visited a site where the drainage system is still in the works, and the “before” is a little ditch with standing water that clearly overflows frequently, whereas the latter is a substantial ditch, with a levee-like wall, through which water flows briskly. And it was nice to see “my” tree, and to once again pass many storks’ nests. I’ve been writing the story this week and also reading background info for the next environment article and working on revising fact sheets now that I have more information to include. And I have another new assignment, writing an article about the credit component of the program.

I’m also sharing my office these two weeks, with another MCC person from DC. She’s had some free time at night, so we’ve gone out to dinners, and I introduced her to the A-14s and to other PCVs and PCRVs. She hadn’t had authentic Armenian food, so one night we went to the place with live music. Here is a duduk and a kanun, the instruments featured in the concertos last week. I am no longer sharing my home space, on the other hand – Zina decided that Will’s schedule (out late, sleeping late) and mine (in early, up early) were too much work for her, and she told him to find other accommodations. I also wanted to mention someone who shared our hike – an Israeli backpacker who is solo traveling the Silk Road; he showed up at the fortress with no real way down, so the group leader invited him to join us on the hike and the bus ride back to Yerevan. I think I am somewhat adventurous, until I meet someone who really is! Also – MCA-Armenia decided that the people who wanted English lessons were too across-the-board in their needs; I may have conversations one-on-one with the people most motivated to learn, but I won’t do lessons. I’m glad they decided that and told me, since that’s what Jeanne and I were thinking too, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell them!

A note on the sweets – in every home, there seems to be a never-ending supply of Grand Candy. Grand Candy, locally made, is amazing (but won’t allow indoor photography in its stores…). The chocolate ranges from okay to great (priced accordingly), and they have so many varieties of sweets – individually wrapped, bars, wafers, cookies, coffee, ice cream, cakes – it’s impressive. It might be the most successful manufacturer in Armenia! And Grand Candy joins lavash on the not-yet-really-being-thought-about list of things I will miss.

Though it is almost time to think about it – on Tuesday we had our PCRV “COS conference,” a meeting to review the (pile of) paperwork we have to fill out before leaving here. We didn’t have one of these in the Philippines: it was nice of staff to take the time for us, and a rare occasion for all five PCRVs to spend some time together. Lots to do (work-wise – and now, paperwork-wise) and see (weekend-wise) before I leave!

I may have ended my formal tutoring, too – my tutor is going to be an LCF (Language and Culture Facilitator) for the A-19s, who, amazingly enough, arrive in the country at the end of next week. So this week, training-of-trainers started for her. I may go through the language book and study on my own during the tutoring time slots - or maybe I will call it a day. I’ve gotten a lot out of it but I don’t really study or practice. I use Armenian sometimes, and I do like to read, but tutoring was getting more challenging. Once we finished the alphabet, she started to write everything in Armenian rather than in transliterated English. Armenian is hard for me to read upside down, and I don’t read it as fast as she writes it, so the last few tutoring sessions were overwhelming. Working at MCA-Armenia tires me out too – maybe instead of tutoring I can use the time to rest!

I should also mention that this weekend I am missing Republic Day, the anniversary of the date in 1918 when Armenia first became an independent republic – though it didn’t last very long. They’ve been setting up some big concert stages for celebrations. But it’s okay – I will hear music of my own culture, the Princeton University Marching Band, and maybe “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”! Last item for today – Yerevan is abloom with roses everywhere! Even the tiniest patches of dirt seem to have some, and they line some of the sculptures and the main walk across the Opera Square. Beautiful!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Weekend Walks

I went to the orchestra again on Friday night – this time it was a concert of Armenian classical music. Two concertos featured traditional instruments – the kanun, which is like a zither, and the duduk – which, though I have been likening it to a flute, is actually probably akin to the oboe. Wonderful music. And then there was a Khatchurian symphony, full of drama. Went over to Republic Square afterwards to watch the fountains for a short while; it was drizzling and I decided there would be non-rainy evenings to come.

On Saturday I went to the slopes of Mt. Aragats with the hiking group, to see a fortress and a couple of churches, as usual in beautiful locations. First we stopped at an alphabet monument – fun with letters! And then it was up to Amberd, a fortress/palace built in the 1000s, uphill from a church overlooking a gorge at the confluence of two rivers. Fun to explore the ruins of the fortress, and the church architecture continues to impress. We started our hike from there, and as we did, a cold rain started to pelt us, and the wind picked up. We hiked down into and then along the gorge, wet and cold. I found myself in something of a zen state – not having fun per se, but not dwelling on how soaked I was – just hiking along and aware that I was surrounded by wonderful scenery. And just when I thought it would be like that all day, the sun came out! My shoes and socks never dried, but the rest of me did, and then it was a wonderful hike! We went to another church, this one overlooking a valley full of farms and villages. On the way back we stopped at a monument where the bones of a succession of kings were stored. The Persians stole the bones so as to steal the spirits of the kings; the bones were rescued and then the pagans were re-buried separately from the Christians. Eventually the bones of the Christian kings were moved to Etchmiadzin. Interesting little bit of history.

There are two A-14s in town – i.e. volunteers who served here from 2006-2008. One, Will, is staying at Zina’s for a month, though he will be in and out. He’s been mostly out, so I haven’t seen much of him yet, but he seems like a nice fellow and I know Zina is happy to have him here. Another, Betty, is also a friend of Zina’s and would probably have stayed with her if Will hadn’t shown up the day before. She’s the current PCV in Ain Leuh, Morocco! She came over for coffee yesterday, and she and I went to the Vernissage and to dinner. Interesting to compare notes on Armenia and Morocco – and the changes in the former since she’s been here and the latter since I left there. In between the Vernissage and dinner, I had lunch with Gordon and Jeanne and then we walked around town for hours. Jeanne had also been on the hike and we just wanted to keep on walking! We went to some parks at the south end of town, which had some big trees; the ones closer in have much smaller trees. By the evening I was exhausted, but I loved being outside and hiking and walking!

This coming weekend I have some ambitious travel planned, to put it mildly. I leave early on Friday morning, and about 24 hours later (including enough time in Vienna to take the train into the city, have coffee and take a stroll, as long as the flight leaves Yerevan on time) will find myself on the Princeton campus. About 38 hours after that, I leave Princeton for New York City – restocking my toiletries (and, to fill whatever room remains in my suitcase, buying goodies to bring back to fellow PCVs) and, if tentative plans don’t change, seeing the Mets and the Phillies at Citi Field. Then it’s back to JFK – a long layover in Frankfurt and a short one in Vienna (not the most efficient route, but I used miles) later, I’ll be back here in the wee, wee hours of Tuesday morning! I hope I can get by on adrenaline and the joy of seeing friends and not be in a jet-lag fog the entire time. My trips have neatly broken my (now-shortened) service into thirds – tomorrow marks four months to the day since my arrival, and there are only two months to go! Time is flying.

Friday, May 20, 2011

When the World Calls

This week I read the book “When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and its First Fifty Years.” I had read several books on the history of the Peace Corps when I was in Morocco, and I’d been waiting for the “official” 50th anniversary book. This one was written by a journalist who was an evaluator for Peace Corps in the sixties. About half of the book was about that first decade, the formation of the Peace Corps and the legacy of Kennedy and Shriver. I knew already about the Nixon years, when he tried to more or less eliminate the Peace Corps entirely. I didn’t really know about the Carter years – basically, he continued Nixon’s system, where Peace Corps was combined with VISTA. Reagan appointed a strong director and, well, it seems that things have been more or less the same ever since, with about 8000 volunteers in the field. The author’s perspective on the numbers of volunteers was interesting. The early years had the largest numbers – they kind of threw a lot of volunteers into many countries without meaningful work. The Vietnam war and the Nixon era saw a plunge to what has been more or less the steady state ever since, despite more-than-occasional calls for increases. What I thought was particularly interesting was that in the 60s, numbers in Latin America were high as a counter to Castro’s Cuba. The numbers in Honduras went up in the 80s as a reward for that country allowing the contras to stage there. And then in the post-Soviet era there was a mad rush to pump volunteers into Eastern Europe (which, I suppose, is still on!). The book answered a question I always wondered about – why the Peace Corps building and World Wise Schools program are named after Paul Coverdell, one of the Peace Corps directors (and not, say, Shriver). After he was director, he served in the Senate, and when he died suddenly while in office, his fellow (Republican) Senators were moved to name things after him. There are also some country-specific anecdotes. The book ends by asking whether the Peace Corps does any good – and I don’t think I need to tell you the conclusion.

Speaking of World Wise Schools, I have been writing to the same class that I’ve been partnered with before – the seventh-grade class at my niece’s school. Only now she is in the seventh grade! When I write to them, my priority is not to embarrass her! And also to give information about Armenia and Peace Corps, of course. The class asks good questions; I am happy to be involved in this program. All you teachers out there, or parents, or students with influence on teachers – sign up for this program and get partnered with a PCV! - that web site has a lot of fun information, too!

The photographs here are of khatchkars, the “cross-stones” that are endemic to Armenia. There are 40,000 in the country, and no two are alike. I hadn’t posted any before, because they’re a tad on the religious side, but as I was putting together a photo montage for my partner class, I realized how crucial they are to Armenia – and of course they are works of art.

From When the World Calls to World Wise Schools to Lonely Planet – quite a theme for this post! I knew that at some point I would write to Lonely Planet to tell them about Zina’s bed and breakfast. The bed is comfortable, the shower hot, the food delicious, and more, Zina is really caring and loves to host guests. It helps that she speaks English so well. And the price is right! Then, a couple of weeks ago, a PCV in Goris mentioned that the Lonely Planet writer was headed down there and asked if we had any suggestions – I told him to mention Zina. Earlier this week I emailed him to see if he had mentioned her; he said he forgot, but gave me the email address of the writer. I emailed him – and he said he had just been to Zina’s the day before and she told him she wasn’t interested! She had told me about some man knocking on her door and that she had told him there was no room. So – I clarified with her that she wanted to be listed in the book and made it clear to him that there was a misunderstanding. He had asked her if she wanted to be in it and she had told him only that she wasn’t in it; she had told him she had no room (because I am here!) and he thought she was saying she didn’t want tourists. Timing is everything – he’s traveling around now but will be back next month, and I hope he will stop by and check out the place; either way, I think she can be listed in the next edition. That would be big for her! When she gets internet I’ll help her with email, and maybe I will make a web site for her. Secondary project! Small business development!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Goings On About Town

One of the projects that my counterpart mentioned to me was English-speaking practice with some of the staff at MCA-Armenia. I have so far avoided teaching English in my Peace Corps assignments because I have never been taught how to teach English. I pride myself on my writing, grammar and spelling, but that’s different. My tutor had admired my ability in linguistics, but again, that’s different. When I was in Indonesia, I met someone who mentioned that there are always jobs for English teachers, and when I said I have never been taught to teach English, he said, “you speak English, you breathe; you can teach English.” I don’t know about that.

Anyway, I decided that rather than avoid it this time, I would embrace it – but also enlist help. Jeanne knows how to teach English, and she has time on Thursday afternoons, so today she came to the MCA-Armenia office to do a needs assessment. Some people want speaking practice, some listening practice, some writing practice – but most want a class after 6:00 pm. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to accommodate that – we’ll discuss amongst ourselves.

On Tuesday I went to the dentist for my second filling (I cancelled last week’s appointment because of my virus). While waiting for the anesthesia to take hold, he mentioned the weather and how he was looking forward to the end of the rain. I asked if it was always like this and he said he didn’t grow up here. I asked where he was from and he said Baghdad. His grandparents, genocide survivors, moved to Iraq, where there is a large Armenian community (it makes sense, if they’re in Syria, Lebanon, Iran and elsewhere, but nobody had mentioned one in Iraq before). There are several Armenian churches there, and Saddam allowed them to practice and learn freely; the dentist learned not only Armenian but also Arabic and English, which was taught as a second language there. For many years medical personnel were not allowed to leave the country, but in 2007 things got so bad that he and his family managed to leave. Would he ever go back? Maybe to sell the house, but not to live, even though as a dentist he could make a ton of money there. “We don’t belong there,” he said, “Here, we’re in the majority.” Interesting conversation – and the filling went well, too.

Tuesday night, I went to the house of the Embassy Economic Officer – the person who had been a PCV in Azrou at the turn of the century. She and her family are nice – and they live well. And they cooked a great dinner. It was good to hear about her life (I’m still in the Foreign Service Officer application process), but more, she wanted to see my pictures of Azrou. I hadn’t looked at them in a while, and viewing them brought back waves of emotion. I loved my life there! Looking back was also a reminder to chill out a little bit more here – I have let work stress and some negativity (some from PCVs, some from Armenians, some about Peace Corps, some about Armenia, but nothing in particular – more of a general malaise) affect me. My time here is limited and, though I have been appreciating it, it was a wake-up call to spend more time appreciating it!

In other news, the water was out at my homestay for 24 hours this week; this has happened a couple of times before, and I guess it will happen more now that summer is coming (or here?). I have never taken the hot showers for granted – those I have always appreciated – but I am all the more grateful for one if I skip showering for a day or two.

In still other news, the New York Times web site (which I can peruse stress-free now that I’ve paid for a subscription – last month I was anxious about my 20-article limit) had an article about the Azeri Eurovision winner. The article included a map on which Naxcivan, an autonomous republic (separate from the rest of the country, on the western side of southern Armenia) was mislabeled Nagorno-Karabakh (which is an autonomous republic on the eastern side!). I look forward to seeing the correction in the Corrections section.

And more packages arrived today – postmarked February 17 and March 11! Febreze (for which I was desperate early on; now I avoid smoky places for the most part), Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (the item every PCV seems to crave), and Girl Scout cookies! Popular… I’m gonna be pop-you-oo-lar…. Plus, a shout-out to Rise Up Coffee, who will ship a free sample to any PCV currently serving!

No, the picture has nothing to do with the post – it’s left over from the trip to Khor Virap. But I liked it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Gender and Development

My major work project for the last couple of weeks has been an article for the quarterly bulletin about MCA-Armenia and gender. The MCC policy states that each Compact Country utilize an analysis of gender differences in program development, design, implementation and monitoring. MCC recognizes that many countries with high levels of gender inequality also experience high levels of poverty. I interviewed one of the subcontracting consultants, read the MCC policy and the consultant’s baseline study, reviewed relevant portions of the MCA-Armenia web site, compiled success stories from a number of sources, wrote a lengthy feature article, and, as a bonus, refreshed my Excel skills to make some pie charts to accompany the piece.

It wasn’t a surprise to learn that women have minor roles in agriculture in Armenia. Often the title to a family farm is in the husband’s name, giving the wife little access to credit or training. The women will do land preparation and planting, but the men do most of the heavy work and the work that requires equipment. On the other hand, women are sometimes involved in the household-level decisions and can influence what crops are grown. And there are a fair number of men-absent (working in another country, perhaps) women-headed farms.

The study set a target that at least 10 percent of all trained farmers be female. The consultant accomplished this by hiring a female trainer and female coordinators to find the trainees. They held trainings for women in schools, where women felt comfortable, rather than in municipality offices. They made it a priority to reach women, and as a result, 24 percent of those trained were female, and 17 percent of the demonstration farms (which show best practices to others) are female-owned. The targets and results differ by marz – in more conservative regions of the country, they barely made the 10 percent target. Women also make up 10 percent of those who received improved access to credit through MCA-Armenia.

The consultant found that in general, women are more open to the suggestions from the training, especially the environmental information – that is, when told about the health risks of certain fertilizers and pesticides, they switched to more environmentally-friendly options (or influenced their husband to switch). Women are also employees of the Post-Harvest Processing and Marketing companies that take produce from the farms and process or store it, often working in the laboratories. Several of the farmer groups established during the program have women members. And MCA-Armenia is now partnering with the UN Food Programme to ensure sustainability.

I was on the Gender and Development committee in Morocco, so this topic was right up my alley; soon I’ll post some information about gender roles in general from Culture Smart Armenia. This article was something I could really dig into, but I also had other work – one task was wordsmithing the writeup of the MCC CEO’s visit for the web site; an ongoing project is the tweaking of the English on the web site. I also drafted some fact sheets on demo sites, collection centers and adoption of techniques. And I met with the Environmental and Social Impact team about some success stories they want me to write for them. As promised, the atmosphere around MCA-Armenia is less stressful now that the CEO visit is over – and also as promised, my workload has picked up!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mother Armenia and Beyond

The weekend was off to a good start with an orchestra concert on Friday night – Mozart and Beethoven on the bill. We had gone to a duduk (traditional flute of Armenia) concert last week and, well, for my money (less than two dollars per ticket) you can’t beat the orchestra!

On Saturday I went on a tour that one of the PCVs had organized – a fun group (including two moms here visiting their PCV sons), and it is so beautiful now with all the wildflowers and green hills! First, to Khor Virap. I don’t think I said this last time, but it means “deep well,” and this time I did climb down the metal ladder into the pit where St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned. It is well-lit now, but I’m sure it wasn’t then; hard to imagine being down there for thirteen years. Alas, it was not the crystal-clear day I’d hoped for – we could see Little Ararat, but Big Ararat was hidden behind clouds. And I learned something else interesting. In the Bible, only consonants were used in the original version. So mentions of Urartu, the ancient kingdom, look the same as Ararat, and in fact the kingdom was in the Ararat region, so there you go.

On to Vayots Dzor province – and since I’ve talked about the provinces, I decided to search for and post a map showing the marzes. Vayots Dzor means “gorge of woes;” it is called that because of many earthquakes that happened there in the 7th Century. We went to Noravank (“new monastery”), in a beautiful mountain setting. Some notable things here – a narrow exterior staircase leading to a second story, a relief of Mary with her legs in a Buddha pose, the country’s only carving of God the Father, with “Mongol eyes” since at the time Turks were invading.

On the way to Noravank, we stopped for photos in a town where there were several storks’ nests; we’d seen them in Armavir too (both places are near fish farms). Storks are thought to bring good luck (in Morocco too). This month, babies have been in the nests and we have been treated to a view of feedings. Which leads me to ask once again a question I first asked when I saw storks’ nests in Lincoln Park Zoo – where do stork babies come from?

I had actually stopped in Vayots Dzor province before – on the way back from Syunik the first time, the OSCE contact wanted to stop to get some of the local wine; it’s sold by the side of the road out of Coca-Cola bottles. There are also some wineries in the area. Areni is both the main town and the grape; it’s one of the few grapes that can survive Armenia’s climate extremes. I tried the winery wines but not the roadside homemade. Not great. But I’ve had a lot of great wines in my day.

Last night was Free Museum Night – maybe in Europe, maybe around the world, but definitely in Armenia! It was great to see the town so full and the museums so crowded! I first had dinner with a PCV friend and met friends of hers – including the head of the Armenian Monuments Awareness Project; I read AMAP signs everywhere I go, and his passion for and knowledge of Armenia was remarkable. I then went to the National Gallery; I hadn’t been there since our first weekend in-country. The collection is still impressive, and now that I have been to more of the places depicted in the landscapes, I enjoyed seeing them again! The fountains in Republic Square are now operating, and every night they dance, set to music. I watched for a while and will definitely be going again! If only it didn’t get dark so late.... and it will continue to get dark even later for another month!

This morning I walked all the way up the Cascade and through the park to Mother Armenia, the sculpture that you can see from almost everywhere in Yerevan; she glares out towards Turkey. In the base of the pedestal there’s a military museum, with an exhibit about the Artsagh (Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh) war. So sad. Not on the same scale, but my host mother noted today with sadness that Azerbaijan won the Eurovision contest. Of course, many Armenians didn’t like the Armenian entry, “Boom Boom Chaka Chaka.” I rounded out the day with a walk through the Vernissage. That’s always fun!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Adventures in Aragatsotn

Mt. Aragats is the tallest in the Republic of Armenia; Aragatsotn meets foot, or foothills of Aragats. I had tried to sign up for a guided tour and then a hiking trip to parts of Aragotsotn; both were cancelled because there’s still snow. When Gordon and Jeanne mentioned that they were going on their own to (lower elevations in) the area, I said I’d like to come along if they could stand me for two days in a row.

We had Monday off; May 9th is Victory and Peace Day in Armenia – it celebrates both the end of World War II and a winning battle in the war with Azerbaijan. My host mother told me that 600,000 Armenians fought in WWII and 300,000 died, and that Armenia had lots of marshals and generals and Georgia, none; Azerbaijan, none. I decided to leave it at that, though I did have the opportunity to tell other people about my former boss, who called himself the first baby boomer – he was born on May 8, V-E Day, and is named Victor E. (last name omitted for privacy purposes).

We took the marchutny to Ashtarak, the provincial capital, where on our own we found a 7th century church (a sweet little structure), crossed a 16th-century stone bridge with uneven arches, climbed up to a 6th-century church on the edge of the gorge (even littler but somehow not as sweet), walked around, and re-crossed the gorge on an iffy-looking suspension bridge. Down in the gorge itself there were some nice picnic areas - or they will be when the weather gets a little warmer!

We hired a taxi to take us to more sites along the Kasagh gorge. First we went to Surp Gevorg church, which features striped bands of stone along its central drum; very attractive, and still in use. Then it started raining again! On to Hovannavank, a 7th-century monastery perched on the edge of the gorge, with a wealth of carvings and some sheep grazing just outside. Next it was Saghmosavank, from the 13th century. There’s a hike that goes from one to the other, but we didn’t do it; it’s close enough that we could come back to do it another day. Or when the snow melts, we could go further up Aragats, which also sound interesting. All in all, it was a good outing!

A final note for today – the front page of mentioned Congressional hearings about Peace Corps and its response to sexual assault ( and I knew about the hearings but was surprised to see them on the front page of the web site. I looked at the Peace Corps web site for something official to send to people who emailed me asking about this, and found and

I’ll also refer you to a blog post by a PCV here, which has some details about the situation in Armenia - In my own experience, I felt we had lots of training on the subject and that Peace Corps was prepared to support and counsel victims; I haven’t experienced an incident. Yesterday morning we had a consolidation exercise, which was a reminder that Peace Corps takes volunteer safety and security very seriously.

P.S. - one more comment -

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Adventures in Armavir

On Saturday, I went to the Vernissage with Shannon, one of the PCVs I’ve befriended; she works with one of the Syunik Women’s Resource Centers. I found some pins of Misha, the mascot of the 1980 Olympics (small and packable!), and for myself, a fake “Return to Tiffany” ring. I’m against piracy, but since there is no way one would ever confuse this with an actual Tiffany ring, and since I had (there are no coincidences!) just bought actual Tiffany jewelry for my niece, I thought it would be fun (photo from the Tiffany web site). We then went to lunch, and I started sneezing – and didn’t stop sneezing until yesterday morning. The PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) told me it’s a nasty virus that’s been going around Yerevan for the past couple of months. I’m still coughing, but I feel my strength returning. As it happens, I picked that day to open the window in my room for the first time, so of course my host mother thinks I got sick because I opened the window a couple of weeks too early (well, I did just say there are no coincidences). In Morocco, they also thought you’d get sick when you opened a window, at least in a moving vehicle. Anyway, since I wasn’t sure at the time whether it was a cold or allergies, I kept going. First I went to the Yervand Kochar museum (go to to see some of his works; very interesting), and then I went up the steps of the Cascade and sat for a while with Gordon and Jeanne. I thought that by now there would be more clear days, but I guess those Ararat sightings are rare!

Shannon mentioned that she is going to make sure she visits every marz (province) in Armenia before she leaves. Well, this is a quest I could realistically accomplish as well – there are only eleven, and I have already been to seven! I don’t have every weekend from now until the end planned out, but if I hit the sites I am most interested in seeing, I will have visited every marz. Yerevan is its own marz. Syunik I’ve been to twice already. I’ve been to MCA-Armenia works in three nearby marzes, but also to tourist sites – Khor Virap in Ararat marz, Etchmiadzin in Armavir marz, and I’ll tell you in the next post about Aragatsotn marz. Gyumri is in Shirak marz, and Garni and Geghard (and Charentsavan) in Kotayk marz. I had a notion for a while that after visiting all 50 U.S. states I might start visiting the Canadian provinces I haven’t seen yet – turns out I’ll visit Armenian marzes first!

On Sunday, I went with Gordon and Jeanne to more sites in Armavir marz; their host mom (who came along as well) has a friend who is a taxi driver - with three of us splitting the cost, it was an economical, efficient and comfortable way to get around! First, we went to Sardarapat, the site of a decisive battle against the Turks in 1918; the Armenian victory prevented the Turks from going any further into Armenian territory. There’s a big monument, built in 1968 for the 50th anniversary – a tall bell tower flanked by two bulls. There was also a great ethnographic museum, with a little bit of everything. Most interesting were the tools of all of the different trades, and of course I was attracted to the handicrafts!

We then went on to Metsamor Museum (not to be confused with the nuclear power plant of the same name). This is an archeological site; the museum displays some of the objects found in the dig, going as far back as the 3rd century B.C., and also has some big fertility-symbol stones moved from other parts of the country. You could walk around the site, which has some beautiful wildflowers this time of year, including poppies that reminded me of the ones in Azrou. I was able to appreciate it even with my constant sneezing!

Our next stop was to St. Hrepsime in Etchmiadzin, a 6th Century church that, along with the Holy See and St. Gayane, comprises the Etchmiadzin UNESCO World Heritage site. We were so wet the first time we went that we didn’t see it, and the second time we were in a rush to get to the Genocide Memorial. Hrepsime fled Rome for Armenia because she didn’t want to marry the emperor, and then King Trdat wanted to marry her, but she refused him too in order to stay true to Christianity, and she was martyred (St. Gayane helped her escape the first time, if I have my story right). The church is another marvel of Armenian architecture (or another you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all). As we were approaching it, it started to rain – hard! – but it was just a passing shower.

Last on the agenda was the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral – supposed to be the finest in the world when it was built, destroyed by an earthquake (or possibly invaders) in the 900s. This one is different from the others. It looks more like Roman ruins than the tuff churches, with a circular arrangement, columns that once held up a big dome, and the remains of rooms including the palace of the Catolicos, wine storage and a Roman bath. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was apparently lavishly decorated and much bigger than the other churches built around the same time. It was supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world in its day.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Few More Armenian Recipes

The restaurant Our Village has a great dish and I tried to find a recipe on the internet that matched it. This is the closest I came; some experimentation with it is required!
Meat: 3 lbs. beef, cut in ½" cubes (I feel I had ground beef – and much less of it!),

2½ cups onions, salt, pepper, paprika and red pepper to taste
(in the restaurant there was a ton of garlic – and I mean a ton of it)
4 cups beef broth or water
Saute meat in a little fat, then add ½ cup water. Cook over low flame until water evaporates (approximately 1 hour). Add onions and broth or water to meat mixture -- enough liquid to almost cover meat and simmer until onions are cooked. Keep warm until yogurt is heated.
Yogurt mixture:1 qt. yogurt,
1 egg,
½ cup water
Mix above ingredients and beat for 2-3 minutes and bring to slow boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.
Bread: 3 stale Armenian Lavash breads (I wonder how wraps would do…), cut up in 1 inch cubes, the drier and firmer the better (this is torn up in the restaurant, not cut)
Divide bread cubes in individual soup bowls. Pour yogurt over cubes and top with meat and onion mixture. As the liquid is absorbed into the bread, add more yogurt or meat, as you like (in the restaurant they mush it all together at tableside and then dish it out).
Serves 6

I had something like this at Dolmama, the best restaurant in town – that one had cream in the roll as well!
Ingredients: eggplant, parsley, walnuts, oil, garlic (to taste)
o Slice eggplant into long strips and bake with oil in the oven or pan fry until cooked.
o Crush garlic and mix with parsley and walnuts. Put walnut/parlsey/garlic mix on eggplants and roll up.

Do you get the idea that I like eggplant? There’s a jarred eggplant dip that I could eat every day…. I hope this recipe tastes like that (I know it would be unwise to bring glass jars home, but I am tempted).
Ingredients: eggplants (2 large or 3 small), ½-1 t salt, 1-3 cloves garlic, ½-¾ C մածուն/macun, 1-2 T lemon juice
o Roast eggplants in a 350°F/180°C oven until soft (30 minutes or so). Can roast in a non-stick pan on the stove if you don’t have an oven. When soft, cool, then split and scrape insides into a small bowl.
o Add remaining ingredients and mix well (a potato masher is helpful). Serve with lavash chips or spread on crackers or bread.

This may actually be a Georgian dish, but I have had it in restaurants here. Note – when I have had it, the eggs are sunny-side up on top, not mixed.
Ingredients: 2 C warm water, 4 eggs, 6 T vodka, 6 T red wine vinegar, 6 T oil, 1 t salt, 1⅓ C butter (divided), cheese to taste
o Mix together water, 2 eggs, vodka, red wine vinegar, oil and salt. Mix in flour one cup at a time until you have a sticky doughy.
o Knead the dough into a roll and divide into four sections. In each flattened section fold in 100 grams (1/3 cup) butter.
o Put all four sections in the fridge (covered) for 20 minutes
o Remove and roll each section out slightly. Place back in the fridge for 20 minutes
o Repeat rolling, fridge for 20 minutes, and remove.
o Break up cheese so it is clumpy
o In a separate bowl mix together two eggs.
o Roll each section of dough into a large, flat square. Sprinkle with cheese and roll. Flatten just slightly with a rolling pin and spread egg over the top.
o Cut into rectangles and place on a hot pan. Bake until golden brown

Now that I’ve had it, here’s the recipe!
This is traditional Armenian dolma cooked for Lent period (40 days before Easter). It is cooked in large amounts with the intention to last throughout the Lent or to share with friends or neighbors.
Ingredients: 1 C cooked chickpeas, 1 C cooked lentils,1 C cooked kidney beans, 1 C ground wheat (ձավար/dzavar), ½ kg onions, ¼ L oil, 200 gr tomato paste, grape leaves or pickled cabbage leaves, salt and pepper to taste, dried herbs
o Cook chickpeas, lentils, beans and ground wheat separately. Grind all and then mix.
o Fry onions in oil, then add salt, pepper, dried herbs, and tomato paste. Mix all ingredients.
o Roll small amounts of mixture in grape leaves or cabbage leaves. Line the pot with dolma. Cover dolma with enough warm water to cook (1-2 cups). Cook dolma until water boils down. If dolma is not cooked yet, add some more warm water and continue to cook.

Otherwise known as: ձվածեղ լոլիկով/dzvacegh lolikov I just found this in the cookbook, but it seems similar to the Shakshuka I had in Israel and the Berber omelette I had in Morocco, so I think I would like it!
Ingredients: 1 ½ kg tomatoes (chopped), ½ C oil (can be cut by ½), 6 eggs, beaten, 3 medium onions (chopped), salt to taste, greens (parsley/basil/cilantro) for garnish
o Sauté onions in oil until translucent. Add tomatoes and cook for 5-7 minutes (longer if tomatoes are particularly juicy). Add salt to taste and pour on eggs.
o Let cook in pan (without stirring) for about 2 minutes or until eggs are set.
o Add chopped greens and serve hot. Serves 4. Excellent on its own or with sour cream over a pilaf.

Otherwise known as: հայկական տոնական փլավ/haykakan tonakan p’lav This is more or less what my homestay host cooked for Easter. She added saffron.
Ingredients: 1 kg rice (sorted and cleaned), 1 C butter, 300 g raisins & chopped dried apricots, 1 sheet lavash, salt to taste
o Bring 4 L of salted water to a boil. Add rice. Cook about 7 minutes. Rice should not be soft. Drain rice in colander and rinse with cold water.
o Sauté raisins and dried apricots in melted butter in a large skillet (with a tight lid) for 3-4 minutes. Remove apricots and raisins. Tear lavash into several large pieces and fry until crisp but not brown. Remove most lavash but leave enough to cover the bottom of the pan.
o Turn heat very, very low. Layer boiled rice on top of lavash, alternate with dried fruit. On top of rice & fruit mixture put the remaining pieces of fried lavash. Cover pan very tightly (don’t peek!) and cook over very, very low heat for 5-7 minutes. Be careful to turn the heat very low or the pilaf will burn. Serves 6.

Friday, May 6, 2011

This Week in Armenia

A package arrived! Several volunteers here have been waiting for packages, and that led our Safety and Security Director to make some calls. It seems that the Japan earthquake disrupted worldwide logistics, and all the packages bound for Armenia were in Poland or Russia. They’re slowly starting to come through. They seem to be coming through last sent-first to arrive. I know of at least two that are still on the way. It’s good to get packages!

I went to the dentist on Tuesday to get the first of two fillings. I was surprisingly anxious about it – or maybe not surprisingly, since it had been so long! But all went smoothly – well, I had to go back on Wednesday to get it ground down a little bit; it was impossible to say if it felt right when I was still numb from the novocaine. But that happens, right? Right? It’s still a little sensitive, but that’s normal, right? I’ll go back next Tuesday for the other one. All kidding aside, I think the dental care in Rabat, Manila and here has been superb – Peace Corps finds highly qualified local dentists. As for “normal,” I smiled as I wrote it because the non-native English speakers here use it often – where I might use “usual” or “common.”

I read “Three Cups of Tea – The Young Reader’s Edition” and “Three Cups of Deceit,” the Jon Krakauer e-book that came out at the same time as the 60 Minutes expose decrying author Greg Mortenson. My thoughts on the book – the Young Reader’s Edition was a quick read, and I’m happy having invested that amount of time on it rather than reading the normal (!) edition. I’ve been told about this book for years and am kind of glad to have waited until now to read it, so that I knew going into it that much of it was discredited. I think there are still valuable lessons in there about building relationships, grassroots development, education being a way to a more peaceful world, and the importance of trying to understand people of different cultures. As for the e-book, while it was interesting to read about which parts of Mortenson’s story had been fabricated, it was even more instructive for me to read about his NGO and possible mismanagement there – transparency and accountability are so important! Some people have great ideas and don’t necessarily have the skills to implement and manage them, yet they don’t want to cede control. This rang a few bells - but more, it is good to keep in mind as I search for the next chapter in my work life.

And speaking of work life – this week I had a chance to work on some fact sheets for the various components of the Water-to-Market part of the program. I enjoy the research and the writing, but this week everyone has been too busy for me to ask how to get additional information that I need, so I couldn’t finish them. Instead, I also updated my final report to Peace Corps on Homeland Handicrafts and looked through my Morocco GAD (Gender and Development), VSN (Volunteer Support Network) and Harassment Working Group (no acronym!) files and sent documents that I thought would be helpful to volunteers and staff here. My counterpart told me that one of the Environment officers (the one who organized the tree-planting) asked her if I was available to help him with reports and she said of course; I’m glad someone asked for me!

And why was everyone at MCA-Armenia so busy this week (actually, since I have started)? Because the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation was visiting. The CEO generally visits each country at the beginning and at the end of the Compact. That’s it! So this was a pretty big deal. I was honored to be invited along for some of his visit. Wednesday morning was to be a canal visit. I was told to stand by…. And then it got quiet in the office, and I realized everyone had left without me! That’s okay; I was productive. Thursday I did go along, as he (along with the Ambassador and the Prime Minister) opened two pumping stations. I hadn’t seen any pumping stations yet, so I’m glad they remembered to bring me. Thursday night there was a reception at the Embassy in his honor, and I was invited to that. Ho-hum, another reception at the Embassy! This time I saw some people I knew and met others who I enjoyed talking with. The Ambassador is leaving Armenia on June 9; I hope there’s time for another get-together before she leaves, but if not, I told her our Easter dinner was the highlight of my time here!

My tutor is also leaving soon, for PST (Pre-Service Training) for the new group. I don’t know if I will continue after that. Last week she ran through what she calls “the presentation” (where she talks about herself, using everything I’ve learned, and then I have to do it) and it sounded not at all familiar. I knew what she was saying, but only because I knew what she was saying; my comprehension was just off that day. And I realized that unless I know exactly what someone is saying to me, I will never really be able to have a conversation here. Not that I could be expected to with three hours of tutoring a week. Since I started at MCA-Armenia I have done no studying or practicing – and now I that I’ve had a lot of lessons, I have a lot of vocabulary and verb tenses that could benefit from study and practice. At least I actively listen – to people and to Zina’s omnipresent radio and TV – and I can pick out words and sometimes through context can figure out what is going on. This week, my tutor and I made it to the end of the alphabet! I love being able to – can I say I am reading if I don’t know what the word means once I figure out what the letters are? It’s more like a puzzle or a code. She also told me that I was very good at the logic of language and that I should continue to study them. It has always been an interest of mine, and with compliments like that, who knows?

My tutor also said it usually rains throughout May in Armenia. I think it’s rained every day so far, though not all day long. But she also said it doesn’t usually rain as much in April as it did this year. It’s been cool this week. But something tells me that soon it will be 90 degrees and remain that way until I leave.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Going to Gyumri

Gyumri is Armenia’s second-largest city; in its pre-Soviet heyday it was bigger than Yerevan, and a center of arts and culture. An important trading post between the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Asia and Russia, Tsar Nicholas visited in 1837 and named it Alexandropol after his wife. The Turkish-Armenian war ended here in 1920 with the Treaty of Alexandropol, which stopped the Turkish advance on Yerevan. In Soviet times, the city was known as Leninakan. The most significant event in recent memory, though, is the 1988 Spitak earthquake. It leveled large sections of the city, killed 25,000 of its people, and drove most of the survivors away.

To Gyumri I went for my first non-business overnight trip, this past weekend. I stayed with Barbara, a PCV who I’d met only a couple of times but who welcomed me when I asked if I could visit. She was in Yerevan for the COS conference, so I traveled on the marchutny (basically, a 15-seat van) with her on Saturday; we arrived and she made delicious grilled cheese sandwiches and waited for rain to let up. It didn’t (until I was in an office all day on Monday!), but that didn’t stop us from walking all over. Barbara is not only a good cook, but also a good tour guide, a good PCV, and a good person!

We saw a lot of beautiful buildings – imperialist Russian architecture, with solid stone, beautiful arches, and decorative touches. These survived (at least the facades did) while the Soviet high-rises did not; now there isn’t a building over five stories tall. Barbara has a friend who is here on a Fulbright, teaching architecture and researching the old buildings of Gyumri, so she knew of and pointed out interesting details. We went to the Two Sisters Museum – one of the sisters was a painter and one a ceramicist; both were well-traveled and their work shows a range of interests. We also saw Gyumri’s big market, the biggest in the country – it wasn’t at its most bustling in the rain, but it still had some energy. There are cobblestone streets, and we saw a wedding party enter the church – we followed them and observed some of the (short) ceremony.

The most dramatic thing about Gyumri, though, is the impact of the earthquake. Many of those stately Russian buildings had caved-in roofs – still – and random stones piled around. The courtyards are filled – still – with domiks, the railroad-car containers where the displaced people were housed, and where they still live. The government paid them enough to move in 2002, but many spent the money in other ways and remain. There are fountains all over town – they provide water to people who don’t have any, and they are also memorials to the earthquake; one even had the time of day (11:40ish am) of the magnitude 7.2 quake. There are squatters in many of the damaged buildings; if anyone wants to fix them up, they must pay to relocate the squatters – which is a big disincentive. There are a lot of NGOs – lots of aid came to Gyumri after the earthquake – but, per Barbara, there is duplication of effort and a general feeling of hopelessness that is probably more acute here than elsewhere in the country. Lonely Planet says the city is making a comeback and we did see some signs of that – the Berlin Hotel has local art in each of its modern rooms, and there’s a new park by the Russian Church, from which one has a nice view of Turkey, just over the hill where the statue of Mother Armenia stands. Some of the old buildings are indeed being restored, including the big church. And there are several museums. A popular new restaurant, Ponchik Monchik, opened near Barbara’s apartment. Ponchik is a deep-fried puffball filled with vanilla cream; Monchik has chocolate cream. Either one is a worthy snack after a day of walking around in the rain and negotiating the river-like street crossing!

For dinner, she cooked chicken stroganoff while I made a salad. We hurried to wash the dishes during the one hour a day when she has running water, and then talked about her life and her service until it was time for bed. The next morning she made scones and we took them over to the apartment of another Judy, PCV, who had made fruit salad. They have that breakfast most weekends, a delightful ritual. Gyumri is also the stepping-off point for some more monasteries (Lonely Planet likes them; Barbara is of the “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” school) and a big rock with a person-sized hole in it that dates from pagan times (i.e. my kind of site). There wasn’t the time or the weather for rural exploration, but I’ve been invited to return. And I just might – I had a lovely (albeit very wet) time.