Tag Archives: My PC Armenia Blog

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.

 

 

Awash in Lavash — About the Name…

I felt I needed to experience Armenia first hand before I picked a name for this blog. After three weeks and many, many meals, I decided nothing represents the Armenian experience better than the national mania known as lavash. It’s a simple flatbread made from wheat flour and water, rolled into large ovals and baked by slapping it onto the sides of a clay oven, much like Indian naan is made. For Armenians it’s nothing short of manna from heaven. Cultures around the world have similar breads, from naan to chapatis and tortillas. It’s the dough that binds us together, if you will.

Here's a picture of my host sister, Christina, with a batch of fresh lavash. What looks like a massive amount of bread will last our family of 5 about a week. You do the math.

Here’s a picture of my host sister, Christina, with a batch of fresh lavash. What looks like a massive amount of bread will last our family of 6 about a week. You do the math.

Lavash is eaten at every meal and is used for everything from scooping up soup to shoving gartofil (potatoes) onto a fork. All foods can be wrapped in it, much like a burrito, only  slightly smaller. The large ovals are cut up with scissors into manageable squares and piled into a bread bowl. It’s sprinkled with water to keep it soft. At the table the diners grab a handful and stack it on the table next to their plate where it is readily accessible throughout the meal.

One morning my host mother, Loosik, filled large rectangles of lavash with fried potatoes, rolled it up burrito-style, then rolled them in egg and bread crumbs and fried them. Carb and fat overload aside, they were really, really good. I quickly learned the Armenian word for “delicious” — hamove.

We arrived at the height of harvest season in the fertile Ararat valley, so fresh fruits and vegetables make up the bulk of our meals. Every meal includes a large plate of ripe tomatoes and cucumbers, and there is frequently eggplant, peppers, cabbage, beets and okra, as well as watermelon, grapes, apples, peaches, plums and other melons for dessert and between meal snacks.

Armenians are the most hospitable people on the planet — a guest barely has time to take off their shoes and put on guest slippers before the coffeetable is laden with plates overflowing with the fruits of the earth, like a still life with knives and forks. Coffee, tea, cake, ice cream and candy round out the groaning tableau. Fortunately we learned that guests are not expected to eat everything — it’s enough to have been offered and sampled a few of the offerings.

Khor Virap monastery is just a 15 minute drive from my village.

Khor Virap monastery is just a 15 minute drive from my village.

I do of course do other things besides eat. Last weekend my host family took fellow PC trainee Cathy and me to the beautiful and ancient Khor Virap, the sacred site where Grigor Luisavorich (St. Gregory the Illuminator) was imprisoned for 13 years before curing King Trdat III of a disease. This caused the conversion of the king and Armenia into the first officially Christian nation in the world in the year 301.

The church is still in use — my host brother got married there just last year. Nice choice of venue!