Recent Travels

I’ve had some good travel opportunities in the last few weeks – first, with Victor and Judy (visiting from Cambridge for three weeks) for a couple of days, then down to my pre-service training host family in Aralez. After being in country for a week and half or so and visiting the south and Kharabagh, Judy and Victor came up to Sarnaghbyur for a brief visit, driven by a friend who lives in the next town over (and who is an adjunct agricultural economics professor in the US – Karen and I hope to collaborate with him on agro/eco-tourism projects). After a stop at our churches and cold spring and a comprehensive lunch spread at Karen’s house, it was off to Gyumri where we checked out the swanky Berlin Art Hotel, where Judy and Victor’s daughter/my old friend Laura had volunteered previously.

From there Karen and I took the bus to Vanadzor, where we had the apartment of a friend of his all to ourselves for two nights. Sitting on the kitchen floor at 6 AM listening to a Sox west coast game and nursing a cup of coffee while Karen slept in the next room made me appreciate how much good living alone could do for my mental and emotional state, so we’ll see what happens after my current “lease” with my host family (through the end of November) is up. We also got to spend some quality time with Peace Corps language and cultural facilitator Anna (Karen’s partner LCF for pre-service training this year) before she headed off for a year to teach English in China. Said quality time included coffee at Anna’s apartment with her delightful mother, and paddleboat rides on one of Vanadzor’s man-made lakes.

From Vanadzor we took a day trip with Judy and Victor into the villages of Lori marz, tagging along for visits to two Children of Armenia Fund (COAF, with whom Victor and Judy are heavily involved) sites – the SMART Center under construction near Tsegh, and a SMART room in Tumanyan. Sarnaghbyur has just been designated a COAF village, so we hope to collaborate with COAF on a range of projects (and get our own SMART room in the cultural center!) in the coming months. Our last leg of the day took us to Armenia Tree Project’s nursery in Margahovit, where we enjoyed beautiful views of the mountains on both sides as the clouds rolled in and the sun went down. Here too we discussed collaboration opportunities for our NGO, and we hope to bring a busload of kids up to tour the nursery and get some environmental knowledge laid on them during school break at the end of October.

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COAF SMART center construction near Tsegh.
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Judy and Victor in construction garb at the SMART center site.
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With Karen at our lunch spot in Tumanyan.
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ATP’s experimental garden near their Margahovit nursery.
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Someone at ATP gave me a big bag of broccoli for some reason.

 

My visit to Aralez the following weekend was great for a number of reasons. Beyond the pleasure of catching up with some of the most important folks from my first ten weeks in country, it was a joy to discover I could actually hold real conversations with them thanks to the progression of my language skills over the last two months. Whereas during training I understand about one in twenty words that my fast-talking host brother Saco said, now I feel I’m batting closer to .500 (I also realized that a large chunk of his vocab that I thought was Armenian words that I didn’t yet know was in fact Russian). Part of this is definitely due as well to how much clearer people in Ararat marz speak, and how much less slang/non-Armenian words they use than up here in Shirak (I’m always finding out that words I thought were just slang/western Armenian up here are in fact Turkish or Farsi, for instance). After this trip, I realized that my move up here after training was akin to learning English in a place like Boston for two months and then moving to the deep south. Two very different versions of Armenian.

Beyond catching up and actually being able to communicate, we spent the weekend as you would expect for 95 degree summer weather: lounging inside, watching TV, drinking a lot of coffee, and eating giant piles of fruit. And, as good Armenian hosts, they made sure to fill up my water bottle with their homemade vodka before I left, which they estimated at 120 proof. At dinner one night the following week in Sarnaghbyur my host dad and I were drinking it and my host mom asked, “is it strong?” before pouring a little in a glass to sniff and recoil. She then pulled back the table cloth, poured it on the tabletop, grabbed some matches, and lit it on fire. She watched it burn away before remarking, “yep, it’s strong.” So that was a nice souvenir of my weekend in Aralez. They also told me I’ll be invited to a cousin’s wedding in November, which I can’t wait for, as Armenian weddings are supposed to be something else entirely.

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A typically awesome Armenian coffee-time spread.
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Coffee selfie with Paytsar and Saco.
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Barf the cat had kittens!
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Peto filling up my water bottle with his powerful homemade vodka.
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Taking the train back from Yerevan to Gyumri.

 

Future travel plans include a week at the start of October to swing through Syunik marz down south to see all my friends down there, which I can likely consider mostly work given the various collaborations I’ve got on tap. There’s also potential for a week in Georgia with some folks, and closer to home next weekend I’ll visit my friend up in Torosgyugh, a village which I hear is fairly similar to Sarnaghbyur lifestyle-wise but a mere tenth the size (250 on a good day, I’m told).

Finally, I have no idea why this was made, but if you’ve felt the one thing keeping you from fully appreciating my experience in Sarnaghbyur was the dearth of aerial drone footage of the village, look no further than here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LJwG9oim5Q. At 2:32 in the video my house is at 6 o’clock.

Language Note

One of my favorite aspects of learning other languages is discovering words or phrases that translate to English awkwardly at best. The word մոտ (mot, “near”) is like this in some uses. You can use this as you would in English, for instance շենկի մոտ եմ, shenki mot em, “I am near the building”. But it’s also used in a way to indicate temporary possession – instead of saying, բանալին ունեմ, banaleen unem, literally “I have the key”, you say, բանալին ինձ մոտ է, banaleen inz mot e, literally “the key is near me”. It’s also used in a way that’s harder to directly translate to indicate location in a more cultural or general sense. For instance, when comparing drinking habits between Armenian and American women, I could say, Այո, կանայք խմում են գարիջուր մեր մոտ, ayo, kanayk khmum en garijur mer mot, literally, “yes, women drink beer near us”, but meaning more, “yes, women drink beer in America/where I’m from”.

 

 

Work!

Long time no post! I figure it’s past time I described my work here with Karen at the Sarnaghbyur Youth and Community Action Club NGO (whose Facebook page you should like immediately, by the way). For context, here’s a standard weekday for me:

  • 6 – 7: skyping with various people back home (about every other morning)
  • 7 – 10: first breakfast alone, walk/run around lake, read, language work (vocab, reading Armenian books), second breakfast with host family (their first)
  • 10 – 12: hang out with Karen at his house – part work, part talking, always eating and drinking coffee
  • 12 – 4: at the NGO, where we oversee clubs and work on our various projects (see below)
  • 4 – 7: generally back home again, reading, resting, going for another walk around the lake, hanging out on the porch with my host family
  • 7 – 10: dinner, internet time (Red Sox news, Facebook discussions with other PCVs), more reading, more language work, watching the Armenian soap operas with my host family

Weekends when I’m in town (about half the time) are pretty similar but with a long hike in the hills instead of NGO time, or a day trip into Gyumri to eat at a restaurant, hang out with other PCVs, and patronize the tatik selling cool old Armenian books for a dollar. So far my travels have taken me to Yerevan, Vanadzor, and Dilijan, with upcoming trips to Aralez (my training village), Ijevan/Dilijan again, and hopefully in October down south to Syunik marz.

I should note that, while this schedule seems pretty lackadaisical (and it is!), I consider myself to be working at all times apart from the hour or so daily that I’m shut up in my room reading, listening to music, or wasting time on the internet; in such a small place I feel that community integration is extra important to my work, and anytime I’m working on my language skills or hanging out with anyone from the village, be it my host family, Karen’s, or the kids on the street, I feel that I’m doing this.

Anyway, our main programs right now are summer clubs organized and led by the kids to teach drawing, dance, handicrafts, and chess. More important than the exact content of the clubs is how the kids organize and lead them, so we work with them closely on such topics as attendance tracking, lesson planning, and “classroom” management. On the capacity-building side, Karen and I will soon begin writing a strategic plan for the club, and we are working on taking closer notes of our activities to build institutional memory for the day when Karen can no longer lead the club himself. Additionally, Arman, an early-twenty-something from town who is extremely active with the club, will soon return from work in Russia. Karen views him more as my long-term counterpart, given that he has many professional skills to learn to support his excellent abilities in organizing and leading the kids, and I should be able to mentor him (and of course learn a lot about the community from him).

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Dance club!
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Drawing club!
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Chess club!

Additionally, a few weeks ago we held a youth leadership camp which included team-building, leadership, and initiative activities; discussions of what makes a good leader and how he or she acts; and a lesson about the environmental problems facing Armenia, after which we cleaned up trash by the lake and in the town forest.

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Leadership camp, day one: the Human Knot
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Leadership camp, day two: team carrying activity
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Leadership camp, day two: discussion of the iceberg metaphor for culture. With Karen ably leading the conversation, the kids totally got it, which was freaking awesome.
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Leadership camp, day three: trash pick-up
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Leadership camp, day three: վերջ (verj – end)

Apart from clubs through the NGO, I have many ideas for secondary projects, including: English conversation and homework clubs; advanced chess clubs incorporating games that I learned at King Open, such as team chess; walks in the hills around town with the kids to gather data for this new initiative of the Armenian Environmental Network; working with the kids to write, lay out, and publicize a tourism booklet for the town; and either teaching the kids basic coding (which they have requested – IT is a growing sector for domestic employment) or bringing them regularly to the Tumo Center in Gyumri.

Beyond my work in Sarnaghbyur, I have many opportunities for collaborating with organizations that can take advantage of what I learned in college and my previous work. For instance, a Gyumri alumna of the FLEX program (for Armenians to study in the US for a year while in high school) works for a new think tank focusing on urban and environmental issues (she recently worked on an analysis of the energy usage of Gyumri’s street lights). Additionally, Garrett, a PCV from my training village, and Nate, a Response volunteer, both in Yeghegnadzor, work for an organization specializing in economic research, including GIS analyses, so I can likely help them with research, and perhaps even help teach GIS classes at the university in Gyumri. I think an ideal schedule could be working with the kiddos here in Sarnaghbyur the equivalent of four days a week and doing research/economic work one day a week, but we’ll see what shakes out!

Language Note:

-Armenians frequently use Russian words for certain things, my favorite being that for TV remote control: Պեւլտ (pult) in place of the far more impressive and hideously clunky Armenian word: Հեռակառավարման վահանակ (herrakarravarman vahanak, literally “far-control billboard”).