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.

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