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.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Ari hats ger!

This will be the first of many language notes, designed to give you readers the inside scoop on the sound and character of the Armenian tongue, as well as, perhaps, a glimpse of the Armenian mind. I'm going to begin at the beginning, the foundation of Armenian life and culture, a wonderful item without which we human beings would never have known such things as wagons, firearms, sea travel, or silly walks. Yes, I speak of bread.

The Armenian word for bread is hats, pronounced with a soft "a", like the a in ball. However, in a peculiar twist of fate that stems I think from boredom and eating a lot of fish, people in my city of Martuni often pronounce the word "khats", the first sound being similar to the French r in apres, except the sound originates more in the mouth than in the throat. It's probably not a sound that you've ever made before, but for Martunetsis (locals) the regular old "huh" sound wasn't enough, at least not when they were saying something obvious. They say "khats".

The first word is pronounced "aree", and it means "get your butt over here before I tell your Tatik you buried her knitting needles in the garden." It is the imperative of the verb "to come", and also the word used to invite a person to do something. Ari genank lich means "come on, let's go to the lake". Ari haghank means "let's play". Ari kenank means "let's sleep" (variety of uses).

And finally, the word ger, which means "Eat!" This is perhaps the most spoken word in the Armenian languange. Armenian hospitality (hyoorasirootsioon, from hyoor "guest" and sirel "to love") is incredible. I literally can't walk down the street without getting invited into people's homes for coffee, vodka, homemade juice, and food. I don't know these people; it doesn't matter. In Gyulagarak women would invite me into their homes for coffee, which includes cake, biscuits, fruit, homemade juice and jam, and more, limited only by time and your insistence that you are absolutely stuffed, couldn't eat another bite. The first question I get from men on the street is "Russkie?" which means "What is your nationality?" and the second is "khmes?", accompanied by a finger flick to their own throat, signifying liquor, specifically vodka. I could drink forty shots of vodka a day if I wanted to.

The Armenian table is a magical land of plenty, laden with meat, vegetables, dolma (sort of an egg roll but wrapped in grape or cabbage leaves) (yum), matsoon (yoghurt, to go on top of the dolma), khorovats (the Armenian national pride), drinks, and, of course, hats. As you eat and they keep putting more food on your plate and you get more and more full (goosht is the Armenian word, and it sounds right, I think), more and more plates piled with food appear out of the kitchen until they are stacked on each other, there is tons of food left, and everyone is stuffed. All food, including all the items in this grand ceremony, are referred to collectively as "hats". The table is the pride of the house, the symbol of plenty, health, and family. It is undoubtedly the most important place in Armenian culture, where birthdays and wedding parties take place, where the whole family gathers, eats, drinks, sings, dances, and celebrates their life.

So don't get me wrong: when they say "Ari hats ger!", they mean it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Letter Home

Looking down on Vartablour, our neighboring village.

Here is a letter I wrote home in July that has some good stuff.

Things are well in Gyulagarak. The rains come and go, and the hills and fields are very green. The first wheat harvest has begun, and many driveways and yards are spread with hay on these hot days. The cows go out every morning, and come back in the evening. Just a few men from each village take care of all the livestock during the day, roaming the hills surrounding town which are too steep for cultivation. We have learned that cultivated land in the valley is about half of what it was during Soviet times, and that the costs of pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation, which previously were provided by the government, have made farming much less profitable here. This year is an anomaly in terms of precipitation, and in the past fifteen years this area has known serious and uncharacteristic drought.

As for the PC Trainees, we are about half way through Pre-Service Training, and we are well. We continue to spend four hours a day studying language, and our first oral test was this week. We had an all-host-family party for the 4th of July, complete with much singing, dancing, sports, and drinking. Armenian men got up to the microphone and gave toasts. One proud host father from our village crooned a dramatic and rousing love song to our country director. The oldest volunteer of our group, who was in Poland with the first PC group in 1990, sang Our Country 'Tis of Thee. Armenian pop followed with much dancing and merriment. I played frisbee and football out in the parking lot with a bunch of kids. Our families are wonderful: they really know how to treat a guest, and in my case they have made it easy to become part of the family.

Armenia continues to expand before our eyes. We EE folks have made a few trips around the North, to Dilidjan and Idjevan, meeting park employees, NGOs, and conservation organizations, as well as a bunch of current volunteers. There is an incredible diversity of life in the Caucasus region, and the Republic of Armenia, which counts for about seven percent of the region's area, is home to over 3,500 of the existing 6,000 species of plants. Large mammals are few and far between, but there are bears, lynx, wolves, deer, otters, and a number of species of endangered bats, which have been hit hard by deforestation. There is even a rare Caucasian Leopard in Southern Armenia. There are a number of National Parks and protected areas in Armenia. The system started in Soviet times; it has grown and been enriched since independence. There is also an extensive system of environmental NGOs who work with everything from green camps for kids to environmental law and advocacy.

A few notes:

The state of the environment is not great in Armenia. There are much fewer forests than there used to be, and they are getting patchier, due to overuse in Soviet times followed by earthquake and war in the early '90s that led to a huge energy shortage. In the '30s and '40s, the Soviets drained Lake Sevan for the questionable purpose of turning a huge stretch of wetlands into cultivated fields, reducing the evaporation of the Lake. They realized by the sixties, when the water level of the lake had dropped nineteen (19) meters, that what they were doing was hurting the environment, so they stopped the draining and planted poplar and pine trees near the lake. Hence the existence of Martuni's antar (forest). There are a number of protected areas and national parks in Armenia, but illegal logging is still a problem and corruption is rampant. This is a new republic, and they're working hard.

The forty-five new trainees in my group lived in six different villages around Vanadzor, a city of a hundred thousand people. We traveled every week into the Vanadzor (more often called its ancient name, Kirovakan) to meet for technical training, Peace Corps policy, medical and cultural classes, etc. Our group of volunteers is an energetic and diverse mix, forty-five strong. They vary from kids straight out of college to health educators to business professionals and IT guys to teachers to crocodile farmers. This last is from Louisiana, her name is Betty and she is a hoot.

A Smallhold Farmer

One day in July I met a farmer, Valedic, a neighbor of ours in Gyulagarak, and a great guy. He was really excited to talk, and invited me into his home.

We meet outside a little before dark on the rutted track, his sheep fat with wool crowd through the gate. They're fat, I say. He will sheer them tomorrow. I have my notebook out, questions transcribed in dark characters, pen in blue-striped shirt pocket. I am tired after many hours of partying and playing frisbee with kids all day and starring in the annual July 4th Armenia/USA football match which took place in the narrow walled-in back driveway of the restaurant. I have also now walked the streets of Gyulagarak for a couple of hours, talking with people and having them read the neatly written, closed-ended questions in my book, then respond. Data collection has been on my mind, but at this late hour, fifty yards from my doorstep, my interest lies more in meeting a neighbor.

He seems interested in the same thing. We begin to talk. The first question of the survey is: Which of the following are garbage? There is a list in Armenian following, but he is unsatisfied. Is manure garbage? No, he says, unless it's on the road. Do you use it as fertilizer? No, he says, and brings me into the yard. This, he says, holding up the corner of a heavy white plastic bag. This is fertilizer. We spread it in the garden. Is metal trash? He brings me onto the porch, to the pile of rusted metal pieces, explains, mimes building a fence. A million household uses! This is not trash.

He brings me into the house, his wife and two daughters listening, watching, serving coffee. His son is twenty and now in Karabagh in the army for his two years. The father talks, he gestures, he explains somehow before his daughter can look up the words. How do you dispose of your garbage? He piles it, but not in the street where the cows eat it and where it stinks in the summer, he keeps it on his own property. Gas is too expensive: he heats his house with dead branches and dried manure. What do you do with your free time? He has none. He pulls out his Agrivo booklet, shows me the fact cards with large pictures of tan or golden potatoes on the back side. We talk about my family and what I am doing in Armenia , he invites me back sometime soon for Vodka.

I went back to visit towards the end of the summer. We discussed our families, our work, the village, governments. He talked about Soviet times, when people were guaranteed work and a good price for their crops. Today half the land that used to be cultivated has gone to pasture. There is no work in the village, he says. His daughter is studying to be a teacher, but there is no work for her here. We ate meat and potatoes, peppers and tomatos, drank wine and let evening fall.

Center of town water fountain


Here it is, the triumphant and actual start of the blog! This is Jason Chandler writing from Armenia, in case any of you got here by accident. I've now been living in Armenia for three months and I've moved to a town called Martuni on the Southwest corner of Sevana Lich (Lake Sevan). But to start us off, I want to share some pictures and words from Gyulagarak, my first stomping grounds and home here in Hyastan.

Brothers Narek and Garnik in Gyulagarak


She stands in the garden
Among the Cartopheel plants
Smiles, says Barev.
We gather close
And look at each other
And speak some words
And say Hajor in parting.
We smile
We know that we are friends
And we will see each other again soon


The morning was cold, but the day quickly turned hot. Now the clouds have built over the lush, green pasture hills that surround the valley. The forested hillsides are a mossy green, it is bright and warm, and a few raindrops have begun to fall. A young cow grazes on grass and bushy flowers, the vegetation thick with rich, damp soil beneath. A hen picks its way along, bobbing and pecking at the earth beneath the apple and pear trees.

An old Land Rover nudges by on the muddy road. Its passengers smile, honk, and wave at me. Garlic, onions, peas, cucumbers, and potatoes grow in neat rows in the garden plot. A young boy, four years old, pushes his bright yellow convertible up to the "Kochrosh" bushes, where he stops, picking and munching on the tiny tart fruits. Rows of tall sticks rise out of one plot, and over the summer pea plants will wind their way up towards the sun. An old, gray-green dump truck sits by the shed, in between the garden and the house. It is propped up with one tire missing, and faded white Russian letters decorate the driver-side door.

A bald, grass and rock pyramid rises from across the river to the west, standing to the garden in partial view. A higher ridge rises to south, massing the big billowy clouds that often stretch over the valley. The neighbors' brick and stone house stands quiet across the path next to a house made entirely of rusted sheet metal. More structures stand in all directions with shingles or tin roofs, trees everywhere. The smell of cows, rain, and the garden fill the air.

the local church and school