Tag Archives: Armenia

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.


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.




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.




Swearing In, Moving On

*“Yes haghaghootyan korpoosee kamavor em.” And with those tongue-twisting words, on Nov. 12, 2015 I became a Peace Corps Volunteer.

After 12 weeks of training I and 38 of my closest friends gathered in a beautiful concert hall in Yerevan to officially be sworn in as PCVs. We are the 23rd group to serve in Armenia. I couldn’t have felt prouder when I received my lapel pin with the American and Armenian flags crossed over the Peace Corps globe. Our group is the most diverse ever to serve in Armenia, with members aged 22 to 75, and naturalized citizens from Africa, South America, the Philippines and Russia. They are all smart, compassionate and caring individuals.

Newly sworn in A23 volunteers, with U.S. Ambassador Richard M. Mills, Jr in the center.

Newly sworn in A23 volunteers, with U.S. Ambassador Richard M. Mills, Jr in the center.

The week was an emotional roller coaster, from excitement about finally beginning our service, to fear of the unknown (or at least nervousness), to many, many tears at leaving our host families and dear friends.

My host family made me take the coffee mug I used every morning, because they said it would make them too sad to look at it in the cupboard. I said it would make me sad too, but they won. And they gave me a heat sensitive mug that when filled with soorj (coffee) or tay (tea) revealed a photo of the family and my fellow trainees at dinner. Around the rim it says “We love you Marcie!!!” How could I not cry at that? Less than three months ago I came into their house a stranger. I left as family. As I’ve said before, family is everything to Armenians so to be taken into the fold is the highest honor.

My lovely host "parents," Lusik and Maise Meharabyan.

My lovely host “parents,” Lusik and Maise Meharabyan.

A Peace Corps home stay is not without its challenges though. I had not yet learned enough Armenian (hayeren) to converse beyond basic needs, so trying to communicate was a daily challenge. The food did not always agree with me, and I had “food-poisoning-like” symptoms twice. “Heevand em” — “I am sick,” was one of the first phrases the language trainers taught us. I learned that I was probably to blame for my sudden and violent illness because I wasn’t wearing socks and did not have enough blankets on my bed (this even though it was still hot outside). Cold=vomiting, of course.

But we didn’t need language to express our mutual sadness, and mutual joy as we celebrated at a large party the night of swearing in, and the night before departure. I knew how to say “siroom em barel” — “I love dancing,” as my handsome host father two-stepped me around the living room.

Armenians know how to party, with piles of horovats (roast meat) endless toasting and dancing to loud music. There is a joy of life that seems to come only from knowing deprivation; deep sorrow/deep joy. There’s probably an Armenian expression for that.

Over three months of daily language lessons and seemingly endless training sessions, I had become very close with two of the three other volunteers in my small village. We seemed an unlikely pair when they first announced the village groupings — three women over 50 and one young man with a Citadel ring. I remember telling Paul at the time that we probably weren’t the harem he would have chosen.

Friends forever, me, Paul Whitten and Cathy Steward.

Friends forever, me, Paul Whitten and Cathy Stewart.

As it turned out, we could not have chosen better. Marti, 70+, was sort of in her own world, with a very active host family to keep her busy, but Paul, I, and the third member of our trio, Cathy, a former lawyer from Arizona, became fast friends. Our language and culture facilitator, or LCF, Satenik, and her adorable son, Abel, became the fourth and fifth members of our tribe. There wasn’t a lot to do in our sleepy village, but with friends like that, doing very little seemed like a lot.

So with tears, hugs, and more tears and hugs, the morning after swearing in we departed for our permanent sites, scattered across the country. Armenia is a small country, but right now it feels pretty big.

*I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.


And the winner is…

You know that moment when, after careful consideration and a large dose of courage, you take a deep breath and step out onto a suspension bridge, and get to the midpoint where it’s swaying as you tread softly, your legs shaking a little as you looking down at the yawning abyss below you, but you know that the other end, the blessed solid ground, is just a few more steps? That was this week.

While we reached the midpoint of Pre-Service Training on Sept. 30, this week we learned where we would be living for the next two years of our lives; our permanent sites.

Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 1 p.m. all 40 trainees gathered on the playground of the grade school where we have been holding classes for the last month. Spread before us was a map of Armenia, painted on the asphalt playground, with the names of all the places where we would be placed. The plan was that as we learned our site, we were to stand on the place name on the map. It was a great visual of how close or how far we would be from our fellow volunteers.

The PC directors put a great deal of work into choosing who goes where, matching community needs and requests to volunteers’ skills, abilities, desires, goals and personalities. For seven weeks we’ve been watched and evaluated, tested and scored, sometimes overtly, most often surreptitiously. Volunteers cover two sectors, Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and Community and Youth Development (CYD).

We have become close to our fellow PCTs, forming friendships (and sometimes more) that now threatened to be split apart as we awaited our fate. As the program directors called our names we stepped forward and were handed a thin, fortune cookie-like strip of paper. One small piece of paper with our future writ large. Mine: “Syunik marz, Goris high school.”

Peace Corps Trainees stand on their permanent sites. I'm in the second row, next to my site mate Pat, who is in red. Photo courtesy Peace Corps Armenia.

Peace Corps Trainees stand on their permanent sites. I’m in the second row, next to my site mate Pat, who is in red. Photo courtesy Peace Corps Armenia.

And there it was, nearly two years of waiting boiled down to a few simple words: the region, the city, the school. And to my relief and joy, Goris was exactly where I wanted to go. While some trainees weren’t thrilled with their sites, I felt like I’d won the site selection lottery.

I first learned of the existence of this town in the southernmost part of this small country last summer in Seattle, at a Peace Corps sendoff party at UW. There I met Liana Sahakyan, a bundle of energy who was attending the University of Washington on a fellowship for the summer, and who runs a non-profit women’s organization in Goris. In the warm, welcoming Armenian way, she immediately invited me to come and visit and even work with her in Goris. I think she may have had something to do with my placement, but the Peace Corps is keeping mum on that.

Goris, pronounced Go-REES, is a medium-sized city by Armenian standards, but oddly almost the same size as my hometown of Port Angeles: 20,000. It’s nestled between two mountain ranges at about 4,000 feet, and is famous for its unique cave dwellings. That’s right, cave dwellings. People don’t live in them anymore, but they are still used for storage. You can bet I’ll have my eye out for a rehab project.

A view of some of the caves carved into the spires of Goris.

A view of some of the caves carved into the rocky hillsides of Goris.

Goris is ancient even by Armenian standards, first mentioned in records going back to the 8th century B.C. In 1870 the “new” town of Goris was built on the opposite river bank, designed by a German architect. It’s called one of the most charming towns in Armenia, having escaped the Soviet Union concrete block construction that blights the rest of this beautiful country.

This coming weekend we will go with our Armenian teaching counterparts to our sites for a three day visit, where we will meet our new host families.

My current host family is very sad to see me leave, but that’s a good thing. I will miss them too, and have been told I must come back for every holiday, but I’m looking forward to what’s on the other end of this suspension bridge. One step at a time.



My PC Armenia Blog

The Pieces are Falling into place

Finally, finally, FINALLY we got our staging information and the location of our training in Armenia. We will all be meeting in Philadelphia on Aug. 18 at high noon for staging, then departing en masse the next day – destination Artashat! Where? Yeah I had to look it up: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artashat,_Armenia

It’s a historic city right on the Turkish border, in view of the so-close-and-yet-so-far Mt. Ararat. For those of you who paid attention in Sunday school, yet THAT Mt. Ararat, where Noah landed in the Ark. It’s now across the border in Turkey, but the Armenians claim it as their national symbol. Long story, but here’s the awesome view:

The ancient city of Artashat was built on this hill in about 100 B.C. Courtesy photo.

The ancient city of Artashat was built on this hill in about 100 B.C. Courtesy photo.

Anyway, in addition to getting the information about the first concrete steps on this long journey, today I had the pleasure of meeting with fellow PCV (that’s Peace Corps Volunteer in gov-speak) Daniel Cloward from Chicago. He and his friend Sarah were in town, so we met up in my hood – Alki Beach.

Two Peace Corps rookies, pre-departure in Seattle.

Two Peace Corps rookies, pre-departure in Seattle.

Meeting up with Daniel made it seem “real” after so many long months of planning, planning, planning. We first met up on a Peace Corps Armenia facebook page, which has been a great tool for getting to know people who at this point are spread across the U.S.

There is also a special page for volunteers over 50, which has been really helpful. The amount of life experience that these people bring to the job is amazing. As we baby boomers enter retirement, it’s a sector the Peace Corps wants to develop. It’s a change that could alter the face of Peace Corps forever.

I’ve also started online Skype Armenian lessons with an instructor in Armenia and another volunteer in Alaska. Barev Dzez! That’s a formal “hello.” We take three months of lessons once we get there, but with my old brain, I can use the headstart! So far we’ve learned greetings and 20 of the 39 letters in the Armenian alphabet.

And again, THANK YOU to everyone who has donated to my Go Fund Me campaign – it’s up to an amazing $601! I’ll be sure to buy  Armenian tchotchkes for all of you. Wonder how you say that in Armenian…

And now for something completely different…

Barev! Welcome to my blog about my Peace Corps assignment to Armenia, Aug. 2015 through Nov. 2017.

I’ve been assigned to teach secondary level English as well as help the teachers there improve their English and develop new lesson plans. I chose Armenia because the assignment also includes earning a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate. That’s a great bonus.

When I tell people my plan, the two things they always ask are, “Where’s that?” and “Is it safe?” Armenia is a very small country sandwiched between Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east and a teeny bit of Iran to the south. It’s called the “crossroads of Europe,” and is on the fabled Silk Road. You can learn more about it here.

Armenia adopted Christianity as the national religion in 300 AD, making it the oldest Christian nation. It's riddled with amazing religious sites such as Tatev Monastery.

Armenia adopted Christianity as the national religion in 300 AD, making it the world’s oldest Christian nation. It’s riddled with amazing religious sites such as Tatev Monastery. Photo courtesy Tourism Armenia

And as far as “is it safe” goes, I always reply, “is anywhere safe?” Sadly, one is more likely to get gunned down or run over on Main Street , USA than in Armenia. And the Peace Corps is very, very safety conscious. We can’t even drive a motor vehicle of any kind!

Oh, and the third question: “Why??” That one is harder. Why would a 57-year-old woman want to endure the hardship of living in a dirt poor country, earning the equivalent of the local wage and struggling to communicate in a language spoken by virtually no one but Armenians? Glutton for punishment, hopeless romantic, chronic do-gooder, crazy, take your pick. At the two-hour candidate interview I think I blathered something about wanting to make the world a better place, serve my fellow man, make a difference. It’s all a blur, but really it’s a bit of all of the above. And, why not? The American job market has not been kind to me, maybe it’s time to try something different. Four years of college and 10 years of struggling to make it as a journalist had gotten me exactly nowhere. But the degree did qualify me to apply for the Peace Corps.

Most people think of the Peace Corps as something one does after graduating from college, but in fact they take volunteers of all ages — the oldest was in his 80s! If you can pass the physical, you’re in. Seniors are still less than 10% of the corps, but still, it’s nice to be wanted. There’s an interesting article about it here.

The Journey So Far

It’s still four months until I leave, but it’s already been a long road. I first got the idea in December, 2013 when I felt like I needed something else to live for other than my low wage dead-end job. I needed a Plan B.

I filled out the lengthy online application in January 2014 and was surprised to be invited to Seattle for an interview in March. At that time you couldn’t choose specifically where you wanted to go, but you could say where you didn’t want to go. I said I would go anywhere but Africa (been there done that, don’t care to go back), but that I would prefer Eastern Europe. Duly noted by the recruiter.

Several weeks later the recruiter emailed to say he thought I would be a good candidate and was forwarding my application on to Washington, D. C. I was officially a Peace Corps candidate! Mid-summer I found out the Peace Corps had made a radical change, and now allowed candidates to list their top three location preferences. The practice was to look at a candidate’s skills and decide where to place them, then issue a take-it-or-leave-it letter of invitation.

I emailed the recruiter and said I wanted to get in on the new deal! He said fine, just let them know. As I said, I chose Armenia for the certificate opportunity, but also because it looked like a fascinating country, and definitely off the beaten track!

In December I got the official invitation to serve in Armenia, along with a slew of paperwork related to the daunting medical clearance process. Clearance included a mammogram, colonoscopy, ECG, complete blood panel, tests for HIV, Hep B and C, and vaccinations for, or proof of vaccination for, polio, MMR, TDP and chicken pox (or shingles for the over 50’s), plus a TB test. They also wanted full dental Xrays plus all dental work completed before leaving the country. Whew!

My doctor said they make the paperwork onerous just to weed out people who can’t handle meaningless bureaucracy. She could be on to something.

It’s also not cheap to volunteer. With all the medical tests, shots and dental work, I’m in over $2,000. I have started a Go Fund Me page to try to put a dent in that, as well as go toward expenses such as my storage fees, and to buy supplies for the schools (I’m sure they will need them). The Peace Corps pays volunteers the equivalent of the living wage in the country, so that you will live on the level of the people you are working with. I think that’s a great idea, but I don’t think it’s going to leave any extra at the end of the month (kind of like now).

Many, many thanks to the friends who have donated more than $400 so far.

If you’ve read this far and are interested in donating, you can find it here.

The next entry will be far shorter, and if you’ve read this far, thank you very much!!