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.