Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thanksgiving in Dprabak

I took off for Dprabak this weekend, a small refugee village located in a deep, wooded gorge north of Beautiful Lake Sevan. Jessica, an EE volunteer from northern California, has been living there for more than a year. She has a little cabin with electricity (sometimes), a wood stove, and water a manageable walk away. Her cabin is right on the corner of the village, and just a step outside reveals a magnificent gorge, big snowy peaks rising on all sides. The full moon reflecting off new snow fully illuminated a couple of fascinating night hikes.

Jessica, with a pieced-together Khachkar

Dprabak’s used to be called “Chai-kent”, an older, Turkish name. Due to the shifting borders and even more fluid cultural exchanges in and around Armenia, you often have to remember two or even three names for each village you would like to find. Chai-kent was populated by Azeris until around the breakup of the USSR, when Armenian soldiers probably came through and drove them out. The Armenians who live there now are refugees from Azerbaijan who moved in during the war. Many of them have connections in Yerevan or elsewhere in Armenia and, according to Jessica, aren’t really looking to improve the way of life there. Instead they are just staying in Dprabak until they can get out. Illegal logging is by far the easiest and most profitable way to get some quick cash, say for a wedding or an engagement party. With no gas in the village, it is the only way to heat their houses for the cold winter.
the Cabin
We had a great Thanksgiving meal, with two roasted ducks, mashed potatoes, stuffing, veggies, wine, homemade beer, and plenty of pie. Five other volunteers also showed up for the festivities. The first night, Rud made a mulled drink, combination of apples, rosehip juice, wine, vodka, spices, and whatever else he felt like throwing in there. This drink was bubbled on the stove and upon tasting was dubbed “the Mull”, a thick, rich, devastating concoction that reduced even the hardiest members of our group to a mull-ignant and mull-icious haze. The following picture should illustrate its mull-titudinous effects.
Rud (right) and Kevin (who doesn't drink, but in this photo is clearly plastered, proving the mull-contented effects of "second-hand mull")

On Sunday Jessica and I took a walk up to the top of the ridge and down to the old vank (church) between Dprabak and a neighboring village. It is called Dzoravank ("Church of the Gorge"), as is the village that lies below it on the valley floor.

The picture below shows the vank and another village whose name I forget. See those white mountains in the distance? Over that ridge is Lake Sevan. The plan for this spring is to explore on foot, and this region is high on the list.

I want to send a shout out to all the folks who have been reading and commenting on the blog. It means so much to know that people are reading and enjoying, getting a little window into this world. Questions, comments, new readers? -- send 'em my way.

Thanks so much, everyone! May you all be happy and healthy and be with those you love.


Thursday, November 22, 2007


Ooh, the internet's working fast today. Here are some pictures from a trip with the other EE volunteers to beatiful Dilidjan in Tavush Marz. We took a walk from Parz Lich ("Clear Lake") to Gosh Monastery, located in a beautiful, green little hillside town which reminded me of northern India.


Art Show

A couple weeks ago I put a poster up advertising a "Nature-Themed Art Show/Contest". In my clubs that week we collected leaves and berries from around the school and pasted them on paper, like so...

Before I knew it, submissions were flowing in. We received seventy-seven (77) pieces of art in the following two weeks. The quality of some of them just blew me away, and they were all from fifth through ninth graders.
We had a three day exhibition in a spare classroom, and the kids and teachers could vote on their favorite pieces. The response was incredible -- I think most of the six hundred kids of the school came in, looking, pointing, laughing, voting. They were so excited about shouting out their choice that even after the voting was closed they would shout at me: "I'm number 37! I'm number 6!" I was like, "That's great, good job."

I kept the kids in suspense for about a week as I went to Yerevan for the annual All-Volunteer Conference, and where I bought prizes for the winners. A friend Stepan owns a tiny print/copy shop on the main street in Martuni and we were able to make some nice certificates. With the school director's signature and stamp they were positively official!

The kids got so excited about the whole deal -- I was amazed by the art, the enthusiasm, everything, and the teachers loved it too. I'm thinking of taking the show on the road to other PCV's schools, bringing the winning pictures plus some others such as the one above that really represent Martuni's environment and environmental issues.

The picture above depicts a tree that was planted by the Soviets close to the shore of the shrunken Lake Sevan. A huge amount of Lake Sevan was drained in the 1930s and 40s, ostensibly for the purpose of turning its surrounding wetlands into pasture land. They realized by the 50s that their actions were disastrous for the water quality of the lake and caused an immense loss of wetland habitat for the once enormous diversity of migratory birds who made Lake Sevan their home. Today the lake is rising again, which environmentalists think is a good thing, but the rise is mitigated by the lakeside Soviet forests and by the numerous "rest houses" that have been built right up to the edge of the smaller lake.

The environmental problems in Armenia are not small, and won't be easy to improve, but perhaps a population of active, interested students can make a difference. Also, if we can model and propagate creative teaching methods that encourage free thought and community action, we just might see some change around here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Khachkars of Noratus

After chilling in Martuni for another day after the party, Eloise and I headed for a village called Noratus, near the city of Gavar, where on a hill just lakeside of the village there is a great expanse of standing khachkars, the striking and beautifully carved “cross stones” that date from medieval times. The old women who sit among the stones approached us with their many-colored handmade socks, then once we had taken pictures and bought a little dried fruit returned to sitting and drawing the wool into yarn by hand.
Liana and Arman
A young girl in a red jacket appeared and offered to show us the stones. She guided us around to the classic khachkar with blooming cross, dove wings below, hanging pomegranates above, and showed us depictions on another stone a wedding with the laid table, parents, jugs of wine, and on another shepherds with their animals.
On the back of this stone is a snake emerging from a fish’s mouth. The children didn’t know what the image meant, but they said that it was the oldest stone in Noratus. When asked where they learned all these symbols and stories, they said that Samvel, a very old man of the village, had taught them.
The size of the khachkars was amazing, and they stood as much as three feet high on base stones. One can imagine the whole village coming together at the time of death and raising the beautiful stone into its place. Even today in Armenia a funeral draws half the village, all of whom probably have some connection to the deceased, walking in a huge mob up the road to the cemetary.
When we had wandered for hours among the ancient stones, we passed through them and realized that this cemetary was vast. Outside the estimated 900 ancient stones that sit or lie in that field, there are areas totaling two or three times that full of newer plots. Most modern Armenian gravestones have a picture of the deceased, done in hundreds of tiny indentations on the stone, below the cross. Most stones are in a fenced-off family plot, often with a stone table and benches where the family comes once in a while to picnic. Looking at all the faces in the graveyard was a little jarring at first for me, but I got used to it. People visit regularly, bring flowers and the whole family. The gerizmanots (cemetary) is a living place, and a beautiful one.


The Party Master with Dr. McTasty

My site mate’s name is David Barshes. He’s from Chicago, he’s been living here for a year, and he’s a CBD (Community Business Development) volunteer. He works with a few local NGOs and businesses, he has a lot of Armenian friends, and he loves Halloween.

Hasmik, Eloise, Armen

The party was a bilingual blast complete with bat-shaped cookies, m&ms, and pumpkin carving. The result of failed icing was a gooey, vaguely chocolate-flavored cookie dip. Eloise, a volunteer from the nearby city of Sevan, came as a “sweet dream”, in black and decked out with candy necklaces.

Johanna and Eloise

Armenians don’t usually celebrate Halloween, but some of them dressed up -- we had Al Capone, dark robes, and masks, though most of the guys forsook dancing and drank vodka shots all evening...
McTasty, Satan (Mikael), Armen, Vartan

There was much toasting and dancing, Armenian and otherwise. An exciting discovery was made: it turns out that Armenians, too, gotta have the funk.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

"Voi!" or The Family

Sona, setting up the cards for US "Risk"

Among men “tsav’d tanem” may be the most used phrase, but among women it’s gotta be “Voi!” There’s the quick “Vie!”, emphasis on the “i”, expressing surprise. There’s a more drawn out version, with a longer “o” sound, often with voice raised, expressing disdain. And then there’s the repeated “voi voi voi!”, meaning “oh, my back!” and used when reaching for something deep under the couch. It is also used like “Wow!” when something is surprisingly good. Women will throw it in at the end of any slightly vexed sentence, no pause beforehand and no emphasis, like “Well then why don’t you get your ass in the kitchen and make some dinner voi.” My host sister Sona will yell it louder and louder over the phone with her best friend Julia when there’s a disagreement, sometimes throwing in a shrill, high-pitched “Khri?!”, a harsh and indignant cry meaning “why?” She also uses “Vekhk!” a lot, a rough and nasty sound, expressing absolute disgust.

My host family is great. I’ve been living with them for two and a half months now. Alla, the mom, is wonderful. She prepares all food, does all laundry and cleaning, keeps her teenagers in line, and on top of that lectures medical students at the local hospital six hours a day. She is an Armenian mom, and so keeps up a steady stream of questions: “are you cold?...are you hungry?...eat!...where are you going?...sit down!...let me do that...eat!” etc., but instead of being strict and stern she has a wonderful sense of humor and frequently laughs long and hard at herself and anyone else in range.

Alla’s domain, preserved from time immemorial, is the household. She is responsible for everything from shopping to getting up and bringing us a fork or a glass of water when we’re eating. She takes pride in her role, and feels more comfortable mopping or washing dishes than sitting around. She loves it whenever I make dinner or help with the dishes or just give her a heartfelt thank you.

Artak, the man of the house, is in charge of the cooking and heating gas flow for six of Martuni’s seventeen surrounding villages which stretch up and down the coast of Lake Sevan. In the family, his domain is breadwinning, building and repair. He works every day of the week for the gas company and spends every other minute either maintaining the house, repairing the car, or drinking a cup of tea or a tiny cup of coffee with a cigarette. (He does this many times a day, using the saucer as an ashtray.) He is generally laid back and speaks in a soft, low voice. Maybe once a week he comes home from drinking with his friends, a wild man: he howls, he rants, he hoots and hollers, lots of hugs and kisses for everyone and maybe a playful kick in the pants.

Artak and Alla’s daughter Sona is sixteen years old. She has light skin and brown hair and loves it when we’re together somewhere and people ask if she is an American. Her English is incredible, considering she has only seriously studied it for about a year. It is her secret language, and she uses it to talk to her friend Julia on the phone when they don't want anyone else to hear. Sometimes she forgets that I'm there, too.

Sona is very bright and in her last year of high school, which means that she rarely goes to school and instead spends hours every day at private lessons in English and Armenian language, or doing homework for them. She is a focused student, so much so that it is alarming how consumed she is by her trues loves: music television, clothes, and gossiping about her friends. She has a healthy but admittedly diminishing obsession with Brad Pitt. She will take exams this summer, hoping to get into one of the Universities in Yerevan and study to become a translator or a psychologist.

There is a dichotomy in Sona’s personality that I have trouble understanding. She has a great desire to learn and achieve in her classes, and a great capacity for hard study, yet when it comes to her personal life: friends or possessions or even card games, she is like an addict. Whenever something is unfavorable she whines and cries like an eight year old. However, when she is crying, she’s equally ready to burst into laughter at the smallest quip. (Literally. I don't know how better to describe this.) She sings sappy American or Armenian ballads all the time, and sometimes she sings “Oh, Darling!” (which she heard from me), annunciating each word with her Armenian accent. “Ohhhoh darliNG! Pleeese belEEVE me!” She hates most music I play, as I despise hers.

Her brother Hacob is fourteen, and he shows an admirable disregard for the rigors of his formal schooling. Armenian grade school classes are based on rote memorization and recitation in front of the class, a method that is often very stressful for the student. Imagine the child standing in front of the class, expected to recite last night’s lesson word for word, with the teacher correcting every false utterance or pause and the rest of the students shouting “Yes asem! Yes asem!” (“I’ll say! I’ll say!”) Most kids take rapid breaths, speaking awkwardly and without feeling, spitting out the words like a stock ticker, their eyes staring at nothing. But Hacob is somehow relaxed. He knows he’s not the best student and doesn’t try to be. Unlike his classmates he just doesn’t care enough or doesn’t marshal enough energy to get nervous about it.

For better or worse, this apathy tends to extend to the rest of his life as well. He’s a boy and so doesn’t do any housework, but he sometimes tags along and watches whatever Artak is fixing. He also rides and repairs bicycles in the summer with his friend, Narek. Otherwise, Hacob is a total slob, unapologetic. He’s skinny, goofy, and wears a shaggy mullet. He is apt to lie on the couch in the afternoon when the house is quiet and just make squelching noises to himself or mumble some song fragment, again and again, less and less intelligible each time, until it’s just noise and you’re sure something in his brain has ruptured and he’ll never speak true words again.

As a family, they’re close, very physical, always kissing or cuddling on the couch. They are affectionate, but volatile. Any disagreement is grounds for yelling. They yell at each other a lot, over the silliest things, in harsh tones that I can hardly believe. Yet once they’ve had their say, the argument can easily dissolve into laughter, as if there was nothing to it after all.

The apartment is small, but really nice. They have a western toilet, a gas water heater in the bathroom, nice furniture, two TVs, a fridge, and the only microwave I’ve seen in Armenia (which they almost never use). They speak both Armenian and Russian fluently, and sing songs together in both languages. One night early on in my stay when the power was out, we sat in the living room and sang for hours, Artak accompanying on the ancient guitar. My campaign against television is in full swing, but they're already used to watching several hours a day.

I joined the Peace Corps prepared for difficult living conditions, hardship, and struggle, but I didn't think the struggle would be against television and computer games. Ah well, take it as it comes. Armenia is one of the most developed Peace Corps countries, but fifteen years ago when they started here it was different. It was 1992, four years after the earthquake, during the war with Azerbaijan and the energy crisis. Water, elecricity, and gas were on and off at best, and all volunteers were placed in Yerevan (none live in Yerevan today). I heard that one volunteer, a former helicopter pilot, was tasked with rebuilding the airport's air control system. Today living conditions are much better, utilities are quite reliable, but there are still very few jobs. Most men live in Russia most of the year and send money home, coming back to their families for one to three months around Christmas.

This is one of the big reasons that David Barshes, the other volunteer living in Martuni, wants to renovate the Youth Center and hold mentoring, health, and anti-smoking classes, especially for the male youth whose fathers and older brothers aren't here. More about David and his Halloween party soon.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Winter's a-comin'

Martuni is the most beautiful I've seen it this evening. An early season snow last night gave way to a cold autumn day, with great clouds billowing not up but across the sky, beyond them a deep, brilliant blue. Snowy peaks stand out like ancient elders on the horizon: to the south a dry range capped with snow, to the west one gigantic peak, standing above the rest, the Grandfather, as great and far away as you can imagine. To the north across the lake a long range hugs the coastline, their tops shrouded in clouds, the most distant peaks tiny and lumped in a line like the wall of a sand castle. It all stands, eternal, catching the reds and pinks of a setting sun, just visible, shooting rays around a huge dark cloud that hangs next to the Grandfather on the western skyline. The air is clear and cold like a block of ice.

The kids were wonderful today, twenty of them but with Lala's help it was a breeze. We taught the food chain, outside in the cold wind, the kids choosing animals or plants to be and building a pyramid, declaring their connections with the plants and animals above, below, and around them. My great appreciation goes to Joseph Cornell ("Sharing Nature With Children") for his activities, games, and great ideas.

I just talked to Emma Groetzinger online, a chance encounter. She is in Peru, heading back to Colombia soon, working on Peace Education with teachers in Bogota. I am reminded once again of how many friends I have who are living abroad and in the US, helping people, working for peace and freedom and justice. More power to all of you!

H.H. the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal today, honoring his lifelong advocacy of religious harmony, nonviolence, and human rights, as well as his efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Tibet issue through dialogue with China. The Medal is the United States' highest civilian honor, and was presented at a ceremony attended by President Bush, in spite of China's protests.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Transects and Cherubs

The Crough

This year, the EE volunteers decided to organize a mentoring project, to encourage collaboration between new and older volunteers and specifically to assist the new volunteers in implementing a community project within their first three months of service. So I went to Hrazdan to work with my friends Jason and Scott for four days.

Back in Soviet times, a huge electric plant and a cement factory were built in the area of villages forty kilometers north of Yerevan, near Tsakghadzor, Armenia’s only ski resort. With all the jobs created by the new factories came a huge number of Soviet-style flats and the incorporation of the surrounding villages into one new cement-clad city: Hrazdan.

The Compass-Bearer

Jason Rhoades is a lanky, bearded, blue-eyed New Englander with a bag full of plants. He plays a mean banjo. He is studying in the Masters International program through his school on the UP, Michigan, so his service here is part of a Masters in Forestry. We set out on these four days to sample soil and count vegetation at various points on one slope near Hrazdan. This slope has sections of pasture, 87-year-old forest, and a similar forest that was cut during the early nineties’ energy crisis. This “cut” section has not been managed, and now has as many as fifteen or twenty saplings growing from each stump. These saplings have to compete with each other, and the forest could regenerate better were these small trees to be thinned. The goal of Jason’s study is to test the soil at twelve points in each of the three sections, and provide a vegetative representation of the different areas through counting of the overstory, seedlings, saplings, and ground cover. We expect some sort of correlation between living flora and soil quality.

So we set out at dawn one morning to survey the area of our study, a mostly forested ridge facing the huge industrial area of Hrazdan, complete with cement smokestacks and gigantic gray cooling towers reminiscent of a nuclear power plant. The trees are oak, hornbeam, maple, and ash, in order of frequency, the older forest being mostly oak. We mapped out three sections of 100x125 meters and got to work, dropping transects (lines) down the slope at randomly generated points. We traveled the transects, digging holes and counting plants, Scott (our soil man) taking bulk density samples with a fancy device from a Yerevan University, Jason and I sampling vegetation from five places around every point.

The Caucasus is a mixing ground, a largely treeless, dry, high elevation mountain range with winds from Russia, Europe, Persia, Mesopatamia, and an incredible diversity of plants, even when there appears to be little life on the ground. Knowing none of the local or English names of the plants, our primary task was coming up with memorable, descriptive names like “Hairy Purple”, “Monster Cabbage”, “Alveola”, and “Tri-Saw”. Sometimes we dug holes for Scott, but he worked mostly alone, occasionally releasing a highly realistic Wookie scream into the forest. Jason had planned a week for the research, but our somewhat difficult PC Program Manager (who in their opinion offers no support, only restrictions) confined us to four days. So we worked like dogs, running uphill and down, measuring slopes and bearings and aspects, digging meter-deep holes in soil that is half rock, narrowly avoiding capture by countless flighty cherubs. Exhausted, we took our friend Vartan’s taxi home each night at dark, made food and drank beer, switching soil bags and pressing our plant samples (Jason will bring them to his Armenian botanist friend for identification). It was good, hard work, a relief of sorts from teaching classes where I can barely understand students’ responses and a lot of unquantifiable “community integrating” (read: hanging around). Other vols came and stayed with us in Jason’s place, we played and sang old folk tunes into the evening.

Scott hard at work

As for the mentoring aspect, it was great to spend this time with some more experienced volunteers, see what they're doing, and I plan to organize an environmental photo/art/poetry contest at my school in the next month. Hopefully we can get a bunch of submissions and hold an exhibition at school. I think it would be a great thing for parents to come and see, a creative and fun thing for kids to do.

Back in Martuni now, life goes on. We had the first ever "Martuni Clean-Up Day" Wednesday, run by a local NGO, which included a march through town with t-shirts, banners, speeches, pamphlets, and a hundred and fifty schoolchildren, but no bags or gloves or actual cleaning was involved. When I asked the leader when we would clean up, she seemed annoyed by the question, said "Tomorrow and the next day" but there were no events scheduled. It's a good thought, I think, and it could be a good start, but action is necessary.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Hacob, myself, cousin Anna, statue below Erebuni

My host family and I went to visit family in Erebuni, which was the ancient capital of Armenia, two thousand eight hundred years old, sitting atop a hill in what is now Southeastern Yerevan. From his castle there King Argishti could survey his kingdom and the surrounding hills in case of an invasion.

Today the walls of the apparently ancient fortress have been built up and capped with cement, which as to what is new and what is old. In one section of the fortress there were some clearly very old stones, the remains of the king's pre-Christian church, with ancient Armenian writing, a script of triangles and lines, on its stones. This was the writing used in the kingdom of Armenia before Mesrob Mastots gathered and compiled the letters of the current Armenian alphabet in the early fifth century C.E.

one of the old chambers of the fortress

the King's sigil

Monday, October 1, 2007


The stars were out in full tonight, Milky Way and all, as we took the long walk back from the lakeside. Felt like winter, especially with the chilly breezes off the water. Looking at the lake with the fish line out, I felt like all my memories and thoughts could pass before me, unproduced and free, open, traceless, appearing in all their forms without disturbing the radiant space, the open sky, the rippling water.

Recently I was down in the forest, and I tried out this bird call my parents always used when we were walking in the woods. It goes “pshhh...pshhh...pshhh...pshhh” -- like that, and then you stop and listen for a bit and call again. I found a good spot in some bushes, with some higher trees a bit distant, but nowhere for the birds to perch near me except for at my level. I was barefoot, squatting under a bush, making the call and looking and listening. Within a minute or two a group of little brown/white finches approached, and before I knew it they were jumping around in the bushes about ten feet from me, checking me out, very interested. We watched each other, and they gave out their short, sharp calls. After a couple of minutes I heard a magpie’s call from above me, and I looked up to see the bird, iridescent shining black in the evening light in sharp contrast with sharp white on the wings and belly, flying a wide but visible circle around me. I slowly turned to the chichran bushes where it might have come from, and noticed another magpie perched on the top of the nearest bush, clearly visible. How long had he been watching me? Then two more cousins, in the poplar nearby, then at least eight, scattered and grouped, hopping around in the bushes, watching, maybe thirty feet away. It’s a regular cinema here, I’m thinking, and suddenly they begin to take off. With harsh cries and flapping of wings they take to the air, following each other north toward the lake, and I realize there are a dozen, twenty, must be fifty birds flying after each other across the field and away.

Every time I go and walk quietly or just sit in the woods I see something amazing. Frogs sunning on a stream’s bank. A spider’s web. A hawk perching nearby, spreading its wings and soaring away. The natural world is a wonderful place, and it will quickly return to normal around you if you can still your body and your mind. Fall is an incredible time to be outside, especially on the East Coast where many of you are. Don’t forget to get outside and enjoy it!


Men walking by in suit coats and baseball caps
boys standing on the corner, looking, laughing, grinning
Women with long colorful skirts, high heels, dark eyes,
hair immaculately colored and shaped
dragging their kids by the arm along the dirt streets
behind the Soviet apartment buildings
Young Armenians with rosy cheeks
Children squatting in the lot, picking up stones
or kicking the football through empty goal posts
Tatiks with multicolor bandanas and purple sweaters
faces lined and grooved with sun and time
warding off the early fall

Friday, September 28, 2007

Tsav'd Tanem

Caro and Coryan at the beach

Plato pointed out that when you carefully examine human utterances you discover the preferred letters and sounds of a language fall on a continuum, a continuum conditioned by the specific and sometimes strange workings of the human mouth. The English sounds so familiar to us developed in different ways from Chinese sounds or Arabic sounds or Nepali sounds did, for instance. We’re all using more or less the same human mouth, but the ways we use this dextrous organ are incredibly diverse. Thus, wherever you’re from, you will find sounds in other languages that simply do not correspond to your own. Some languages have more sounds, more and subtler divisions on the continuum, some have fewer.

Armenian has a few more than English. They have a sound between the hard “Kuh” and soft “Guh” that we know, as well as between our “Juh” and “Chuh”, “Duh” and “Tuh”, “Buh” and aspirated “Puh”. They also have a “Tse”, a “Tsuh” and a “Dzuh”, a “Khuh” that you scratch from the top of your mouth, a similar “Ghuh” that instead comes from your throat, a rolled “R”, and the seemingly compound letters “Vo” and “Yev”. “Yev” by itself means “and”, and appears in the words “Yevropa” (Europe), “Yeva” (Eve), and “Yerevan”, the capital.
Armenian grammar is significantly different than English, and every personal form (I,you,he,we,you(formal),they) has its own ending, or “auxiliary”. The simple auxiliaries for the present tense are “em”, “es”, “e”, “enk”, “ek” and “en”. For most verbs in English, we have two or three present forms, e.g. I/you/we/they “do”, he/she/it “does”. “Walk” and “walks”. Two forms. Since each personal form is distinguished by the ending, sometimes they’ll drop the pronoun for ease of use. What this means for me in practice is a fumbling search through the endings, coming up with “I” instead of “he”, “you” instead of “they”. Why am I telling you this?

I want to introduce perhaps the most used phrase in the Armenian language, an expression of compassion and understanding. In male conversation especially this is the big one, occurring rapidly and frequently, an expression that flows like water or like wine, reassuring, lubricating, expressing mutual suffering, concern, compassion, and brotherhood. The phrase is pronounced “tsav’d tanem”. Literally it means “I’d take your pain”. However, tsav’d tanem often actually means: “Gotcha, now listen to me while I tell you how it is.”

These people love their families. It is impossible to overemphasize how powerful their hospitality is, how much they love to see their family and friends happy and healthy and well fed, how central this condition is to their lives and character. When you’re in their house, they offer everything from food to coffee to fruit to vodka as many times as it takes for you to accept it. And when you offer them something they refuse many times before grudgingly accepting. Good luck walking away from any interaction, especially a first meeting, without gifts for the road and a full belly. This can be frustrating at first for a person from a culture as straightforward as ours. If you want something in America, and it’s offered, you take it. It’s amazing: kids will not accept food or gifts for me, that is unless I really push it. However, in Armenia you’ll never see a grabby or ungrateful guest, and, if you are the guest, you’ll never feel underappreciated.

The other thing is that these people love to talk, love to tell you how to solve all your problems, and love to tell all about their own in eight different ways. This is part of the reason why tsav’d tanem is so well used. When they talk with each other, they have to work to get a word in. I am told that Martuni people are colder than in the rest of the country, that the inhabitants are much like the abundant rocks of our region: staunch and rough. I will agree that on the whole they are not cheery, that they’re a little pissed off there’s no work and all their relatives live in Russia, sending back money and returning for only a month every year. And that the Lake, the Jewel of Armenia, the Sea (tsov) as they call it, is a shadow of its former abundance. But they treasure their children and their joy comes from other people. They have their roots, and their roots are deep.

Host brother Hacob

Hasmik, Hacob, Sona, Narek

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Walk

Went for a great walk yesterday. Took off South through town and up into the hills past the cemetary, then struck a bit more East and ended up in this wide, half-eroded bowl with a little vank (housed shrine) near the entrance. Men from the nearby village drive up during the day and hay the rather steep slopes, a big truck lumbering up through the pass at dusk to collect. Saw hawks, even one sitting perched on a rock near and above me on the slope. He sat as I circled around below, hearing the cries of the wild (or stray?) dogs, then finally turned full profile for a moment and took off over the valley.

As I climbed further and came over a shadowy ridge, I saw a fox running away and out of the slanting sunshine. Out here it's kind of like the highlands of Tibet, kind of like Kansas: dry and rocky with grasses and thorny plants and lichen, a perfect pale blue sky and vast peaks rising in the distance. There are summer villages up higher away from the towns, where villagers live for most of the summer, grazing their cattle, growing and gathering hay for the whole winter when they march back down closer to the lake.
As I continued along the ridge, I suddenly discovered a small, bedless stream running through the grass. I followed and found a most unlikely pond nestled in the flat summit of the ridge. Where is this coming from? Then I hear rushing water, and follow the sound up to the source. It's an open-air V-shaped cement waterway, spilling off to two sides, stretching up the ridge for miles, as far as the eye can see. Well, the sun was gone behind the Eastern mountains at this point, so I left the mystery of the pipe for another day and took off back towards town. I started a dozen ducks from the other pond who flew wide circles in formation around me until I was far away. The water runs down towards Vagheshain, Martuni's closest village, but where does it come from?

Monday, September 17, 2007


Returned yesterday from Yerevan exhausted, spent, hungry, and broke. The forty thousand dram I brought with me vansihed like seeds in the wind. Yerevan is alive, bustling, beautiful! People there are going in a thousand different directions; they're happy, driven, hopeful, free. Everywhere you go are new buildings, great trees, cool bars and shops. There is the huge, grand opera house, surrounded by outdoor cafes with sofas and pool tables, perfect weather in the cool evenings for sitting outside. There are beautiful women everywhere, women with character and style, fresh, young, living in a new and changing world. There is a lake that becomes an ice-skating rink in the winter, that sits in a green square facing tall buildings across the streets. There is the Cascade, six hundred steps with huge fountains and sculpture and a view of the whole city from the top. There are crafts shops and bowling alleys and everywhere people speak English as well as this ancient but ever-changing tongue we've picked up.

Only once have I had such a comforting experience in a city: that was Kathmandu, the narrow streets, crowds and rickshaws, brightly-colored signs exploding from all the buildings, filling the air, the Royal Palace, the mopeds passing in front and behind you, khukri knives in leather sheaths for sale on every corner, hip little open-air bars and thangka shops. Coming from the villages, having lived there for three months, Yerevan's beauty and vibrance -- the people! -- soothe and excite the senses. I return with renewed drive and purpose, knowing that our work is going somewhere, having met new friends, feeling my identity with this world.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The First Club

My counterpart Lala (a biology teacher at School #2, a wonderful woman) and I decided to try the first meeting of the environmental club with 8th and 9th form kids: fourteen year olds, or thereabouts. Some of them had worked with Eric last year. Eric was the EE volunteer who requested that another volunteer be placed in Martuni this year with this school and this counterpart. We met when I first visited Martuni in mid-July. The ease with which I have slid into place here is largely due to his efforts.


And so we found ourselves on a Friday afternoon walking to the forest with thirty-two teenagers of various shapes and sizes, all talking, laughing, pointing out things, me trying to talk about nature and what we could see and hear and smell as we walked down the paved and potholed road that leads gradually downhill to the forest and the beach. We pass a pine forest before bardis(poplars), great tall leafy ones, start rising on our left. All of these trees were planted in Soviet times, I believe, after the forests that once surrounded Lake Sevan had been cut. Chichran bushes, with sour berries that have turned bright orange in the coming fall, stand in a thick clumpy wall between us and the rocky bed of the Martuni river. The lake, a deep blue window, rises between stands of bardis in the distance up to a perfectly straight horizontal line. That line, in turn, gives way beyond to a big dreamy range of mountains, my current hiking fantasy. Can I swim the ten miles...with my pack...and make it back for dinner?

The place I had chosen for the excursion is the first place along the road that you can walk in and feel like you’re in a forest. The bardis are sixty feet tall, and the magpies and smaller birds have plenty of high hiding places up there, with more forest to fly into should they so wish. We stop under a couple of trees that stand together by the road, one of them with six trunks shooting upwards and out, leaving an easily climbable space in the center.

We eat some food and the kids run to the nearby water hole for a drink. Along the river here are places where pipes come out of the ground and produce drinkable water, all the time. These ever-flowing faucets seem to be everywhere in Armenia, at any elevation, often coming out of a nicely carved piece of rock along the roadside. The long-distance bikers who travel through love it. After a week and a half of cold, rainy weather when I arrived here in August, it has been beautiful and sunny for several weeks. It is a hot, clear day.

What's all this then?

When we’re done eating, Lala and I gather up the kids. These kids have been asking me insistently every day, “When are we going to the forest?” They’re either really excited about environmental protection or they really want to see what I might do. I hope it’s both. I say to them, “I’ve heard you guys are interested in environmental protection. But I don’t know you all quite yet, and I want to know if you’re really serious. I want to see how much trash you can pick up in the next ten minutes.”

These girls brought gloves.

You see, the start of the forest is also a big picnic zone, both for Martunetsis and folks who visit from Yerevan. There is one small gazebo in this big clearing, but there is trash everywhere. I hand out a bag to each pair of kids and they take off like horses out of the starting gate. They’re running, stuffing bags full of trash, and coming back for more. Within fifteen minutes we’ve got thirty plastic bags filled and piled by the road. Their energy is incredible.

This was the triumph of the day, the good deed. We played a couple of games from Joseph Cornell’s Sharing Nature With Children (thanks Mom), including one where we form a big circle with one blindfolded person in the center, and the kids a few at a time try to sneak in silently and steal the treasure (a bag of grapes). Joseph Cornell calls it “Sleeping Miser.” This was great fun to watch, and though the kids were eagerly whispering to me (“put me in, coach!”), they stayed pretty quiet and we had some good drama in the circle.

When we were done we walked back up the hot road, this time hauling our bags of trash. Lala did a great job -- I could never have kept all those kids together. We stopped for a photo op...

And when we reached a pile of building supplies near the highway, the kids started hurling their bags into the pile, scattering trash all over the place. I got a little irritated, but this was one contingency I hadn’t thought of. I figured we would bring it to a dumpster in town, but maybe it’ll get picked up from where we left it -- I don’t know yet. Nor do I know where the trash goes from town, although I have my suspicions.

My current conflict is that the students are so excited about the club, and so am I, but Lala’s time with us is limited, and I talk like an eight year old. Other than that, we’re rolling. I’m excited to learn what ideas these kids can come up with to change things in Martuni.

the Second Club

Sunday, September 9, 2007

August 1

It has been dry and hot for many days, but today the telltale cumulus clouds build over the southern peaks, colossal elephants slowly marching into view over the horizon. Wind-tossed butterflies, white and yellow, dip and float among the knee-high flower stalks -- all that’s left after the cow’s grazing. At night, a huge sallow moon stands in the southern sky, its light spilling out yellow, covering all, keeping the dogs restless all night.

Our neighbor, Rosa, pauses and wipes her brow with the white apron she wears. After a moment she bends again, pulling weeds from around the cabbage and corn. She gathers them all in a sheaf, wrapped in a piece of fabric, and hauls them back towards the house, lost to my sight under the low branches of the apple and pear trees. She deposits her load behind the house and heads back for another.

Sunflowers stand tall and bright in the garden. Old ladies sell little folded paper cones of their seeds on the streets like popcorn. The bean plants have grown six feet upwards in the past month and a half, twining around their six-foot poles, spreading their heart-shaped leaves for the sun. They are blossoming and forming their first tiny fruits. The potatoes have survived so far without any significant damage from beetles, and the first row has been harvested. A tractor pulling a rickety, empty cart rumbles by on the dirt track. Hay sits in the loft and in a tall pile behind the onions, blue and white plastic stretched over the top, a huge pile, the sides bare.

The four year old Narek brings out a tiny bag of sunflower seeds (it’s like one of those grape-bags, with little holes in the bottom, and the seeds fall out). He asks for a swing in the hammock, and wants to know the English word for arevatsarik, which is “sunflower”. He knows a few English words, including “notebook”, “tractor” and “film” (both the same in Armenian), “ace”, “okay”, and the recently acquired “egg”. He loves playing cards, and has been learning numbers by playing War (or Everlasting, as my family calls it). Now he points to a number, 5, in my book. He cracks a big grin, and says in a low voice, “Ohhhh...Heeeng.” Soon he is pulling on the lowest branch of the apple tree, stretching to grasp the small green fruits. Later, his mother Lucinae brings out a plate of watermelon for me.

Garnik (the grandpa) with Narek and Maretik

They have been very good to me here in Gyulagarak, and we have two weeks left together. I plan to return for a week at nor dari, new year’s, the biggest and longest Armenian holiday. It is the biggest event of the year. The men are back from Russia, everyone’s around, and the tables are set (laden, stacked, overflowing) in every home continuously for two weeks. The families start saving money in February so they can let it all hang out for this holiday, and I can’t wait to see it.

After one rough night and five days of antibiotics, the giardia in my system has quieted to a whisper. Thank goodness -- now they will let me sit outside again. I have been playing the harmonica a departing volunteer gave me, which is fun, plus no Armenian I’ve met has ever seen one before. It feels right, too, in the village, on a lazy afternoon or when the wind’s picking up in the evening. Blowing on the harp.