Wednesday, October 1, 2008

New Green Camp Idea

The first real snow came last night, covering the nearby high peaks with white caps. In town we had just rain, but it's already starting to look like winter up in that no-man's land.

Made a trip to Ijevan this past weekend, and met with Artsrun and Arko to talk about Green Camps plans and get the reporting done for our sponsors this year: the US Embassy and the Center for Agrobusiness and Rural Development (a USDA funded Armenian organization).

Our biggest idea for next year is to expand Green Camps to include what we think of in the States as a full overnight camp. We want to host at least two of next summer's camps at a guest house in the woods near Ijevan. This new setting would allow us to invite four groups of children and counselors at a time from different regions, and to engage these diverse groups in a genuine overnight camp experience including fire-building, tent-camping, and wilderness skills training, as well as other evening activities such as environmental film showings and discussions, music and sing-a-longs, s'mores, ghost stories, the whole nine yards. In addition, built into the camps will be training and planning time for each group of campers to develop a community project that they will implement upon their return home.

We would still do a couple of standard, tried-and-true Green Camps in the applicant communities which show the most promise and enthusiasm.

That's the big idea, now the challenge is to plan it and sell it to those in country who control the development funds. We think the new plan would preserve the good qualities of the camps while adding a mind-changing sort of immersion experience for the young people who join us. We are excited about the change!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Shores of Maine or Beyond the Sea

Life is good, folks! Every time I come back to this blog I've got way too much to relate...
Here's this post in a nutshell:

-The Last Green Camp, Vaghatin
-Mid-Service and the End of Beard Chicken
-Back to Armenia
-The Banjo

We finished up Green Camps in Vaghatin, a beautiful little gorge-side village down South near the town of Sisian. It was my first visit to the site where Brett Colson lives, one of my good friends from way back in our training village Gyulagarak. It was also the first camp where the Americans stayed with the host family.

Vaghatin kids

Before my arrival I had heard rumors of a rambunctious family, proud of their delicious homemade vodka. Cory and Robert are two other volunteers in the area, and they were regular visitors and partakers of the incredible homemade, which I came to know as "the Bomb". Brett's Tatik, a woman with grown grandchildren and an easy smile, distinguished and relaxed, greeted me as we first walked in the door, and exclaimed, "I am Brett's Tatik! I take care of him. I am Cory and Robert's Tatik too! Now I am YOUR Tatik! I will take care of you!" she laughed loudly.

What can you say? "Yes." Arevik and the rest of her lively family treated us to a lot of fun and of course great hospitality. The house is huge, big enough to accomodate the seven Americans who stayed for the camp, and the atmosphere is relaxed and fun. The whole family works hard of course, tending the gardens, the sheep and horses, cutting hay by hand and even raising dozens of fish in a huge makeshift metal aquarium out back. The three sons who range from twelve to twenty-two are good-natured and hard-working, and the whole family (including Brett now) have a great relationship with the whole village.

We ate and drank that night, and awoke early in the morning for the first day of camp. We arrived at the school and were greeted by an exceptional man: Zhora, the environmental elder, with his round bald dome and kind eyes, his right arm resting in his jean jacket pocket as he gestures his meanings in the air with his left (Zhora lost his left hand in a hunting accident as a child). He welcomes us with a great grin lighting up his broad face. Zhora is Brett's counterpart, a part-time teacher at the school and an active community member. For years he has helped bring in donated trees and irrigation to the village, beautifying the streets and surroundings and helping to prevent the village's typically dry Armenian soil from sliding into the gorge.

Zhora and Brett with honorary camper Tina

The camp turned out pretty great. The counselors were solid for the most part and (what really made it) the kids were lively, engaged, active, fantastic. It was of course a busy week, and I long for more time to return and be with the people and explore the surrounding mountains and gorge.

Shaki Waterfall

Mid Service Training and the End of Beard Chicken

Shortly after we left Vaghatin was MST where we stayed three nights in Tsaghkadzor near the ski resort. It was the first time all of our A15 group had been together since last November. It was great to see everyone, and our EE volunteer group met with representatives from the Armenian Tree Project, an organization that uses American partners' donations to train and oversee community tree plantings in Armenia. With certain conditions (including community support, a fenced-in area, an irrigation system, and enrichment of the soil) to ensure high sapling survival rates, they are willing to donate saplings and training materials for community tree plantings. The school I work at in Martuni is applying to ATP for trees to be planted on school grounds in the Spring of 2009.

The culminating event of the conference was an A15s vs. A16s (our group of year-old volunteers vs. the new volunteers) softball game which took place in the defunct Olympic training facility above town. Just before this event I decided that the complaints and ridiculousness of our massive beards had reached a threshold and that the time had come to end the madness that was Beard Chicken. With some help I cut and shaved my substantial facial hair into what was dubbed the "Starfish", and Kevin, the only other remaining contestant, did a victory lap and did some damage to his as well. Together we pranced onto the softball field in grand style.


The next couple of weeks I had a little time to relax (much needed after eight straight weeks of camps). I went to the SunChild environmental camp which gave basic EE lessons to kids who will become part of rural film-making groups. SunChild has produced some great environmental films while training rural kids, which is a very cool thing. Then I headed to Ijevan and chilled and watched the Olympics with the Green Tavush guys Artsrun and Arko. We also talked about the summer and how we'd like to change Green Camps for next year. I'll talk more about those plans later, once I've gone to visit them again and we've finished the reporting for this year. Right now Green Tavush is working on translating An Inconvenient Truth (Al Gore's film about global warming) into Armenian. They will then do showings at the various schools they work with and (I assume) make it available as a resource for PCVs. This is good because very few Armenians I've met have ever heard of "global warming".

SunChild Trash-as-Art project

We swore in the new Peace Corps trainees as volunteers with ceremony and speeches, and got to sit and talk with them for the first time really afterwards which was great. They are a fun group, talented and excited to get to work in Armenia. Fresh blood! It's a very good thing. Then two days later I got on a plane for America.

Being in Maine for three weeks was wonderful, and I've never felt such a strong urge to return to where I grew up, reestablish old connections, and live and enjoy the incredible beauty of Maine. The flip side is that it was hard to leave.

My friend and beard brother Jason Rhoades picked me up in Boston, and we met with Rud (another just-finished volunteer who worked with Green Tavush) and met his sister Ashley and her fiancee at their place near the Boston Commons, which was great. The next day Jason and I headed up to Phoenix Farm and got a reception full of fresh veggies from my folks. And the day after that my Dad took us down to Small Point where we put in and paddled in his homemade, beautiful old Loon sea kayaks up the coast of Phippsburg and camped out on an island. We spotted two bald eagles and three pairs of osprey on our paddle, as well as herons and cormorants and gulls of course.

I should say that I was in a daze through all of this. Getting off the plane and parking on the quintessential Boston street with its red brick and cobblestones and walking over to India Day with music and delicious food and incredible magical diverse people in great numbers and grabbing some Chicken Tikka Masala and a six-pack of Harpoon IPA and sitting on the Charles with beautiful green grass and unhampered trees everywhere shading my brow and all these fit healthy people running or biking or roller-blading by--I couldn't believe what was happening. And then the Maine coast--ah! the smell of the fresh salt air just kicked up from the sea and crusted on your arms and shoulders as the bright sun beats down! Cormorants the prehistoric fishswallowers and sailboats and bobbing buoys and moorings and the beautiful thick deep green of the forest giving way to grey and white barnacle-encrusted rock walls jagged standing against the pounding waves and the sheer primordial power of the Sea.

To be continued...

My mother Nancy, my sister Laura and I went to the Bangor Folk Festival, a beautiful weekend in mid-August. Laura loves small children and has worked for years at daycares and as a nanny. Nancy runs an organic vegetable farm in Monmouth, ME, and has forty shareholders who come every week and receive the delicious fresh veggies. Many of the shareholders also come once a week to volunteer in the fields. Nancy is very busy throughout the summer months, but she took the time to see some great music with her kids.

The six stages, the delicious food and drink, the row upon row of blue and green portable chairs, the Penobscot river, and a great diversity of talented musicians from Virginia and Brooklyn to Senegal and Norway, from Bluegrass to Irish Fiddling to Quebeqois, Trinidadian Drumming, Persian Percussion, Gospel, Cape Breton, it was a great time even though the "American" Folk Festival didn't quite stick to its name. The picture below is of a "Banjo Roots" session with a couple of bluegrass players and this fellow from Senegal who plays the "akunte", a three-stringed instrument with the body of a gourd, apparently the ancestor of the modern banjo. There were some similarities in the style of playing but the akunte music and singing was distinctly African.

Four of my good friends from Vassar came up for a weekend at the Mooring, the summer guest house of ours on Small Point Hill right next to where my sister and I grew up. There was kayaking and swimming and frisbee throwing and a lot of Yacht Racing--an amazing time. The Mooring is incredible, a big one-story house overlooking the harbor that will no doubt serve as a summertime gathering place in the future. The idea of a big reunion there next August makes me want to forego post-Peace-Corps travel and just jet home.

Tyler and I at the Mooring

Mooring quiz: what kind of bone is that hanging above the hearth?

Kevin, Hutch, Genevieve, Tyler, myself, Laura on the beach at Ice Box Bend

Lauren Gass and boys on the dock with a Loon Sea Kayak

Thanks for readin' everybody, and do drop me a line if I haven't heard from you in a while. I have always found strength and presence of mind through change, and I wish you all the same.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Spring

after a brief shower, one music weekend in Jessica's village

baby Reuben, the newest addition to the Matinyan family in Gyulagarak, with his grandparents

Eloise, as the ice sheet finally breaks up in Martuni, March 22

On a hike just above Dendropark, near Gyulagarak, with my buddy Steve

with Jason Rhoades in Tsaghkadzor

Martuni sunset, April 20

the gorge below Garni, village with an ancient Pagan temple from 1st c. AD

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Beard Chicken

An important event in Peace Corps Armenia now deserves to be brought to light. That event is Beard Chicken.

Start Date: February 3, 2008

The Rules: No trimming whatsoever (except for the mustache)

The Competitors:

Kevin Gage, "The Pastor"

Jeremy Lovelady, "The James A. Garfield"

Jason Rhoades, "New Orleans Pizza Bicycle Delivery"

Jason Chandler, "The Man of Twists and Turns"

You may be asking yourself a question, and the answer is yes, the ladies love Beard Chicken. See below.

Beard Chicken can and will take you to amazing places.

Above Lake Sevan

Ancient, ancient bridge


Other vols love beards.

It's catching on...

Proof: Beard Chicken is fun for the whole family, a guaranteed good time.

The next generation is already in training
Future Beard Chicken Contestant: Narek Matinyan, age 5.

But most important: wearing a Massive Beard gets you in with the locals, big time.


Green Camp Photos

Now it's time for a day by day tour of a Green Camp. First the kids arrive, we divide them into groups and they get acquainted. This first photo is from Urtsadzor, one of the small groups with their counselors Gnel and Brett on the first day of camp.

Once we get the groups together we line them up in orderly fashion, do a little introduction, go over camp rules, and move straight on to the camp song, entitled "Boom Chick-a Boom".

It's a call and response song, and we sing to open and close camp every day. I lead a number of different forms, jumping around and singing, such as "Rock Star", "Monkey", "Alpinist", or the above: "Frog".

We then split up into groups and do small group games with their groups of ten or large group games with the whole camp together. Each game has an environmental lesson built in, and the kids are encouraged to discuss in the group what they've learned, and also write it in their journals which they keep after the camp. The game pictured below is "Pyramid of Life". Kids on the first level are plants, second level herbivores, top level predators.

The picture below is from the Lejan Camp, a big game of "Trees Loggers and Mudslides" which I explained in the previous post.

At the end of the week, each small group performs a skit or a song as a final presentation for the community to show what they've learned. The kids below did a skit with two trash monsters who savaged the unassuming environmental protectors until enough gathered to drive them away from the river!
And that's a camp in a nutshell. Below is the whole camp photo from the Martuni camp.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

July, July

Martuni Green Camp was a blast! Highlights from this week: an hour session of ultimate frisbee with an able group of eleven year olds who’d never seen one before, drawing/painting lessons in the forest with teachers from the local art school, the vanishing of the Martuni beach, the American invasion of day three. Four camps in four weeks, and at the last one the new EE Peace Corps Trainees visited one day, a hardy-looking bunch of young professionals bursting with hope and enthusiasm. Actually, they seemed like they’re trying to learn a new language and how to live in a host family with wildly different cultural attitudes and they’ve only been here four weeks. They played one of the whole-camp games with us called “Trees, Loggers, and Mudslides” which is like a mix of rock paper scissors and tag and teaches about erosion and deforestation and the value of trees. The campers were unphased by the group of twelve Americans who showed up with no explanation and joined their teams. Loggers beat Trees, Mudslides beat Loggers, Trees beat Mudslides, and pretty soon tiny Armenians and big Americans were all over the field in a mad race for victory.

Green Camps are wild and fun. It has become clear to me that they can also be a great learning experience for our local Armenian counselors who volunteer their time for the week to teach about nature and environmental protection. It’s like a day camp you might have been to in the states, with plenty of lining up, chanting, singing, performance, but it’s also packed with environmental lessons and experiential learning, something rural Armenian kids don’t get every day. Each kid receives a notebook and writes and draws personal reflections every day about what they learned and what they can do to help the environment. The best camps are when the Armenian counselors are active and have really studied the curriculum, and when the kids actively apprehend the material. The last two camps were especially good in both these respects. The hardest thing is that each camp is five days long, and you have to train both the counselors and kids in that time. There is of course prep work in the weeks before, but when someone comes to a Green Camp to work as a camp counselor for the first time, they have a lot to learn fast. At this last camp it was wonderful to see the Armenian volunteers step up and take the camp into their own hands. I felt myself able to step back more and more from the logistical and scheduling work I usually do and let the Armenians take it over. I believe that our Martuni counselors could definitely run their own camp in the future.

Now I have four pictures tacked to my wall with fifty kids on each of them, beaming and infused with Green Camps knowledge, skills and attitudes. This struck me the other day: Peace Corps Volunteers help administer some of the best summer programs for kids in Armenia, and with these programs we specifically target and encourage rural kids. Aside from Green Camps there is GLOW Camp (Girls Leading Our World, a leadership and activism camp), BRO Camp (Boys Reaching Out, similar to GLOW), a new Human Rights Camp (focused on democracy building), various computer camps, and the International Outreach Camp, a culture and leadership camp which has brought in teenagers from Georgia, Ukraine, and even Turkey in past years. What’s even better is the great training and experience our Armenian counterparts undertake as part of all these camps. They are the people that will continue all this work with kids on responsibility, activism, and leadership, as well as becoming models of these attitudes themselves. Who knows how far it’ll go, but it’s a good start.

Oh yeah, a side note: the Martuni beach disappeared this week. I went down to the lake to swim with friends who are working the camp this week, and we discovered that the lake has risen another two feet and what was once a small sandbar beach is now completely submerged. So much for sunning on the sands, but the rising water level is part of the government’s current plan to restore the Sevan Basin’s ecosystem. In the 1930s and 40s the Soviets drained Sevan nineteen (19) meters to turn some wetlands into pastures. Now finally they’re trying to restore some of that lost ecosystem and bird life. With the huge investment in beachside cottages and the hundreds of acres of trees planted right up to the lake, I’m skeptical as to how much more the water will rise, but it’s a good idea at least.

What else? I’ve been really enjoying the Decembrists’ album “Castaways and Cutouts” (the only one I have, I’d love to get more of them). I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder too, the Beatles (especially “Good Morning Good Morning” which I hereby nominate for the best wakeup song ever), once again Neutral Milk Hotel, and Old and In the Way. After the second camp in Aygut the old-time music folks all gathered at Jessica’s place and had a rollicking good time, lots of musicatin’, and I tried the accordion for the first time -- really satisfying. When I visit Maine in August I will buy a banjo and perhaps also an accordion, as well as another set of harmonicas, since I’ve worn out several of mine here.

Fatefully, the aforementioned “Old-time music folks” are almost all A-14s, which means they’re leaving in the next two months. Johanna and I are hoping for some music-loving, instrument-bearing newbies to jam with. I’m thinking of renting Jessica’s place in the remote valley up North for music and hiking and relaxation.

Best to all,

Saturday, June 14, 2008


And the livin is easy. The first two Green Camps shot by in a blaze of sausage, macaroni, chanting, experiential learning, and sausage. We took a field trip from the lowlands of the Ijevan Valley up over the pass to Sevan, via an appropriately striped 80s French Tour Bus, during which there was much dancing and merriment and only one kid barfed -- a miracle considering the switchbacking mountainous roads. At times, the newest and greatest Green Camp toy -- the Megaphone -- was used to project cell phone tunes, orders, information, and even held up to the already ample Tour Bus ceiling speakers to further project the wavery pop lyrical stylings of "Sirusho" and "Arame" while the girl half of the bus danced in the aisles.

Kids love Green Camps. This much is clear. The campers are curious and actively engage in the fun experiential games and lessons, including everything from animal charades, predator/prey tag and leaf and bark rubbings, to water use/pollution simulations and community clean-ups. Armenian and American counselors work together in pairs to teach games and lead discussions among the 11-13 year old campers, with focus on community action and environmental responsibility. What's best, the kids and Armenian counselors show that they get it, that we are raising at least a basic awareness of the value of natural resources and environmental stewardship.

Also, some of these children live in villages where school ends at the eighth grade. For some this camp is their first trip outside their own villages. There is of course a range of attitudes and talents, from quiet and shy to raucous and insatiable, but overall the kids are highly capable and throw themselves into the critical thinking and discussion -- opportunities not usually abundant in Armenian schools. Green Camps are so unusual that I know none of them will forget the experience -- I only wonder how these kids might be able to manifest their learning in the future.

Went for a great hike yesterday, from a little village in a wide valley North of Lake Sevan, uphill for five hours to a grassy ridge which helps form the huge Sevan Basin, ringed on all sides by 8,000 foot peaks. A beautiful clear day -- a wondrous, expansive view of a place whose post-Soviet stylings can look so dull up close.

Now I'm back in Martuni for the day, leaving tomorrow for the next Green Camp near Stepanavan in the North. Talked to my friend Kevin today, one of my oldest friends from Phippsburg, a guy born exactly a week before me who I knew as a baby and who I fought in first grade, rolling in violent embrace down the side of the old kickball pit at Phippsburg Elementary, when it still had gigantic tractor tires as bases and before they filled it in and made a "real" field out of it.

I have a lot I want to write about, and not much time to write it. I must sleep now, but I will say that the ticket is bought -- I am coming home, and will be in Maine from mid August thru the first week of September, kayaking, swimming, hiking, picking delicious vegetables on the farm. I can't wait, and I hope to see as many of you as I can when stateside.

If you want to contact me soon, I'll be back in Martuni with internet access June 21st, Saturday, thru at least June 30th, though I will be busy running our community's Green Camp. Best to all, hope you get outside and enjoy the summery weather, wherever you might be. There's a lot of enjoyment to be had and mysteries to solve.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Start Me Up


That’s the sound of the chainsaw of development starting up. Development of massive proportions, the starburst, the radiating waves, the long arm of development.

The Caucasian winter has finally and reluctantly fled the land, and in the Sevan Basin the people have watched as winter’s icy grip receded, melting up the hills, only to claw its way back down toward the valley at night again and again with fresh powdery fingers. Those fingers haunted the dreams of schoolchildren and summer enthusiasts alike, until it seemed spring would never come. Now only traces of the fierce struggle are left, stubborn white pockets dotting the green peaks. Slowly, the icy shroud covering Lake Sevan broke up and gave way to rolling waves. The calls of gulls and terns can once again be seen, the awkward but strangely effective flapping of ducks, the calm, neck-bobbing stroke of grebes. The aerial display of hundreds of barn swallows, perched on the power lines or eating insects, twisting and diving above the lake, screaming along inches above the surface, convinces even the casual onlooker that these are indeed the fighter jets of the natural world, beings of incredible agility and daring.

Some kids at school and I have taken the opportunity to hike to the lake, taking pictures and looking at birds and even getting rained and hailed on a little. With my seventh graders, we made it down to the lake and I introduced myself to this old man standing by the fishing docks. I guess the kids were being a little rowdy, and he said to them “You be good! This is a kind man who’s doing good things with our children!” What a guy. Then he insisted we jump onto this old grounded boat, and we took the picture below.

It’s great that spring has come, because in winter everything in Armenia seems to slow to a crawl. Nobody wants to do anything, kids don’t come to school let alone clubs, and people just hole up for the cold months, which are about as cold as I’ve seen in Maine. In some lower elevation parts of the country spring came this year as much five weeks earlier than in Martuni, so March trips next year to warmer climes will be a good idea.

Now, though, school is out and summer is upon us. Today was Armenia’s Independence Day, and folks were out marching in the streets of Stepanavan, a town near where I lived last summer and which I drove through today with the director of Green Tavush NGO, Artsrun, and Rud, an A-14 who has been working with Artsrun and his brother, Arko, for the past two years. We went to the last of our site visits today in a village called Lejan, near Stepanavan, where we will have a Green Camp in June.

Green Camps are environmental youth camps organized in rural Armenia every summer by Green Tavush NGO, local Peace Corps Volunteers, and their communities. The program has grown during its six years, and this summer we will put on seven camps in seven different communities all over Armenia. The five day camps are staffed by both American and local Armenian volunteers, who employ a great curriculum of experiential environmental games and lessons and provide an exciting and unique learning experience for underrepresented Armenian kids.

This year Artsrun and Arko will be present at every camp, working with the Armenian staff and solving all the logistics problems involving buses and food and excursions and fields and classrooms. They will be much more directly involved with the camps this year, which bodes well for the sustainability of the program. I am taking over the Peace Corps side of the program from Rud and this incredible young Nebraskan woman Syd. So I’ll be at every camp, working with the counselors, helping with games and campers, and acting as a sort of ringleader or mascot for the camps. It’ll be seven camps in eight weeks, most camps with only a few days in between.

However, after the madness of June and July (the first camp starts Monday), and after two weeks of camp-connected community projects and reporting and wrap up work, my parents are flying me back to Maine for three weeks! I’m really excited. Kayaking, hiking, farming, eating lobster and drinking good beer are definitely on the ticket, as is seeing my family and any of you who can make it up to Vacationland for good times. The plan right now is August 17 to Sept 9. I’d love to see you all! We could even play some frisbee.

Hmmm, what else? We’re trying to get funding for a tree planting in Martuni, turn a big part of the school yard into a green space, and involve our students in planting and caring for the new trees. Also in Gyulagarak (the village I lived in last summer) they are starting a preschool this September, and we want to help get them beds and toys. This is something that the community needs, and we want to help them out as a token of our gratitude for their incredible hospitality during our first three months in Armenia.

I now have internet in my apartment in Martuni, though as I mentioned I won’t be here much this summer. I can download anything I want, but the upload capabilities are low, so it may be a little while before the blog is as picturesque as it’s been. I apologize for not writing for such a long time, and I’d love to hear from all you folks out there in the wide world. Peace and Love to you all!

This summer is bound to be a wild one, so I’ll keep the stories coming.


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Nancy's Visit

My mom Nancy came to visit for just about a week, the second week in January. She got off the plane from a twenty hour commute excited and bursting with energy. It was midnight when we got to the hotel, and I figured she’d want to go right to bed, but when I told her some other volunteers were hanging out nearby she said she’d love to meet them. We taxied over there and had a great time discussing Armenia and the world, Nancy was bursting with questions and I know my friends had a great time meeting her.

She was like this the whole week, and as far as I saw never missed a beat from start to finish. I was amazed at her energy and eagerness to meet everyone and soak up as much of Armenia as a week can allow!

The first day we traveled by a packed bus to Echmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Church. We chanced to get out at Hripsime, a huge and beautiful monastery a couple kilometers outside of the center. We talked with a kind veteran outside, who was shoveling the new crust of snow off the great stone courtyard. He told us the monastery was built in the 7th century, that he works there part time as a caretaker, and that they hold services every sunday and holiday. "But most people don’t come here," he said. "If you want to see the crowds, they’re down at Mayr Ator" (the Mother Seat).

Past the intricately carved door, the stark stone walls reached upwards to a huge dome in the center of the structure. A few trays with burning candles and a few paintings of Mary and Jesus decorated the room, drawing the eye toward paintings of saints on the side of the raised platform that formed the altar. We spoke some with the nuns in attendance, lit some candles with prayers and viewed the ancient doors and the grave of Hripsime in a tiny room under the altar.

Hripsime was a wonderful first, peaceful look at an Armenian church. Next we walked the main street past a Genocide memorial and down to the center of Echmiadzin, where the Seminary, Libraries, and the Mother Seat rest. The buildings were wonderful, with great domes or gates, and we saw priests-to-be with their beards and black robes, books held in hand, chatting and walking around the grounds. We turned and found what looked like the central church standing in a square surrounded by creatively manicured trees.

Mayr Ator was similar to a regular church on the outside, but in the archways we saw a hint of things to come: stone faces of angels carved and painted on the entrance arches, with no bodies and surrounded only by six wings. Inside, the walls, archways, the magnificent dome, were all plastered and beautifully painted. Chandeliers, huge paintings of events in the life of Jesus, and those swinging incense holders hung everywhere, a grand display. The original stone could only be seen in a couple of places where a neat square of plaster was missing from the wall, revealing the rough stone underneath, carved with crosses. We met a priest who knew some English and who, after answering a few questions and explaining that the paintings were four hundred years old, blessed us both in rapid Armenian.

We headed to Martuni that day, and, true to form, we boarded a marshutni (public van) that spent an hour waiting for passengers that never came before heading out for Martuni. We got in late and ate with my host family. We had a great time that night and the next, eating, talking, singing songs, showing pictures of the farm and talking about canning vegetables. In Armenia vegetables and fruits are much cheaper in the summer months, so everyone preserves pickled veggies and mouraba (there are a dozen kinds of this delicious, syrupy jam) Nancy found that their methods for canning were a bit different, less labor intensive than hers, and she took notes!

She had a great time talking with Sona, whose English has greatly improved in the past six months and who was very excited to meet her.

Sona, Artak, Camo, Nancy, Lala, Alla, Anna

Next we headed to Gyulagarak, the village in Lori Marz where I lived this summer. We visited my family, headed by Garnik, the school principal, who loves to talk as much as Nancy does. They had a great, animated discussion, with their trusty translator, of course. Nancy speaks very well with her hands and expressions, and so Garnik would every so often turn to me and say "Let me translate!" and explain to me what she said. Sometimes he missed it, but more often he was dead on. His wife Marietta, his sons Hayk, Hovik, and Karen, as well as Diana, Lucine, Sirushik, and the little ones Narek, Maretik, (little) Garnik, and Yerevandik, all gathered around and talked and played and did somersaults on the rug for our enjoyment.

After a day of food and drink, and a walk around the village, we headed to Gyumri, and when I told my friend Scott we were coming in for lunch the troops rallied for a grand reception. Gyumri is the second biggest city in Armenia. There are eight volunteers living there now, and a handful more were visiting for birthday parties at the time, including Johanna, who lives just outside Martuni but who we had missed on our visit. So we met about a dozen folks for lunch at a pizza place in Gyumri. Nancy chatted it up, we drank Gyumri beer, and ate a pizza she ordered which was topped with a thick layer of peas. Weird, but not bad. We got info from our friends on how to get up to Ashotsk, where the Olympians live.

We took a beat up old cab up the steep roads and into the mountains to Ashotsk, a tiny town in the coldest spot in Armenia. When we finally found their place near the hospital, Artur Mikaelyan greeted us in his sports suit and hat with a warm smile. He welcomed us and said: "It was 40 below last night." And it wasn’t too much warmer when we arrived. Artur’s father was Armenian, his mother is German, and his wife Alla is Russian. They both skied in the Nagano Olympics in 1998, and they run the only cross-country ski bed and breakfast in Armenia. They have two great kids, Sergei (15, a dark-haired, shy, lanky fellow) and Mika (8 years old, blond and beautiful). We settled in, had tea and delicious little pastries and blackberry jam with Alla, and then we headed out to ski! Luckily we brought our warm clothes, because it didn’t get much above zero F when we were there. But we kept moving and kept warm with the Olympians on our heels!

I had heard that the Mikaelyans were different from most Armenians. Health is their life: they don’t drink, they don’t smoke -- this in a country where eighty percent of men do both. They exercise every day and teach the local ski team, the best in Armenia. They don’t take any conventional medicine; they rely on home remedies using dozens of native plants and herbs for everything from muscle aches to the flu. Alla cooked for our two night stay; the food was delicious and very wholesome. Homemade wheat bread, borscht, meat, beet salad, cheese, herbal tea, all delicious and fresh. Nancy had a great time chatting with Alla, who speaks some English, about recipes for her delicious rosehip juice and jams.

Nancy and Mika leading -- Jason can't keep up!

On our second day we trekked up out of the valley with its frigid layer of fog and up onto a ridge, where the sun warmed us and views of the surrounding hills and mountains opened before our eyes. Alla and Mika trekked up with us and we had a great time laying tracks. The Mikaelyans do summer adventures, too, with small fleets of both canoes and mountain bikes at guests’ disposal. Artur showed us pictures, and the whole affair looks great. These folks run the only place of its kind that I know of in Armenia, and their food and care for guests is extraordinary. Artur wants to build a small guest house and expand their operation, and I’d love to help them out in any way I can, even if only to help get the word out.

Artur and Jason

We left the next day, healthy and happy, for Yerevan. We spent two nights in Yerevan at a very nice hotel called the Bass. We saw the Armenian History Museum, the Genocide Memorial, and the Matenadaran or Manuscript Museum which had fascinating texts from love poetry to scriptures, many beautifully decorated, showing the history of Armenian literature and scholarship since the alphabet was compiled in 405 AD by Mesrob Mashtots. We also had the chance to meet one of my language teachers from this summer, Meri Arakelyan. We ate with her at a new and awesome Indian place in Yerevan, and went out for karaoke afterwards!

It was a great, exhausting week. I had no idea how much work it is to be a translator! Thanks for coming, Mom! Myself, my friends and family here were all very happy to see you, and I’m thrilled you got to have a taste of Armenia. Everyone told her while she was here that she must come in the summer, in August, when it’s warm, green, and beautiful, and when the apricots are ripe! With all the farm work I know she won’t make it then, but we’ll leave that trip to Dad and Laura (and everyone else is welcome too!)