Awash in Lavash: Two Years in Armenia

My time as a Peace Corps TEFL volunteer in Armenia has come to an end, and with it this blog. If you’ve stumbled upon this perhaps while googling Peace Corps Armenia, I hope you find it useful, or at least entertaining. And as always, thanks for reading.  Marcie

Participatory history lesson — taking part in the Women’s March in Washington, DC

Yes I did!

I never imagined that when I joined the Peace Corps I would be taking part in history — unless maybe there was a military coup or war in Armenia, which was not out of the question.

But when I was sent to Washington, D.C. in early January for some mental health R&R, Armenia seemed peaceful and stable compared to the political storm brewing in our nation’s capital. A feeling of dread and disbelief, a palpable pall seemed to hang in the air as I walked the streets of quaint Georgetown. How could America have just elected the most unqualified candidate to ever run for president? Following on the heels of eight years of a president beloved by many, it seemed particularly cruel.

With plenty of time to “relax” between medical appointments, I found myself glued to the TV, flipping between CNN, MSNBC and FOX (just for balance). As the inauguration day approached I felt helpless. What could I do to put up some kind of resistance to this darkness overtaking our nation?

But of course I wasn’t the only one feeling this angst, and I watched with growing interest as the Women’s March movement took hold. The day after the inauguration a worldwide show of resistance to the man and his “principles” was planned. Being a journalist I was used to watching from the sidelines, always an observer, never a participant. It was practically the theme of my life. But not this time. I was determined to join the thousands of women coming to D.C. for the momentous day. Heck, I was just a short metro ride away!

I was determined to get an official T-shirt, which took two trips to the Adams Morgan neighborhood, and six hours total standing in line in the cold. But the mood was festive, a camaraderie of “nasty women,” and shared disgust. A local pizzeria passed out free slices to those in the long, long line, drivers honked in solidarity, and we all cheered when two UPS vans pulled up and started unloading box after box marked “T-shirts.”

Solidarity-infused patience helped people endure the long wait to get into the Women’s March merch store.

Finally, T-shirt in hand, I headed down to watch the inaugural parade; sort of like rubbernecking a horrible crash involving flaming tanker trucks and school buses on the interstate. After squeezing through security — no backpacks, bottles, sharp objects, guns — I lined up on the barricade at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue, just two blocks from the White House. I was surprise that with the ceremony already started the crowd seemed very thin, only two or three people deep. There were more security on the street side of the barricade than there were watchers. Snipers lined the roofs of the buildings looming over the street, scopes trained downward.

Inaugural parade route.

A block away protesters burned a limousine and tangled with police, but it was quiet on the secured side. I was surrounded by people in red “Make America Great Again” ball caps. So these were his people. They might as well have been Martians. How could we love the same country and feel so differently about its leadership? A group across the street tried to rally the crowd, which largely remained silent. One young woman yelled out, “What are you here for if you don’t want to make noise?” How much time have you got?

A few small marching groups passed, but I’ve seen more excitement at a small town Fourth of July parade. Or a funeral procession. Finally the motorcycle police with sidecars came roaring by, followed by a fleet of black limousines traveling at fairly high speed, American flags flapping on the front fenders. In the back of one, a young boy pressed his bewildered face against the darkened window, and a fat hand could be seen giving a thumbs up.

“There he is!” someone shouted, and that was it.

In contrast to the tense mood at the inauguration parade, the Women’s March participants were fired up and rebellious. And the mood started long before marchers even got to the route along the side of the National Mall.  A friend from the hotel and I started out at about 9:30, thinking we would have plenty of time to get there before the actual parade started at 1 p.m. But when we got to the nearest metro station, it was mobbed with women in pink “pussy” hats, carrying signs and trying to cram on already packed trains. “Let’s go upstream,” we agreed.

So we hopped a train heading away from the capital, hoping to get on where the crowds were thinner. On the train were some protesters already heading home, including two senior women holding a very feisty sign: “Keep your laws off my (pussy).” They said they had been protesting since the 1950s.

Two veteran pro-choice protesters.

We got farther and farther out of town, with trains still packed, before finally deciding we would just have to shove our way onto a train heading back into town. Metro added extra trains, but it was still seriously overtaxed.

After nearly two hours, we finally got to the designated getting off point — where we were met by police directing people on a long and circuitous route just to get to the march. The organizers had been issued a permit for 250,000 participants, a number that swelled to nearly double.  We were finally shoehorned into a spot about halfway up the designated route on Independence Avenue, far from the speakers. And there we stood for another two hours under leaden skies, amusing ourselves by reading all the protest signs and joining the chants that rippled through the crowd. “We Shall Over-comb,” “Trumpty Dumpty,” and “Men in Tights for Women’s Rights,” vied with the more serious, “Love Trumps Hate,” “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” and “I Will Not Go Quietly Back to 1950.” Favorite sign though: “Melania, Blink Twice if You Need Help.”

Waiting for the march to begin.

Now remember, at this point it was day one of the Trump presidency and he had yet to unleash his horror of executive orders and express his full psychotic fury with the press. Most signs were directed at things he had done on the campaign, particularly the notorious “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment. It even gave participants the symbol of the march – hand knit pink hats with “pussy” ears. The mood was festive, like a huge family reunion. It was a chance to come together not just to show opposition, but to give and get consolation and hope.

Mother and daughter wait patiently for the march to start.

A middle-aged daughter protectively sheltered her mother, seated on a walker. Two women tried to calm their restive toddlers in strollers. As one toddler began crying a stranger reached down, put her hand on the child’s knee and began softly singing, “You are my sunshine…”

People climbed trees and sign posts to get a better view, and lead the crowd in anti-Trump chants. One person fainted.

Ironically, with participants choking the entire designated route, there was nowhere to march. Something had to give, and it did. Marchers had been told they were not allowed to spill out onto the mall itself, sticking instead to the paved streets, but eventually the size of the crowd overruled that plan. With people spreading out onto the mall, the pink-hatted, sign waving serpent began to move, with chants of “To the White House!”

Marchers surged toward an unoccupied White House.

We marched at a crawl along Independence Avenue and toward the Washington Monument. We snaked right, onto 14th Street SW, across the mall, headed indeed toward the White House. Security was not letting the marchers get anywhere near it, so the parade goers peacefully spread out and scattered at The Ellipse, a park in full view of the White House. Marchers left their signs along a flimsy picket fence, reading like a signboard of all the frustration, fear and cautionary tales for the new president.

As we walked along the side of the White House the crowd ahead of us began to boo loudly and wave middle fingers — the presidential motorcade was returning to the White House.

Marchers pass the Washington Monument.

Jan. 20 will go down in history as the start of the worst presidency in our history, but Jan. 21 will be right alongside it, marked as the day people around the world came together to fight for all that is decent and just. I’m glad I was there as a participant, and witness to history.

 

All photos by and copyright Marcie Miller. Please do not use without permission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

No matter where you go…

Every person who joins the Peace Corps or in any other way opts to live abroad, far from the comforts of home, brings their baggage. For better or for worse, you are still you no matter where you are. The faces and places change, but how you see them and react are based on your reality, formed by years of experiences and interactions.

I’m constantly reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies, “Buckaroo Bonzai in the 21st Century,” which says, “no matter where you go, there you are.” Translation: you can’t escape yourself.

The view from my stairwell on any given day.

The view from my stairwell on any given day.

Living abroad is not going to suddenly make you something you are not, but it can sure make you think about who and what you are. If you are willing to look, everything becomes a mirror.

I didn’t think I needed any more lessons in “How Much Shit You Can Handle,” but apparently life had other ideas.

I had been in Armenia for less than a week when my stepmother passed away from cancer. I had seen her just the week before. The last thing she said was “I love you, see you in two years.” I knew then she wouldn’t make it two years, but I just hugged her and agreed. I wasn’t able to fly home to help ease her journey, or attend her funeral. That Christmas was my father’s first Christmas without her in 37 years, and only the second one I’d missed. It was also to be my father’s last Christmas.

I felt helpless in late February as my dad’s health declined, while he and the family insisted he was “fine” and there was nothing I could do anyway. But when he fell into a coma, I asked Peace Corps for emergency leave which they quickly granted. I have to say everyone at PC Armenia and in Washington was amazing. Unfortunately, with a 36-hour trip to the west coast, I didn’t make it in time. He passed away while my plane was somewhere over the Midwest, still 12 hours from home. As his jet-lagged executor, it fell to me to write his eulogy, hold the service and wrap up his personal affairs before heading back to Armenia two weeks later.

Armenian dedication to family is huge, and my fellow teachers were keen to express their sympathy. But beyond “apsos” (sorry), there wasn’t a lot to say. It was back to business as usual, never mind the huge hole in my heart. Lesson planning seemed so trivial, teaching pointless.

Two weeks after my return I was told I needed to move out of the house I had moved into three days before I left for my trip home. The owner had changed her mind, she didn’t want anyone in her house after all. Oh, and I needed to be moved out in a week. And that contract – meaningless in Armenia really, I was told by my regional manager. “It’s more of an agreement than a contract,” she said.

Condensed version — after spending four months in an apartment, I ended up transferring to another town in late August, where I am now. I was able to find a great apartment that had been completely renovated by a sweet woman and her daughter. They were thrilled to rent to me. Things seemed to be looking up. But wait, life wasn’t done with that HMSCYH lesson yet.

First night in my new abode, a water pipe burst and flooded the place. I spent two hours trying to find the shut off valve (located behind the broken pipe gushing water) frantically bailing, mopping and rolling up the soaked rug in an effort to forestall further damage to the brand new laminate flooring. I went from being the perfect renter to American spawn of Satan. Surely it was SOMEHOW my fault that the pipe under the sink had broken at 1 a.m. exactly on my first night. How could I explain that I was simply cursed?

The rug dried out, the pipe was repaired and there was minimal damage to the floor, but the damage to the relationship seems to be irreparable. Pretty sure the only reason they don’t evict me is because I’m paying top dollar for their apartment.

River in Ijevan.

River in Ijevan.

And now the people in the apartment below me – two floors down – are sure that their water leak is somehow my fault. No one lives between us, so obviously it’s something I’m doing. This prompts frequent surprise visits from my landlady, trying to find the source of the leak and speaking rapidly in the language I still do not fathom. To be continued.

Well at least school must be going better, right? The students were very excited about having a journalism program at their university, and the sign up of interested students was overwhelming. I was going to need an auditorium to house them all! This was great!

Students signed up as interested: 150. Students who actually showed up: six. Students now attending regularly: zero. I had four good students, but now it’s exam time and they are too busy memorizing things to regurgitate on their exams to bother with an extra club. Plus once they actually had to start – gasp – writing, it stopped being fun. Exam fever will continue through January.

I’m left with a lot of time on my hands to berate myself for all the things I should be doing, could be doing, but somehow just can’t. Facebook is torture, seeing all the happy, smiling younger volunteers clowning with their students like Peace Corps poster children. Look at them opening playgrounds! Building libraries! Traveling to exotic places together! Making hand turkeys!

Peace Corps is supposed to be a time when volunteers bond, becoming one big happy family as they share their challenges and triumphs. Instead, I have never felt more separate from their experience. Being as old or older than their parents is enough of a gap, adding the experience of the death of a parent increases it exponentially. I have one or two friends here that I rely on, but that leaves more than 50 volunteers with whom I have nothing in common.

In two weeks I’m going home for Christmas. I think as the year turns, I have a big decision to make.

River walk.

River walk.

Hazel update

Reunion after 5 weeks apart. She doubled in size!

Reunion after 5 weeks apart. She doubled in size!

When volunteers Sam and Molly visited in early June they fell in love with Hazel and asked if they could adopt her. They had a house with a big yard, perfect for her to romp and play. I live in an apartment and knew I couldn’t keep her.

So as I left for a trip back home, for my daughter’s wedding reception, I delivered Hazel to her new home. She was just 5 weeks old. It was incredibly difficult, and upon returning to my quiet, empty apartment I shed many tears. In one month I had gotten so used to having her under my feet, cuddling in my arms, and/or crying to be fed. But I know it was for the best, and she and her new family are very happy. They plan on taking her back to the U.S. at the end of service next year. From the streets of Armenia to a farm in America. That’s one lucky puppy!

Hazel is a great ambassador, teaching Armenians that dogs can be treated well. Mostly they just think we're crazy Americans.

Hazel is a great ambassador, teaching Armenians that dogs can be treated well. Mostly they just think we’re crazy Americans.

They are not far away and I’ve been able to visit a few times. It’s amazing how fast she is growing! Sam and Molly have also since been “adopted” by a large shaggy dog, who has become a great playmate for the rambunctious Hazel.

Knowing how much work it was, and how much I miss her, would I do it again? In a heartbeat. She’s still my best project so far.

Hazel Glass: The luckiest puppy in Armenia

Compassion and volunteerism go hand in hand. One doesn’t sign up for two years of living in a lesser developed country, far from the comforts of home, without a desire to help those in need.

But that sense of compassion is not limited to fellow human beings. Many is the PCV who has taken in stray animals during their service; a puppy being used as a football by young boys, kittens wet and alone in the rain, anything with big sad eyes and a plaintive cry.

I have lived in a lesser developed country before, seen the pitiful plight of animals, and was determined not to cave in to compassion. You can’t rescue every animal in need, I told myself before coming to Armenia. You’ve got a job to do, places to go, people to teach.

And then I met Hazel.Hazel day 2

Fate steps in

I was minding my own business, walking to school one sunny morning when I saw a small white bundle of fur just inside an iron fence along the sidewalk. I stopped, saw that it was indeed a tiny puppy, and then continued on my way to school. You can’t save every puppy, you can’t save every puppy, I mumbled mantra-like as I walked on.

Several hours later, on my way home, I saw she had been moved and was now lying surrounded by trash. It was a hot day. She was very still, a small ball of white fur with flies already gathering. But I could see her tiny ribcage slowly moving. Still alive. I went home. And thought. And thought. And thought.

This is where I found little Hazel, about the size of the white bottle. The plastic bag was tied around her neck.

This is where I found little Hazel, about the size of the white bottle. The plastic bag was tied around her neck.

Dozens, maybe hundreds of Armenians had walked by her. She was there for at least a day. Surely some of them had seen her? Maybe someone had saved her by now, I thought. How could I take care of a tiny, tiny puppy? She was obviously not old enough to be away from her mother. Where was her mother? Only a week to summer vacation; I was going away for two weeks; how could I take care of a puppy?? A million reasons to not go back ran through my mind.

Then two thoughts occurred to me: I could go check on her, and if she was dead, at least give her a decent burial. I couldn’t walk past her decaying body every day, knowing I had done nothing. Or, if she was still alive, I could feed her using an earplug as a nipple, with a straw shoved through it. Brilliant. Doing nothing was no longer an option. With this plan in mind, Operation Puppy Rescue began.

The life force was strong

I waded through tall grass and berry vines to reach her. I was horrified to discover that she was not only abandoned, she had a plastic bag twisted around her neck and tied to a stick. She had been purposely dumped and left to die. But as I untied the bag she stirred and began to whimper, eyes still closed, sniffing for her mama. She looked to be just a week old. Her tiny body fit in my hand. I stuffed her in my cloth bag and headed home.

Hazel's MacGyver-like "bottle." It was quickly replaced by a real baby bottle and human formula.

Hazel’s MacGyver-like “bottle.” It was quickly replaced by a real baby bottle and human formula.

The earplug nipple contraption was awkward, but she latched on and knew just what to do. She was a survivor.

Which brings me to her name, Hazel. When I told my friend Paul that she was a survivor, he suggested naming her Hazel Glass, after Hugh Glass, the survivalist featured in the gruesome movie, “The Revenant.” So Hazel Glass it was.

Once home and fed, getting Hazel warmed up was the next step. I lined a small washtub with a wool blanket (don’t tell my landlady) and tucked a plastic bottle full of hot water under it. It wasn’t mama and siblings, but it was vastly better than her last nest.

Trying to warm her up was essential - and she loved it.

Warming her up was essential – and she loved it.

Two hours later, as she lay sleeping, dry, warm and fed, a torrential thunderstorm swept in. There’s no doubt that would have finished her off. I knew then I’d made the right choice, but I won’t say it’s been easy. She demanded to be fed every two hours – or less – 24/7 for the first couple of weeks. Like having a newborn again, it was sleepless nights and sleepy days. And of course all that milk ran right through her.

 

It takes a global village

Hazel hanging at the Deluxe Cafe in an improvised baby sling.

Hazel hanging at the Deluxe Cafe in an improvised baby sling.

Since that rocky start she has thrived. And while pet rescue is not part of the PCV role, many compassionate fellow volunteers and friends have pitched in to care for her. Amy in Korea, a dog rescuer herself, directed me to a website on caring for orphaned puppies and offered advice and encouragement.

Ina donated a cardboard box and her precious hot water bottle so Hazel could have a hot water “bed,” Sarah bought her “babydog milk” formula on a trip to Yerevan and gave her a stuffed snowman toy (for the little “polar bear”). Paige brought pet supplies from when she had rescued a puppy. She also bought much needed worm medicine, puppy chow and an adorable harness and leash in Yerevan. And everyone has taken turns “socializing” her with lots of cuddling and attention.

Ina takes a turn at feeding the voracious pup.

Ina takes a turn at feeding the voracious pup.

In fact, in a way Hazel is representing the Second Goal of Peace Corps: to share American culture with the host country nationals. That includes showing how we treat animals.

A dog’s life is hard in Armenia

Hazel is – or was – a street dog. Her fate, had she survived in the wild, would be to roam the streets, dodging cars and cruel boys, dumpster diving for scraps and sleeping under bushes. It’s a short, hard life.

There are no animal rescue groups outside the capital, five hours away. Dogs such as Hazel are not seen as pets. If people do have dogs they keep them tied up in the yard, occasionally tossing them scraps. Cities routinely have sweeps where street dogs are rounded up and shot.

Puppy chow had to be brought from Yerevan for the little chow hound.

Puppy chow had to be brought from Yerevan for the little chow hound.

Stores don’t sell pet food, let alone devote an entire aisle to them. PetSmart would have a hard time in Armenia.

This is not meant to be a judgment on Armenians or Armenian culture. It’s just the way it is here. Part of the experience of living in another culture is to be able to accept their values while still being true to your own and somehow making them both work.

While the volunteers have doted on Hazel, many Armenians actually recoil from her. I have to take her wherever I go as she is too small to leave home alone for long. When I took her to the opening of Sarah’s playground in a nearby village, the children were fascinated. I’m pretty sure they had never seen a “tame” puppy, particularly one that was carried in a bag. Some wanted to touch her, with rough pats and rubbing her fur the wrong way, while others pulled back as if she were an alligator. Petting her seemed more a show of bravery than a natural act of kindness.

An Armenian toddler struggles between fascination and fear at seeing Hazel.

An Armenian toddler struggles between fascination and fear at seeing Hazel.

What now?

Now, at four weeks, Hazel is sleeping through the night, mostly, and eating puppy chow mixed with oatmeal and milk (although she still begs for her bottle). She is smart, frisky and playful, full of life and mischief. What’s not to love?

Where we go from here, I’m not sure. Sometimes you just have to follow your heart and not worry about what’s down the road. I want what’s best for her, and if the right people wanted to adopt her I would let her go. If not, perhaps she will become a roving PC ambassador, spreading puppy love across Armenia (sorry TEFL program).

Ready to take on the world!

Ready to take on the world!

Whatever happens, I’ll keep you posted!

 

 

 

 

Appearances can be deceiving

Volunteers who serve in Africa or Asia have no problem describing how different their culture is from America — it’s the classic mud huts, monsoons and mosquito nets. Great photo ops of dark children with broad smiles, fishermen casting their nets from dugout canoes, or PCVs standing at cracked blackboards in makeshift classrooms.

Here in Armenia, the differences are not always apparent. I, like most Armenians, live in an apartment building. I have electricity, running water and a western-style toilet. I have a German-made gas stove and a refrigerator. I have a hair dryer and a straightening iron, both of which I bought here, and all types of makeup are readily available. I have internet 24/7 and can watch the latest American TV or Netflix. Some would call this an example of “Posh Corps.”

But my apartment building is a Soviet-era relic, falling into decay with no one in charge of maintenance. After the fall of the Soviet Union, all the newly minted citizens were given deeds to their home. Here, take it, the Soviets said as they walked away. What had belonged to the state was now theirs. Free and clear. But while people snapped up individual apartments and the homes their families had lived in for generations, no one was put in charge of the exterior environment. There are no HOAs or maintenance fees. People ignore the trash strewn in the stairwell and the pot-holed parking lot. It’s not their job.

My stairwell is dark and dank, with peeling paint and crazily slanting concrete steps. There are no elevators in the 5-story building, but fortunately I live on the second floor (or first floor in European parlance, the floor you enter from the street being the ground floor).

Inside, the once beautiful wood floor, laid down in a meticulous herringbone design, is stripped of varnish from long use and lifting in places. A crystal chandelier in the living room throws light on the cracked walls and peeling paint.

I have running water, but the only hot water is in a tank suspended over the bathtub. To heat it requires plugging in a cord, then waiting about an hour for it to get up to showering temperature. The tank is filled manually by turning a lever under the sink. For washing dishes I heat water in an electric tea kettle and pour it over the dishes while trying not to scald myself. Again.

There are no heaters in the apartment, only dirty shadows on the walls where the radiator heating system was ripped out after the fall — too expensive they say. I am grateful for the Peace Corp issued heaters. There is no insulation and winters here are fierce. Most volunteers spend the winter huddled around the heater.

When hunger strikes there’s no going to the freezer and pulling out a Lean Cuisine or frozen pizza. Those of us who live alone like to joke, “I’d offer you something to eat but all I have are ingredients.” Virtually all food is prepared from scratch by the women of the house, even if they too work all day. Cold lunches and sandwiches are unheard of, and an insult to a good Armenian woman’s ability to provide for her family.

No visitor to an Armenian house gets away without being served Armenian coffee and a wide array of sweets and fruit. Their hospitality is unrivaled. Some say the bounty they offer now is a response to the deprivation they have endured.

In the Armenian family structure the youngest son continues to live with his parents, bringing in his bride when he marries. Upon her arrival the mother-in-law usually hands the cooking duties over to her, even if there are other females in the household. So there is always someone to run the labor-intensive kitchen. Once I came home at lunch to find my host brother and father frying potatoes, as the daughter was ill. They looked like they had been caught red-handed, and my host mother rushed home from work to take over the lunch preparation and save their pride.

garden

Even apartment dwellers nurture small vegetable gardens, looking ahead to winter.

The procurement and preparation of food is a full time occupation here. There are two small “supermarkets” in Goris, a city of 20,000, but most shopping is done at neighborhood ghanoots that the family has traded with for years. The butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, all are stops along the way home. Milk is often delivered fresh and then boiled to pasteurize. One store now carries milk in cartons for the Amerikatsiner. It’s spring now, and every available patch of land has sprouted a carefully tended garden. In the fall there will be canning, canning and more canning. The post-Soviet lean years are a specter that continues to haunt them.

Despite these sometimes challenging living conditions, Armenian women take great pride in their appearance. Form-fitting dresses and stylish high heels are the norm, even for teachers on their feet all day. Makeup is always perfectly applied, eyebrows carefully arched and every hair in place. Even our best “business casual” looks like barn clothes compared to them. I know the teachers hate my clogs. Or maybe they’re envying the comfort. Goal Two: check.

But while Armenians try to keep up appearances, in reality they are barely keeping their heads above water. Every family has men who emigrate, usually to Russia, in hopes of finding work. Intransigent unemployment hovers just under 20 percent. The average teacher makes less in a month than American teens might spend on prom night. Armenians know that education is key to their children’s success, and that learning English is part of it. TEFL volunteers are often asked to tutor someone’s child; the landlord, taxi driver or neighbor (which we politely decline).

And war looms ever present on at least one border. On the 5-hour drive to the capital recently, the taxi driver pointed out that what I took to just be an earthen berm was actually a sniper barrier; we were within shooting range of the contested border with Azerbaijan. Ahead of us snow-capped Mt. Ararat rose up majestically from the plains of Ararat. But again, appearances can be deceiving; Ararat is the national symbol of Armenia, but it is now in Turkish territory. Like a better life, it seems so close and yet so far to the Armenians toiling in the fields below.

 

 

 

Boys to Men: Waiting for War

Grigor was hard to miss on my first day at Goris High School, with his sparkling eyes and an impish grin, as if he was enjoying some private joke. Tall and awkward as 17-year-old boys tend to be, he speaks English well, in a soft and respectful voice. He is always ready to voice his opinion in class, and undertook on his own to write a creative short story about a squirrel and turtle who started a store, only to run afoul of the forest mafia. Not surprisingly, he took first place in our school for the Write On! Armenia creative writing contest.

Today I helped him write, in English, an application for a prestigious summer fellowship in the U.S., aimed at fostering understanding between cultures. He said he wants to become a diplomat so he can help his country. But first, he is ready to go to war.

“If my country needs me, I will go to the front lines, of course,” he said. All boys in Armenia serve a compulsory two years in the military when they turn 18, but Garen is ready to go now, at 17.

He is not alone.

On Saturday, April 2nd, the so-called “frozen conflict” between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan erupted, spewing death, destruction and fear across the Southern Caucasus. At issue is the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area of land on the eastern flank of Armenia, caught in a prolonged tug-of-war. Azerbaijan claims it is theirs, while Armenia says the same. The area was included in Azerbaijan by Russia at the breakup of the Soviet Union, without input from the area’s population, the majority of whom claim Armenian heritage.

After the initial skirmish on Saturday things calmed down, but the rhetoric is still flying and it’s far from over. The question is, which way will it go: war or peace?

Who launched the first rocket or killed the most men so far is debatable. The fog of war is thick, and the tension is thicker.

In a country with less than 4 million people, everyone in Armenia knows someone who is involved in the military in some capacity, or who lives or has loved ones living, in the disputed territory.

My counterpart’s brother-in-law is in the army; my tutor’s brother was in Karabakh when the fighting broke out. Another teacher’s husband was killed in the initial fighting in 1992.

“No one wants war,” my counterpart stressed. “Everyone wants peace.”

The high school's military teacher studies the map of Armenia and the conflict zone. Lesson planning perhaps?

The high school’s military teacher studies the map of Armenia and the conflict zone. Lesson planning perhaps?

At school there is no childish laughter in the halls. Students huddle in groups, the girls on the verge of tears. The boys try to look tough in their matching black leather jackets, and like Garen, they are resolved to do their part if needed, but the worry shows on their peach-fuzzed faces.

Classroom attendance is sparse, but the teachers don’t care. School doesn’t seem very important to anyone right now. People huddle around the school computer, or scroll facebook on their phones, searching for the latest news.

There’s a WWII feel as the girls keep busy by stuffing care packages for the men on the front lines. Stacks of lavash are piled on the staff room tables, ready to be shoved into boxes; a little taste of home.

The military teacher, the ROTC equivalent, sits at the staff table with the geography class map of Armenia spread before him. I wonder what is going through his head.

My site, Goris, is on the road to the capital of the disputed territory, Stepanakert. Peace Corps security strictly forbids volunteers from going to that city, or anywhere near the border.

There is also a military base on the outskirts of town. For days trucks loaded with cargo have been streaming east toward the border. Today as I stepped out of my building a large army helicopter slowly moved overhead, also heading for the border. This latest flareup began when the Azerbaijani army reportedly shot down one such helicopter. The Armenian army said it was on a training mission, Azerbaijan says it was attacking military positions.

The Peace Corps, meanwhile, continues to issue security briefings to us via the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan. The word is to stay vigilant and be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. In the PC version of War Games, during training we practiced being summoned to our consolidation points. We are supposed to have “go bags” packed with all essentials, ready to, well, go at a moment’s notice. At the consolidation point we would then wait to hear if we were going to be evacuated from the country entirely.

It’s not an unknown situation in a corps that serves in politically unstable regions of the world. Poverty and political strife go hand in hand. More than 200 volunteers were evacuated from Ukraine in 2014, while volunteers had to leave three east African countries due to the ebola outbreak that same year.

One of the current Armenia Peace Corps Volunteers was in the group evacuated from Ukraine, and he’s back for more. As he wrote recently in his “Armenian Adventures” blog, “Our emergency action plan says to always keep a ‘hit the road real quick’ bag packed with essentials so I am prepared. I have been through this kind of thing a time or two so I am ready but not concerned. Peace Corps is always ahead of any problem like this and monitors these situations very well.”

Indeed, it’s a surrealistic feeling to be immersed in a community that is literally fearing for their lives, and yet know that you have the backing of your own government, and your own escape plan. It’s sort of like being on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Grigor would make a much better diplomat than soldier.

Note: The student’s name was changed to protect his identity.

Update: A fragile ceasefire, called after four days of fighting is still holding. For now.

Blog Stew

All blogs start with the best of intentions; regular posts full of hopefully interesting bits to entertain the folks back home, an audience that comments and encourages. Then entries become fewer and reader numbers fall. Thanks to Google Analytics one can see exactly how many, or how few, people are still reading the entries that the writer works so hard on. Life goes on, with or without the writer’s world views.

All this to say, this is my first post in six weeks. A lot has happened that deserves to be chronicled for posterity if nothing else. There’s no great theme, just life as it happened.

First there was the Never Ending School Break. School broke for the holiday season on Dec. 28th, and was set to resume the first week of January, just after the weeklong Nor Tari (New Year) celebrations. Due to swine flu or, “hosi greep” sweeping the nation, school was canceled for an additional three weeks. All of January was a wash. PCVs were left to their own devices, looking for ways to spend their time while a blizzard covered the country in snow for most of the month, and beyond.

Wishing I had skiis.

Wishing I had skiis.

It’s challenging enough to be in a foreign country when you have a purpose. To be there without one is a recipe for depression and desperate measures. Of course HQ imagined we were all busily integrating into our communities, learning Hayeren, working on projects and teaching English to all comers. In truth, most of us were just trying to survive. Many, many movies were watched, facebook was scoured for hours, visits were made to other sites, and probably more than a few rules were broken (although I’m just speculating on that one, don’t worry).

Backing up a bit, the year started with those of us in the southernmost part of the country, 5 or more hours from the capital, trying to make it north for a training session set for the second week of January (good timing HQ). The plan was to leave a few days early, visit our host families in the villages outside Yerevan, then go on to the city for a day or two before the training. The best laid plans… We learned that “janapar paka” means “the road is closed (and you’re f***ed).” Blowing snow on the passes created whiteout conditions, and any snow that did get plowed quickly blew right back onto the road. The waiting game began.

The rock formations of Goris are beautiful in any weather.

The rock formations of Goris are beautiful in any weather.

It took two days before we could get out of Goris, then 6 hours to make it over snow and ice covered roads to the village. We arrived in Taperakan in the dark to a hero’s welcome, since our families had also been waiting two days for our arrival. Nor Tari is the biggest celebration of the year in Armenia, and consists of a week of eating, drinking and visiting. While my host mother in Goris cooked for days, a blizzard on New Year’s Eve meant that no one came for days. Instead of the much hyped festivities, it was just the sad little three of us at midnight.

In Taperakan I finally witnessed the spirit of Nor Tari, with the aforementioned days of eating, drinking and visiting. Cathy, Paul and I were the toast of the town as we visited each of our families. The hospitality of Armenians never fails to amaze me. They are proof that you don’t need a lot to be happy. To them, family is what makes one rich. I wish my Hayeren had improved enough to converse with them better, but we still managed to get our meanings across. They missed me and I missed them.

Taking a break from training for tapas. Yes, tapas.

Taking a break from training for tapas. Yes, tapas.

As all the PCVs convened at a hotel in Yerevan for five day of PST2 – Pre-Service Training 2, it was the first time many of us had seen each other since we parted at swearing in. There was a lot of catching up to do, comparing host families, schools, projects and adjustment to life in Armenia. There was commiseration and celebration, venting and cheering. This is an amazingly resilient group of people, one that continues to impress and inspire me.

With David Dadalyan from Goris Press Club, at Project Design and Management training.

With David Dadalyan from Goris Press Club, at Project Design and Management training.

School finally resumed on Feb. 1, just in time for us to work three days, then leave for another training conference. Everyone else is now going to school six days a week for the rest of the year. The students missed so much school that to make it up the Ministry of Education has decided they must go to school Monday through Saturday, and spring break is canceled. It is not happy times at avac debrots. They don’t have the option of extending into summer, as we do in the states, as seniors are taking college entrance exams at that time.

In two weeks I’ll have more news, as on March 1 I will finally be able to live independently. The house hunt is on. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

A day in the life of a Peace Corps trainee

A friend back home recently asked me for details on the 12-week Pre-Service Training (PST) that all trainees have to go through before being sworn in as volunteers. For many, PST is survival of the fittest in action.

In fact, it says it in the Trainee Handbook: “Most volunteers say that PST is the most intensive and demanding period of their Peace Corps service…”

I could say it’s like boot camp, except I’ve never been to boot camp. I do know that while it was not physically demanding, the near constant mental and emotional demands were exhausting.

The amount of information that is presented in 12 weeks is like drinking from a fire hose; some of it gets in, most of it runs off. If you’re lucky, you will absorb it later.

First, there’s the integration process.

A major tenet of Peace Corps is that living with Host Country Nationals (HOCs) will help you adjust more quickly to the culture and learn the language immersion style.

Again from the Handbook: “Build relationships with Armenians; especially spend lots of time with your PST Host Family. It may seem like the last thing you want to do sometimes, but it will be worth it in the end.”

So true, but easier said than done.

Imagine being dropped into a house where you are expected to live with your new family for three months while you integrate into the culture. They don’t speak your language and you sure as hell don’t speak theirs. They are friendly and very welcoming, but the language barrier reduces the conversation to smiles, nods and arm waving.

They are eager to make you feel at home, but all the food they offer you is different, some of it inedible, to your palate. You learn the words for “I’m hungry,” “I’m full,” “it’s delicious,” “I love it,” “I don’t love it,” “it’s too salty,” “it’s too greasy” and “I’m sick.” You have Peace Corps Medical Office on speed dial.

All the families are thoroughly vetted by Peace Corps, but the housing situations vary widely. Some houses have indoor plumbing, others have outhouses. I had a real bathroom with a nice shower. Ninety percent of the time there was water.

Then there is the actual training.

We attended classes five days a week from 8:30 to 5:30, with a half day on Saturday just for Hayeren (Armenian) language training. The first three and a half hours were spent in our villages with language and culture class. Mostly it was language, although we tried to distract our Armenian instructor, Satenik, with as many culture questions as possible.

Then we had lunch, and were bussed to the town 20 minutes away to an elementary school where we had training class for four and a half hours. Topics covered included the three goals of Peace Corps, the 10 Core Expectations of a Peace Corps Volunteer, culture lessons, technical skills sessions, health lessons and safety and security, all designed to prepare volunteers for just the first three months of service. After that, there is more training. And more training.

We learned that we are always representatives of our country, and anything and everything we do reflects on that. We were told what we could and couldn’t do. We learned that Armenians are intensely proud of their small country; how to evacuate in the case of civil unrest or disaster (although the aging Soviet nuclear reactor was deemed “perfectly safe”); and that snakes are dangerous.

Plus as participants in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate program, we also had classes on teaching theory and five sessions of putting that knowledge to practical use in the classroom with real live students.

But here, walk with me through a typical day:

It’s early September and we’ve been in the village for several weeks. Four of us have been assigned to Taperakan, a small village in which many people have never seen an American, except on TV. Despite our attempts at cultural sensitivity (no shorts, no skimpy tank tops, no sneakers, no flip flops) we stick out like zebras in a flock of seagulls.

At my house (toon) my host mother rises early to cook breakfast for me. It’s always hot, and it’s always fried. Fried eggs, fried potatoes, fried tomatoes, fried eggplant, you name it, they fry it. We have an incomprehensible exchange which ends with me saying yes to everything. I think. I make instant coffee (soorj) for myself because the tiny cups of strong Armenian coffee are just not big enough. My host mother learns her first lesson in American Ways.

The passage of time in Taperakan is measured by the snow mantle creeping down Mt. Ararat. Photo©Marcie Miller 2015

The passage of time in Taperakan is measured by the snow mantle creeping down Mt. Ararat. Photo©Marcie Miller 2015

I gather my books and walk the dusty three blocks to the culture center, passing several groups of men who stare and children who giggle. We were told that women in Armenia don’t make eye contact with or talk to men on the street, so we avoid their stares. It’s 8:20 a.m., already hot, and Mt. Ararat shimmers in the distance framed by the cement block houses that line the dirt streets.

Language and Culture Facilitator (LCF) Satenik worked tirelessly to help us learn enough Hayeren to pass our language test. Photo©Marcie.Miller 2015

Language and Culture Facilitator (LCF) Satenik worked tirelessly to help us learn enough Hayeren to pass our language test. Photo©Marcie.Miller 2015

We gather in a small, run-down room of the culture center, which has also seen better days in the “glorious” Soviet era.

For three and a half hours we struggle valiantly to: 1. Recognize the 39 letters of the Armenian alphabet, 2. String them together into words, 3. String those together into sentences like: Yes oonem mek yeghbayr bites choonem kooyr (I have one brother but I don’t have a sister), and 4. Remember what we were taught.

Then it’s back home to eat the hot lunch that has been prepared by my pregnant host sister. Even though we are “family,” I am not allowed to cook, clean or even take my dishes to the kitchen.

It’s a typical lunch: fried potatoes, plain pasta, plain rice, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, Armenian cheese and lavash. Four courses of starch, and then it’s on the bus and off to Artashat for the rest of the day.

The group training is a chance to see the other trainees, compare notes on daily life, get and give hugs and support.

One reports that his breakfast every morning is a bowl of fried eggplant. Another is having trouble asking her host father to not smoke in the house. A third has had diarrhea for a week and wonders if that’s a problem (YES).

But spirits lift when the trainer asks people to share their success stories of the week, with candy as a reward.

There are tales of breakthroughs in language, shared cooking and being introduced to relatives as “our daughter.”

The Peace Corps is big on “student-centered learning,” and in training that means skits. Lots and lots of skits. We hate skits. But they keep us awake, and we are team players, so we count off, group up and write our plans in marker on large flip chart paper. Lots and lots of paper.

I would give an example, but honest to God I can’t remember a single one (sorry Charles and Jim).

Finally at 5:30 the “work” day is over, and we are bussed back home. Peace Corps Armenia has a policy that during PST trainees must be back in their “clusters” by 7 p.m. Although it’s an easy bus ride away, we are only allowed to go to Yerevan once a month, with our families, with three days notice and prior approval. Peace Corps is both mother and Big Brother during PST.

Back at the toon, dinner is a repeat of lunch, with an unidentifiable meat object (UMO) added. After politely eating as little as possible, I retire to my room, ostensibly to study.

In reality, my brain is fried and looking at Hayeren is the last thing I want to do. Facebook is calling…

PST was hard. Maybe not the most difficult thing I’ve ever done (I’m old), but I think I came out of the crucible a stronger, better person. I know I made friends that I am confident will help me through the tough times, the lonely times and the sad times, as well as be there for the good times — of which I’m sure there will be plenty. No one else can really understand what we went through, and as the trainers kept telling us, “this is your family now.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monasteries of Armenia: Past, Present, Future

My Armenian sojourn is bookended by two of the most iconic monasteries in Armenia, Khor Virap and Tatev. My host village, Tap’erakan, was just a few miles from where King Trdatt III was converted to Christianity by St. Gregory the Illuminator in 301, making Armenia the first officially Christian nation. My permanent site, Goris, in the southern end of the country, is near the remote and historical monastic center of learning, Tatev. If you’ve seen images of monasteries in Armenia, chances are it was one of these two; but in between are hundreds of others, a testament to the strong history of faith that runs through this country, and its people.

Khor Virap

Khor Virap monastery sits on a rocky point overlooking the Arax River, with Mt. Ararat looming just across the river — which is also the Armenian/Turkish border.

Visitors to Khor Virap can climb down into the dungeon, or “hole” where Grigor Luisavorich languished for 13 years before being released by King Trdatt.

Cathy Stewart and me at Khor Virap, where Christianity in Armenia began in the 4th century. Photo ©Marcie Miller 2015

Cathy Stewart and me at Khor Virap, where Christianity in Armenia began in the 4th century. Photo ©Marcie Miller 2015

St. Gregory’s dungeon is located in the smaller St. Gevorg Chapel, while the main church, St. Astvatsatsin is just across the courtyard. Built in the 17th century, the style is typical of churches and monasteries across Armenia; no-nonsense, squat buildings with little ornamentation. Notre Dame they are not.

But because this was the spot where Christianity began in Armenia, it holds a special place in their hearts. I’d only been here a few weeks before my host family took my friend and fellow volunteer Cathy and me there to check it out. It was also where, just a year before, their son and adorable daughter-in-law were married. The church is still in use and is a popular place for marriages and christenings.

I figured no visit to Khor Virap would be complete without climbing down into the “hole” as they call it. Safety standards are far less stringent in Armenia than in the U.S., enabling visitors to climb freely down a narrow shaft on a questionable steel ladder into the dungeon. Pretty sure the lighting was added later, but it was a surprisingly large space. I’m sure it would get old after 13 years though.

Noravank

My host family surprised Cathy and I another day by suddenly announcing that we were going to another monastery. At least that’s what we gathered from the combination of our minimal language skills and their ample pantomime.

Things got even more uncertain when, about 20 minutes into the trip, we suddenly veered into an alley in a small village and pulled up behind a man polishing a white Mercedes. Then we learned this man was the godfather to my host parents’ children. Or maybe he was the Godfather, not sure. Anyway turned out he was loaning us his Mercedes for the trip to Noravank, swapping it for my host family’s humble, rattle trap Soviet-era Lada.

Noravank monastery and its dual stairway to heaven. Photo ©Marcie Miller 2015

Noravank monastery and its dual stairway to heaven. Photo ©Marcie Miller 2015

With Maise (my host father) happily behind the wheel, we drove for nearly two hours up a winding mountain road ­— ­passing every vehicle we encountered, as is mandatory here — and through a narrow, red rock gorge, to Noravank (literally New Monastery). New being a relative term, as it was built in the 13th century, beating Khor Virap by 400 years. The main church is also named St. Astvatsatsin, which means Mary, Holy Mother of God. It’s a common theme among Armenian Apostolic churches.

Armenia has a long history of being pillaged by every passing horde, so they developed a self-preservation tactic of building their important religious centers in remote and difficult locations. The result is monasteries with jaw-dropping views. Noravank is surrounded by jagged red rock mountains, from which its building stones were carved by hand.

Noravank’s most recognizable feature is the stone steps on the outside of the main church that form a triangle leading to the second story entrance. Where St. Gregory’s dungeon tests one’s claustrophobia comfort level, Noravank tests one’s agoraphobic tendencies. The steps are only about 18 inches wide, with no pansy guard rail to keep one from plummeting some 20 feet onto the brick courtyard.

But like thousands of visitors annually, up we went. Coming down is the hard part. I chose to turn around and descend ladder-like, thus decreasing the fear factor.

Norovank's almond-eyed God, with Adam on his knee. Photo ©Marcie Miller 2015

Noravank’s almond-eyed God, with Adam on his knee. Photo ©Marcie Miller 2015

Noravank is unique in that it features a carving of God over the arching doorway. He is depicted in human form with almond-shaped eyes. It is said that the carver, Momik, carved them thusly in an attempt to appease the Mongol hordes and possible spare another sacking. It didn’t work.

But nature is the greatest threat to these magnificent stone edifices. Like many monasteries around Armenia, Noravank has been damaged by earthquakes and painstakingly reconstructed, the last time being in the 1940s.

Geghard Monastery

Toward the end of the grueling three month Pre-service Training, Peace Corps decided we needed something to lift our spirits, so they gave us a Saturday off to explore on our own, with transportation reimbursed. I and several others chose to check out Geghard monastery, located about an hour and half from the capital city of Yerevan, again tucked away in the mountains.

It originally housed a sacred relic, the Roman spear, or geghard, that was used to poke Jesus while he was on the cross to see if he was still alive. The relic is now housed in the Echmiadzin monastic complex/museum near Yerevan.

Inside the cave-based nave of Geghad monastery. Photo courtesy Coleman Hessler

Inside the cave-based nave of Geghard Monastery. Photo courtesy Coleman Hessler

The monastery, built in the 12th century, is most notable for the fact that part of it is carved out of the massive rock that surrounds it. The chapel of St. Gregory was built by chiseling the walls of an existing cave, creating a domed chamber with pillars and beautiful decorative carvings. It may have been built to take advantage of an existing natural cave, but still, the amount of labor expended is mind boggling. The acoustics in this chamber are outstanding.

The entrance to the cave chapel passes by a stream coming from a cleft in the rocks. Armenians lined up to fill water bottles with the water that they consider to have healing powers.

Heraldic carving in Geghad Monastery. Photo ©Marcie Miller 2015

Heraldic carving in Geghard monastery. Photo ©Marcie Miller 2015

Buildings like this were not cheap to build, and were usually owned by local rulers. Princess Proshian is credited with funding much of Geghard, which would explain one of the large bas relief carvings: two lions, collared and joined by chains, over an eagle holding a sheep in its talons. Game of Thrones, anyone?

Tatev Monastery

From the moment I started learning about Armenia I was struck by one image: Tatev monastery. You could not get a more breathtaking location, perched on the point of a 1,000 foot cliff, surrounded by rugged mountains. I was thrilled when I learned I would be posted in Goris, just a taxi ride away from “Wings of Tatev,” the aerial tramway that whisks visitors to the site. (Volunteer Ryan is actually working in the tiny village of Tatev, but it’s kind of nice to have the amenities of Goris.) My second weekend here several of us set out on a pilgrimage to Tatev.

"Flying" to Tatev on the world's longest dual tramway. Photo©Marcie Miller 2015

“Flying” to Tatev on the world’s longest dual tramway. Photo ©Marcie Miller 2015

In a country that is still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union, riding the world’s longest reversible cable car, spanning three and a half miles and a gorge over a thousand feet deep might not sound like the best idea. But Wings of Tatev is Swiss made and state of the art, thanks to generous funding from an international consortium.

The 12-minute ride is definitely the way to go, unless you like careening up narrow bumpy roads that switchback up mountainsides.

The road to Tatev and the villages beyond. Photo©Marcie Miller 2015

The road to Tatev and the villages beyond. Photo©Marcie Miller 2015

After soaring over the Voraton Gorge, Tatev monastery suddenly swings into view. The cable car lands gently just up the hill from the complex, with its majestic backdrop. Tatev was built in the 9th century, and in the 14th and 15th centuries hosted Tatev University, an important center of learning. Much like the medieval monks of Ireland, Tatev scholars preserved Armenia’s treasures of culture and knowledge during turbulent times. At its peak in the 11th century it housed 1,000 monks, artisans and scholars.

But Tatev’s history is older than the 9th century, as a pagan temple on the site was razed and replaced by the first modest Christian church in the 4th century.

Tatev Monastery with its majestic backdrop. Photo©Marcie Miller 2015

Tatev Monastery with its majestic backdrop. Photo©Marcie Miller 2015

Despite its remote and precarious location, Tatev has been sacked seven times over the centuries, and in 1931 a devastating earthquake destroyed two major domes and a bell tower. The domes of Sts. Peter and Paul have been reconstructed, but the bell tower remains in rubble.

Visitors now pick their way around reconstruction work, where numbered blocks stretch along the cliff side.

Like so much in this country, Tatev seems to be a way for the proud Armenian people to cling to their glorious past. But with the aerial tramway and serious restoration work underway perhaps it can be part of a glorious future as well.

Tatev, preserving the past, present and future of Armenia. Photo©Marcie Miller

Tatev, preserving the past, present and future of Armenia. Photo©Marcie Miller

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Impressions. Again.

The snow has finally come to Goris, and I’m finishing my third week at my permanent site. How’s it going? The snow is really lovely.

I’m assistant teaching high school, and I can say kids are the same everywhere. The eager, bright girls sit in the front of the class, answering every question, while the boys sit in the back, talking, playing on their phones or just plain sleeping.

But most distressing, my counterparts, the long-time Armenian teachers, just ignore them, or wait until they get so loud they drown out the lesson. Then the teacher erupts and spews a shrill stream of rapid-fire Armenian at them. That quiets them down for about five minutes.

The school hosted a military-themed art show.

The school hosted a military-themed art show.

The teachers know that for the 12th grade, or form, boys, English class is just a time killer. Military service is mandatory for all males. They enter as soon as they graduate or turn 18, whichever comes last. Every school has a military teacher, and military defense is part of the curriculum. One day the military teacher (officer?) brought an AK-47 to school, casually leaning it against the wall in the teachers’ lounge until he needed it for show and tell. While that was startling to my shell-shocked western sensibilities, it also showed how safe it is here. There has never been a school shooting in Armenia. Knock on wood.

The students’ slothful behavior is not a total surprise — I’ve heard horror stories from other TELF teachers, and that high school is the “most challenging” to teach. Peace Corps makes the assignments, so I didn’t have a choice. Part of our pledge is to be willing to serve where we are assigned.

Took advantage of a beautiful fall weekend to explore the Goris countryside.

Took advantage of a beautiful fall weekend to explore the Goris countryside.

But it’s not all bad. Far from it. The students who greet me in the hall every day with big smiles and “good morning Mees Meeler!” are a delight, as are those students who really do want to learn. It’s a safe bet that, after at least five years of studying English, none of them have spoken to a real live native English speaker. Most of them have lived in Goris all their lives, with rare forays into the capitol. And while classes adhere to the mind-numbing national curriculum, many volunteers say they find the most reward from after school clubs and secondary projects where they have more opportunity for creativity. I’m looking forward to that.

My school, avac debrots #chors (high school #4), is the only stand-alone high school in the city, and it’s been renovated with all the mod cons, as they say. There is a computer room where students give PowerPoint presentations, the classrooms are clean and new, and the halls are spacious and decorated with student art and greenery. Other than the fact that I still can’t speak the language and I’m 6,000 miles from home, it’s hard to believe this is a Peace Corps assignment.

Armenia is a developing country, and the living and work situations for the volunteers vary widely. Everyone says I won the lottery with placement in Goris, and it is a lovely town. There are other volunteers here to support one another, and there’s a good café. On the other end of the spectrum is my friend Cathy, who was placed in the southern end of the country, in sight of Iran. She is in a tiny village, alone, living with bucket baths for which she has to heat the water in a large tub. I feel like this is the middle of nowhere, but she’s six hours farther.

My new Syunik Marz family at Thanksgiving. It's a great bunch, but they've got a high bar to beat Team Tap'erakan.

My new Syunik Marz family at Thanksgiving. It’s a great bunch, but they’ve got a high bar to beat Team Tap’erakan.

I miss her and my friends and family from our first little village, as we’re now flung across the country. Armenia would fit into southern California, but with the bad roads and poor transportation system, travel is an arduous undertaking. The only transportation from my city of 20,000 to the capitol is by private taxi. And then you have to have four people in the cab before they will leave. The trip is a four-hour white-knuckle thriller, dodging livestock, passing on blind corners and of course, no seat belts.

But today the snow has begun to fall across the country and all is quiet. We are hunkered down for the night, connected by the internet, watching movies or reading and wishing we weren’t so far apart. It will take a while to adjust to this new reality.