Summers End

I’ve always been a person who favors fall. As a child, “Back to School” was my favorite time of year. My favorite season is by far fall and I am looking forward to my first fall in Armenia. Sometimes the anticipation of fall is almost better than actually experiencing fall.

Summer has always been my least favorite season. Back in Michigan, the humidity was my number one enemy. I dislike the heat and hate the humidity even more. Armenia was an appealing Peace Corps post for me because most of the country isn’t humid.

During Pre Service training, the weather in Ararat Marz started to heat up. When it reached 80, I started to complain. “Thank goodness you’re all moving to your permanent sites before it gets hot in Ararat Marz” everyone said.

I looked forward to escaping the heat. What I didn’t realize was that my permanent site would be just as hot, or maybe hotter than Ararat Marz. As the temperatures started to climb more and more into the end of June, I slowly realized I was in for a difficult summer.

By July, the temperature was well over 100 degrees every day. I stopped drinking my tea in the mornings because by 7am, the heat was already uncomfortable. Going to my English club was no longer fun. Students were too uncomfortable in the hot school to focus, and I often was sweating so much it was running into my eyes.

At night, I started staying awake later just to enjoy when the temperature dropped to 85 degrees at 11pm. My village slowly turned into a ghost town from late morning until early evening. People would wake up early, rush out to their gardens and do other outdoor work when it was still relatively ‘cool’ outside. During the heat of the day, we all stayed inside in an effort to stay as cool as possible. Even without air conditioning, the houses are made of stone and are still cooler than the heat outside.

I stopped going for walks in the morning because it was no longer refreshing. It was exhausting in the 90 degree heat and it felt pointless to work up a sweat and then not be able to shower when my village didn’t have water most of the time.

Cleaning dishes, washing my face and brushing my teeth outside when the drains in my house weren’t working at the start of summer.

 

The first week of August was by far the worst. For a week and a half, the temperature was consistently around 110 degrees every day. I laid in bed all day, as still as possible while hugging frozen water bottles in an effort to stay cool. I did laundry and cooking early in the morning, as to avoid sweating like crazy and making the house even hotter when turning the oven on.

My laundry on the “soak” cycle.

 

Towards the end of July, I cut off around 13 or 14 inches of my hair. It had become too much to take care of with my limited water supply and was only making me hotter. Everyone in my village had the same reaction of “Oh you must have cut your hair because its hot and so hard to wash”.

Mid hair cut.

 

Before and after the haircut. I was very impressed with my stylist, who I found in Yerevan.

 

My discarded hair.

 

I avoided leaving the house as much as possible and when I did travel to escape the heat, I planned my travel early in the morning when the heat wasn’t as severe. When I wasn’t traveling, I simply hid in my house and spent my days knitting.

Some yarn I
‘collected’ this summer.

 

The week after the most miserable weather brought a cyclone from Russia and the Black Sea. I felt like crying tears of happiness at the smell of rain. For four days, the heat and sun subsided and I enjoyed drinking tea in the morning and even wore pants a few times. In all reality, it was still 75 degrees but it was an amazing break from the heat.

My village after the rain.

 

Since the cyclone, the heat has returned but has not been as severe. It hovers around 90-95 degrees and is much cooler at night. Everyone here (Armenians and Americans) says fall weather truly does arrive on Sept. 1.

 

Despite the weather related miseries this summer, I did also have a little fun. Here are some of my favorite summer memories:

  1. In July, I attended ACCESS Camp, an English program run all over the world by the U.S. Embassy. In Armenia, the program is also partnered with COAF (Children of Armenia Fund). The camp was held in Dilijan in northern Armenia where the weather is cool and pleasant in the summer. Besides escaping the heat, the camp was a chance to see Armenian youth learn and develop their talents and leadership skills. At the end of the camp, we went on a field trip to a local monastery in Dilijan.

Students in my ACCESS group working hard on a presentation. I was constantly impressed with their language skills and creativity.

 

At Haghartsin Monastery in Dilijan, Armenia.

 

2. Everyone says the first summer at site isn’t for work: its for integration. This summer, I spent a lot of time getting to know my host mom and her family. I spent time eating dinner with them and telling them about my life in the U.S. In an almost comical play of fate, my Armenian host family members are employed as pig farmers (the same profession as my family in the U.S.) Using my minimal Armenia, I enjoyed discussing the differences in farming practices with them for many long hours.

With my four year host cousin who is excitedly awaiting becoming a big brother for the second time.

In late July, I attended a party with my host family. This event was held to commemorate the young men who served in the military during a war last year. There was a band that sang military songs and many toasts made to the young men who died for their country. Unfortunately, I was experiencing some typical Peace Corps volunteer stomach troubles during the party and didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I would have if I had been well. Thankfully the stomach troubles passed and I did still get to experience this important cultural event.

The never ending party table.

 

3. In August, I went on a trip down south to Goris. Since I live on the Ararat plain (aka the desert), I loved having the chance to see the mountains and lush trees in the south of the country. Near Goris is perhaps the most popular tourist destination in Armenia, Tatev Monastery.

The longest Arial Tramway in the world, which takes tourists to Tatev.

 

At Tatev.

 

A beautiful sunny day at Tatev.

 

Now I am back at site, enjoying my last two weeks of free time before school begins. I’m looking forward to finally being in the classroom and for the cool fall weather.

Advertisements

Bridging the Gap

There are seven women sitting in a sweltering hot room, sweating like crazy but happy to be there. These women are part of a partnership with COAF (Children of Armenia Fund) and the British Council.

This is a meeting of the Rural Teacher Development Project that is working to strengthen resources and skills in rural classrooms by giving teachers extensive training. The women participating have stuck out this pilot program for over a year, completing many extensive trainings in the process and taking time away from their homes an families because they are dedicated to their jobs.

The women attending are proud to be here and I am equally as proud to be learning from dedicated and experienced teachers. Trainings like these are what Peace Corps volunteers love to see. People from their host country who are eager to improve the lives of the next generation.

Some days as a Peace Corps volunteer, I don’t feel like I have accomplished much, but this is NOT one of those days. This partnership is worthwhile and these women have much more to teach me than I have to teach them.

Half an hour into our full day of training we are reviewing the long term plan via Power Point. We are in a special SMART classroom designed and paid for by COAF. This is a resource most communities in Armenia don’t have so we are taking full advantage of it.

The COAF funded SMART classroom that our training was held in.

Our presenter is mid sentence when the electric goes out. We all sigh. Even though I’ve only been here three months, I know power outages are not just a quick flicker. Often the electric will go out around 11am without warning and not return until 5 or 6 in the evening.

We send someone down to the director’s office. He calls someone else on his smart phone and they confirm that the electric will be out until 5pm that day. Sadly, this is a normal occurrence multiple times a week in almost every Armenian village.

We try to salvage at least half a day of training. I have my portable wifi pod and our presenter has some battery left on his computer. We all crowd around the small screen and attempt to still take advantage of the time and effort we spent to get there. (Since women do not typically drive here, arranging transportation is somewhat of a hassle).

This situation highlights one of the fundamental problems in Armenia. Somewhere there is a disconnect, a gap. Most homes have computers, cell phones (usually a smart phone) and often internet access. This is true of even the poorest villages. My school has a beautiful, newly renovated computer lab with a projector and SMART board, yet often when I attempt to hold an English club, there is no working electric and we cannot use this technology.

Speaking of the computer lab in my school: it is a wonderful resource for my students. In the modern era, children MUST have access to these things in some way. Yet despite this wonderful technology, none of my students know how to type. They have never had access to a computer class to teach them how to use Microsoft Office, how to type or how to use the internet safely. They do not know how to use Google Docs and have never learned how to properly compose an email. (Instead chess is a required subject for all Armenian children).

The SMART classroom in my own school.

Armenians do not want to be left behind in the modern era. Armenia parents want their children to learn and be successful. Many families have the ability to give their children great tool like tablets, computers and smart phones. Armenia is in many ways, longing to be a part of the modern world. But until basic infrastructure problems like electric are solved, Armenia will be caught in limbo. What I have witnessed in my time here is a country full of people who are capable of so much, and yet they lack basic things like reliable electricity. This is not the fault of the people but if I were being honest, I do not know enough about the country to know who or what to blame. Is it the fault of a power plant? The fault of the government for not stepping in? Like most things, I am sure it is a complicated problem without a single solution. The only thing I  can do as a Peace Corps volunteer is to work with what I have when I have it and let go of what I cannot control.

Peace Corps volunteers have been placed in Armenia to hep bridge gaps like this one, and that is what we will continue to do.

The Dish on Armenian Dishes – Part 2: Sweets and Treats

Anyone who has spent significant time with me knows I have a HUGE sweet-tooth. I love cookies, candy, cake, ice cream. Anything with sugar essentially.

Here in Armenia, it’s difficult to avoid sweets. Many volunteers have a hard time refusing all the sweets they are offered. I never refuse, but then again I never refused sweets in the U.S. either.

In Armenia, each home typically has a full dish of candy at all times. The dish is usually in the kitchen or living room and is brought out for coffee hour or at breakfast. When guests come over, the candy and coffee is sometimes served with any other sweets currently in the home. This could be ice cream, cake or a popular Armenian pastry called gata. (More on gata later).

Sometimes, when a new guest is invited into a home, there will be two coffee hours. When a guests first arrives, coffee will be served with candy and other treats. Almost immediately after the coffee is finished, a full meal will be served. Then, as soon as the table is cleared from the meal, more coffee and sweets will be brought out. This is an example of Armenia’s legendary hospitality. Essentially, the food never stops coming. (Now you see why many Peace Corps volunteers here gain weight).

Current candy stash at my house.

When I’m not sitting in someones home getting eating crazy amounts of food, there are ample opportunities to buy an ice cream cone on the streets of larger cities or from a local store.

Soft serve ice cream is very popular here.

 

Strawberry is one of the most popular flavors here.

The ice cream here tends to be on the richer side. Several times, I’ve had ice cream when it was really hot and instantly regretted it. (Think drinking whole milk while its near 100 degrees out). I also had a comical blunder when I first arrived involving a misunderstanding of what ice cream I was buying. I bought a some ice cream thinking it was an ice cream sandwich. The packaging was misleading to my American mind though. What I really bought was a block of ice cream. I walked away from the store, laughing but also a little embarrassed as the shop keeper told me I would need to go home and get a spoon to eat it. I didn’t have time to run home, so I simply ate my block of ice cream and looked like a truly clueless American.

The infamous block of ice cream.

My personal favorite is the variety of cakes my PST host sister makes. (She’s an AMAZING cook). One of my favorite parts about Armenia is that everything is made from scratch. I would consider myself a decent cook in the US, although I didn’t cook often. Many things in the US are not made from scratch but are instead based off mixes of items form the freezer section. Learning to make things like cakes from scratch is one of my favorite cultural integration opportunities in Armenia.

My beautiful banana cream birthday cake.

When you think of me in Armenia, just picture me siting here with my big bowl of candy and some cake.

 

 

The Dish on Armenian Dishes – Part One: Daily Meals

One of the top questions for anyone who lives abroad is “What is the food like?” “What do you eat?” “Is the food good?”.

First of all, you should know that the typical Armenia village diet is very seasonal. Because most people have a garden and an orchard, the availability of food is based on what is in season or what has been preserved and stored away for later use.

At my site, my host mom has a garden with carrots, potatoes, peppers etc. and an orchard with apple, apricot, pear, peach and cherry trees.

Right now, most of the fruits and vegetables aren’t ripe yet. I get my fresh fruits and veggies at the open air market where they have been shipped in from places with warmer climates.

Later, I’ll post about food preservation methods, but until then here are my typical daily meals.

Breakfast

Oatmeal, prepared a variety of different ways. Before I had the language skills and the confidence to request things, I was eating hot dogs, cheese and cake for breakfast during training. Sine then, I have learned to negotiate making my own breakfast and found several ways to make oatmeal here. Eating the same thing every day can be boring so here is what I do:

Oatmeal with fresh strawberries.

 

Oatmeal with cinnamon and apples.

 

Oatmeal topped with cereal and strawberries.

Besides oatmeal, I usually have tea with my breakfast. The variety of tea here is really excellent. There is a good selection of loose leaf tea, as well as bagged tea. Most Armenians are coffee addicts and I don’t partake in coffee drinking, but having tea seems to be a good compromise. I even caved and got a french press, although I usually just put a tea bag in it and use it like a regular tea pot.

Lunch

Since I’ve moved to my permanent site, I’ve begun to occasionally cook my own lunch. My diet has changed as a result and I am learning the struggles of cooking from scratch.

Dolma made with grape leaves.

Dolma is one of most popular national dishes in Armenia. Curiously, this dish is often also served as Mediterranean food or Arabic food. Personally,  think the Armenian version is the best. Dolma usually contains seasoned beef and rice. Pictured above is dolma made with grape leaves, which is the most popular method. There is also another way to make dolma using cabbage instead of grape leaves.

 

A light meal of rice with some fresh fruits and vegetables.

 

The first non-breakfast meal I prepared for myself in Armenia. Potatoes and sausage, with a side of strawberries.

Dinner

Dinner here is usually a lighter meal. I often eat cutlet paired with some kind of salad, or potato. On occasion, I will also have pasta, or buckwheat.

Cabbage salad with corn.

As I adjust to Armenian food and learn how to cook more myself, I’ve grown to appreciate all the times when I had American food prepared for me every evening. I am hopeful to be able to learn to cook American foods with the resources I have available in Armenia.

Living the Legacy

Now its official:

On June 2nd, I swore in as  a Peace Corps volunteer. Swearing in is an important day for Peace Corps because it is that day that trainees become official volunteers and then move to their permanent locations for the next two years.

This swearing in was a special day for Peace Corps Armenia because my group was the 25th cohort to swear in and serve in Armenia. Among our group was also the 1000th volunteer to serve in Armenia.

To mark this occasion, Peace Corps invited some important people to the ceremony, including to U.S Ambassador to Armenia and the acting director of Peace Corps. The ceremony went off perfectly and it was a very touching day to spend with my fellow volunteers and my host sister who also attended the ceremony.

My favorite part about the ceremony was the two videos Peace Corps Armenia released for the occasion. First was the 25 Year Legacy video which you can watch here (I may make an appearance).

This video was very close to our hearts here in Armenia. It was wonderful to see the importance of the work that we will be doing here and touching to feel that we will be living and working within the legacy of Peace Corps Armenia during our service.

The second was a music video for a song called “One World”. Peace Corps Armenia hosted a contest for Armenian artists to write a song that would capture the 25 years of friendship and cooperation between Armenia and the Peace Corps. This was the song that won and you can watch it here.

Overall, Swearing In showed me the beauty of Americans and Armenians working closely together for 25 years. I hope to think that I will have contributed to this legacy by the time I complete my Peace Corps service in Armenia.

Since I swore in as a volunteer, I have moved to Armavir Marz, where my permanent village is located. Not much is happening right now as I am still settling in to my new environment. This summer I hope to get to know my community and my students as well as host a few clubs for my students. I am also looking for a language tutor and prepping lessons for class in the fall.

 

Success Stories: PST Edition

Peace Corps service is full of accomplishments. Every volunteer has their own reasons for serving and every volunteer has different struggles and victories during their service.

Over the course of my time in Armenia, I will be doing a series called Success Stories. This series will highlight my accomplishments as a volunteer and hopefully show my progress over the course of two years.

Here are my successes during my time in PST:

  1. Learning to work the washing machine. It’s in Russian. It really loud and pretty scary. But somehow I manage to use it and have semi clean clothes on a regular basis.
  2. Finding conditioner. Again, all the beauty products are in Russian (which have I mentioned, I don’t know and we aren’t learning!?) Somehow I found a bottle in English, thankfully.
  3. Finding yarn. One of my favorite hobbies is knitting. However I didn’t bring any yarn to Armenia with me. With the help of a current volunteer, I found the only store that sells yarn in our PST hub site. I also found the yarn store in Yerevan. I may be excited but my bank account isn’t.
  4. Navigating Yerevan. I’ll be honest, I’m AWFUL with directions. I’ve been known to get lost in my hometown. in America. So navigating the capital city of Armenia seemed like a daunting task. However, I am happy to say that after spending a few afternoons there, I can manage relatively well. Sometimes I cheat and use a map, but its still harder than simply being able to ask Siri to get me where I need to go.
  5. Taking public transportation. Before coming to Armenia, my public transportation experience (in the U.S. and overseas) was very limited. Figuring out bus routes, bus stops and how to pay was very daunting to me. Since coming to Armenia I have taken three forms of public transportation: mini buses, regular buses and taxis. Although the schedules and routes (or lack thereof) still confuse me, I am now confident in my ability to at least get from my site to Yerevan in a timely and almost painless manner.
  6. Passing my Language Proficiency Interview. In order to swear in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer, I had to complete an oral Language Proficiency Interview (LPI) in Eastern Armenia. I am so happy to say that I passed two levels above the requirement to be a volunteer. Language lessons were many hours of hard work and it is wonderful to know that it has paid off in my ability to communicate.

Stay tuned for my list of summer successes as I move to my permanent site!

Ararat Appreciation: Part 1

With swearing in two weeks away, I have been reflecting on my time living in Ararat Marz. Soon I will be moving to the north west of Armenia to live in Armavir Marz for the next two years.

Before that happens here is a little slice of Ararat that I wanted to share with my followers: A few of my favorite things about Ararat Marz.

  1. My host family: My host family during PST has been one of the highlights of my everyday life. They are kind, caring people who worry over me constantly. I am too busy to cook during training so they prepare most of my meals for me. They are patient with my minimal knowledge of Armenian and have studied with me for many long hours. My host mom has corrected my spelling countless times and my host sisters help me with vocabulary and pronunciation. My youngest host sister has patiently taught me how to make Armenian dishes and graciously not got angry when I invaded her space in the kitchen. I could go on and on, but what I am realizing more and more is that I will truly miss these people.

With my host mom and sisters at Khor Virap.

2. Mt. Ararat: Growing up in Michigan, I can appreciate some good views. But living with M. Ararat in my backyard has been a wonderfully surreal experience. I remember the first day that Ararat appeared from the clouds for me to see. It felt like a picture from a post card, but in real life. Spring is when Ararat is the most visible and I have really enjoyed waking up with this view every morning.

3. The Storks: The Ararat region of Armenia is home to beautiful storks who make their nests on power polls and street lights in the villages. It is considered an honor to have a stork make a nest on your property here. Many people even make fake nests with fake storks as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

A stork nest and stork in my village.

4. I can poop inside: I’m not sure I need to elaborate. You get the point. This is not the case at my next site.

5. My host Mom’s garden: Another thing that adds to the beauty of my every day life is my host mom’s garden at the front of the house. All spring, she has had various flowers, bushes and trees blooming and creating beauty right outside my window.

 

Welcome to Armavir

During Pre-Service Training (PST) trainees are allowed to travel to their permanent site for a four day visit. I spent the last four days in Armavir Marz meeting my new host mom and learning about my school.

I recently met my English teaching counterpart who is a Teach For Armenia fellow. She has taught at my secondary school for one year and allowed me to sit in on her lessons after she showed me around the school.

My site visit was a wonderful opportunity to get to meet my students for the first time while observing their learning and language levels.

I was most inspired by the third grade class which was full of smiling students who are excited and eager to learn English. I was also very impressed with the beauty of my school which was recently renovated by the Children of Armenian Fund (COAF).

Currently I am back in Ararat Marz in my training village. Language lessons and TEFL training resume tomorrow and our swearing in ceremony to actually become Peace Corps volunteers is fast approaching.

Below are some photos of my beautiful school and my village in Armavir.

 

The cafeteria at my school

The entrance of my secondary school in Armavir Marz

An elementary classroom

My school has a small computer lab

The “smart room” at my school where teachers can take students to listen to presentations

The entry way at my school

The psychologist’s room at my school. Our psychologist is a Teach for Armenia fellow and helps students work through their problems and also works to instill confidence in them.

50 Days in Armenia

Reaching 50 days in Armenia seems like a big deal now. I am sure after two years here, it will seem like nothing, but still.

Since my last blog update I have received some exciting news: I now know where I will be living in Armenia for the next two years!

Two days ago, Peace Corps Armenia did our site announcement day and I found out that I will be living in Armavir Marz. This is a small Marz in north-western Armenia.

First of all, knowing where I will be living is HUGE. I have waited for this day for a very long time. I don’t know a lot about Armavir so far, but I am going for a visit this weekend.

During this visit, I will meet my host mom and my counterpart teacher who I will be working with for the next year.

Oh and another thing, I am the ONLY A25 going to Armavir! This is both exciting and scary for me. I am pretty close to Yerevan so I am not isolated, and it will be nice to take ownership of my Marz as I have it mostly to myself. There are a few other volunteers there, but no one from my group will be living there with me.

Stay tuned for more information about my site after my visit!

On the ma of Armenia at site announcement. Photo credit to Thong Do

Home Sweet Home: Armenia

This last week marked one month in Armenia!

When I write posts for this blog, I try to focus on two main groups of people. First is my family and friends back home who want to keep up with my travels and find out what my life in Armenia is like.

Secondly, I write for potential/future Peace Corps applicants who want to get a sense of what it would be like to live in Armenia as a member of the Peace Corps.

This post is mostly for the second group mentioned, but feel free to stick around if your simply curious about some of these things.

 

So here is my process of coming to Armenia once I had received my invitation and was all ready to go:

  1. The entire group of trainees met in Washington D.C. for what Peace Corps calls “Staging”. This is a chance for the group to get to know one another and get a basic introduction to Peace Corps expectations, rules etc. We stayed at the hotel for 4 days. Travel to the hotel was paid for by Peace Corps as well as the stay at the hotel. We also received $200 for meals and other expenses during that time. The only meal provided was breakfast at the hotel. On the last day, we were taken in two greyhound buses to the airport where we flew from D.C. to Paris via a very comfortable Air France plane and then to Yerevan. Peace Corps gave us each a $100 coupon to be used for our second checked bag so we would not have to pay for baggage fees as long as we were not overweight.
  2. Once we arrived in Armenia it was quite the process to gather the language of 40 people in an international airport, but we all worked together and managed. At the arrivals gate, we received a warm welcome from Peace Corps staff who also helped us with our baggage. Peace Corps had a greyhound type bus waiting for us in Yerevan as well as a separate truck for our luggage. Once we stepped onto the bus, there were goodie bags with snacks and electrical adapters, tissues and other small things we needed for our first few days.  Once we arrived at the resort around 1 in the morning, we were treated to a full meal and then allowed to sleep off our jet lag.
  3. After a week of orientation, we were split into groups based on our language level and then were taken to 5 different villages. For the last month, I have been learning Eastern Armenian 6 days a week within my small group. This will continue until the end of May when I will take a language test and then swear in as an official Peace Corps volunteer.
  4. Now please enjoy some random photos of my first month in Armenia: