Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Comparison / Contrast

I recently completed my post-Peace Corps travels and am back in New York. While I had not planned to write about the trip itself (wanting the blog to just be about my experience in Armenia), I changed my mind partway through because the trip itself gave me more to think about with respect to my recent home away from home. 

Specifically, I visited ten countries before returning to North America (Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Lithaunia, Latvia, Estonia and Russia), all but Turkey being post-Soviet or post-Communist.  Meanwhile, with its complicated history in connection with Armenia, Turkey provided some interesting comparisons also. 

So, what follows are some random observations made over the nearly three months I was on the road.  I remain mindful of my own advice that you can’t really understand a country by only seeing its capital and large cities and that is almost all that I visited.  Likewise, four days in a country like Lithuania does not even allow enough time to remember common courtesy phrases in the local language, let alone understand what people are like and what they think.  Still, some things were noteworthy to me.

Nostalgia for the Soviet years is far from universal.  Many times in Armenia, I had conversations with people about whether life was better or worse than during the Soviet era.  Many seemed to like the idea of democracy but really missed the personal economic benefits (free education and health care, jobs for everyone, etc.)  

What I saw in all three Baltic countries and in Georgia, on the other hand, were a series of museums to highlight the atrocities of the “Soviet Occupation”.  Likewise, Lviv (in Ukraine) has a museum set in a former KGB prison, illustrating the massacres carried out by the Soviet regime.

In Armenia, I recall no museum that present anything about the Soviet period at all.  Granted, the histories are different - the Baltics were forced into the Soviet Union under the guise of being “saved” from the Nazis while Armenia’s incorporation (from what I understand) followed a real rescue from being wiped out by Turkey when the two countries were at war after World War I.  Georgia was at war with Russia only a few years ago while Russian soldiers guard Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran.  And I can understand a hesitation on Armenia’s part to bite the hand that feeds it since it is closely allied with Russia and gets a lot of foreign aid from there.   Nevertheless, there were Armenians sent to the Gulag along with people from other countries, yet I never heard it discussed. 

As to the economic nostalgia, that is something that can’t be brought back magically.  The country was a sort of processing hub for its sister republics, which sent in the raw materials and bought the finished products.  The 1988 earthquake destroyed a lot of the operating capacity which was never replaced and the breakup of the Soviet Union removed the built-in suppliers and customers.  Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if Armenia eventually joins the economic union that Russia has set up with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

The levels of economic development are (literally) all over the map.  All of the former Soviet/Communist countries became democracies at roughly the same time.  Since then, circumstances for the different countries have followed varying paths (including dictators, corruption and war among other things) as have political alliances, so it can be expected that they would not all progress at the same pace. Nonetheless, the differences between the countries are pretty drastic.

Most striking to me is comparing Georgia with Armenia as they are neighbors and on friendly terms but with different allies.  Georgia has taken a more western view and Tbilisi seems to me like a Western European city.  Georgia’s activities toward reducing corruption have allowed it access to foreign aid that Armenia does not have, and in fact Armenia lost funding from Millennium Challenge because of how its 2008 elections were carried out and government response to protests afterward.  One huge difference is that Georgia is not landlocked and despite having its border with Russia closed, it can trade with its other neighbors so there are economic benefits that explain some of the difference.  But it also seemed to me that Georgia is more forward thinking than Armenia is (as I wrote about in my last post).

When I got further west, the level of development is even more striking.  Bulgaria and Romania have become part of the EU. Poland has shopping malls, an efficient transportation system, and plenty of English speakers.  As I moved further north, I got an even better indicator of the financial health – the prices were approaching expensive.  While it was still possible to get beer for far less than in the US, a pint for $1.50 in Poland compared to $3 in Estonia. 

Armenia’s geographic disadvantages (particularly lack of sea access) is certainly a factor as is the production role it played during the Soviet period as I mention above and its closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan.  But I can’t help thinking that it is also due to the “learned helplessness” that I have written about before.

People still see movies in theaters. I am an avid moviegoer and really prefer seeing movies in a theater.  To my knowledge, Armenia has two theaters (one in Yerevan and one in Gyumri) and almost all of the movies are shown dubbed in Russian (film festival entries being an exception).  Considering how easy and cheap it is to get pirated DVDs in Armenia (10 movies on one DVD for about $1.25) it is not surprising that people don't buy a ticket for a theater.  As a result, during my two years there I had to content myself with watching movies on my laptop.

As I traveled around though, I saw that this was (thankfully) not universal.  Starting with Georgia, I started to see multiplexes that were showing movies I wanted to see.  Some (Georgia, Russia) dub all the movies into the local language, so I was out of luck.  But the other countries either have subtitles for all foreign movies or offer a choice of dubbed or subtitled.

What I was not expecting was that some movies are released overseas before they are in the US.  The new James Bond movie was playing in Russia while I was there, but since most movies in Russia are dubbed (I only knew of one in Moscow that was subtitled and I had seen it already) I didn't bother.  Luckily, Canada was my next stop.    

Armenia really is like a little Russia.  Yes, the churches are different, the cultural heritage such as dance is different and I actually saw people reading books in Russia while commuting instead of just gazing off into space or napping.  But then there is a lot of the day-to-day stuff that is very similar in the two countries.

My hostel in St. Petersburg did not provide breakfast, so just after arriving I went to a grocery store to buy things for the next morning.  As I entered, I had a flashback – the store had a confusing layout, an entire wall of candy and another of vodka; eggs cold be bought individually; the “refrigerated” beverage cases were not plugged in, so all of the soda was warm, etc, etc.  The only difference from an Armenian store was that I had to pay if I wanted a bag (in Armenia you get one even when you say you don’t want it).  This was quite a difference from the supermarket in Tallinn I had gone to the day before, which was nicer than most supermarkets I had been to in New York.

While I didn’t ride in one in the Russian cities I visited, there were marshutnis everywhere.  The “dress code” for women is the same in both countries while for men it was only similar (Russian men didn’t seem as fond of logos and pointy shoes as their Armenian counterparts).  Sunflower seeds are bought in bulk and consumed as a walking snack.  Music videos (often barely better than soft-core porn) are playing on TVs in every café and bar. I saw a distinct shade of blue paint everywhere (I don’t know if the Soviets bought way too much years ago and are still burning through it or if it is still manufactured somewhere with only Russia and Armenia buying it).

It all made me a wee bit nostalgic.

Turkey seems to be a big believer in solar energy.  After leaving Georgia, I headed to the northeastern corner of Turkey (or “Western Armenia” as I often heard it called and at one point I was able to see across the border into Armenia).   From there, I took a train/bus combo to Istanbul, affording me the opportunity to see a lot of the countryside - at least the northern part.  And one thing I noticed early on was the proliferation of solar panels on houses.  It seemed that every single house had a small panel on its roof which likely its primary power source.  

Armenia has few natural resources (no oil or natural gas, and while there are some minerals to mine such as copper and uranium, they don't produce enough to be a principal supplier) and not a lot of industry. From the beginning of my time there, I thought that solar energy would make sense for Armenia to harvest and maybe export as it has two necessary ingredients – loads of open space and abundant sunshine.  Unfortunately, setting up solar farms would require a lot of capital, and those likely to invest it (foreign companies and the already-rich oligarchs) would likely yield little benefit to the country.

But what had not occurred to me until passing through Turkey is that it could be an answer to Armenia’s basic need to keep its population warm.  As it stands now, they rely on a nuclear power plant (of the same vintage that melted down in Japan recently and which is also sitting in an earthquake-prone region) and gas imports from Russia.  With respect to gas, the price is subsidized so that the general public can afford it – yet many still can’t.  It seems to me that, instead of fortifying or replacing the nuclear plant or spending to subsidize gas, it would be more logical to give everyone a solar panel.  Obviously an over-simplified answer, but I think it bears consideration.

Customer service is not overrated.  I bought my train and bus tickets as I went along and the experiences offered a sharp contrast as to how customers are valued in each country.

When buying my ticket to leave Armenia, I had to go to the train station instead of buying online.  As a matter of fact, the only information online was in Russian and, while Google Chrome is very handy to get around that issue, it does not help if you have a question.  There are two ticket windows in Yerevan which are only open for a few hours a day and both close for lunch at the same time (and if you are waiting just before then, you are SOL for an hour).  You must pay with cash as credit cards are not widely used in Armenia.  After fighting my way to the window (each of which has a separate line) and buying my ticket, I asked the clerk about buying an ongoing ticket from Tbilisi to Batumi (since I believed the systems to be coordinated). I was given an incorrect answer that led to an hour wasted on a follow up visit.

On the other hand, after arriving in Georgia at midnight, I was able to buy an onward ticket as at least one window is open all night.  The clerk spoke English and presented me with all of my options before selling me the ticket. I was able to pay with a credit card. 

In Warsaw, there is a separate office to buy tickets for international travel.  You take a number and can sit while you wait your turn. Someone offered me water while I waited.  The (smiling) clerk answered all of my questions and told me to take a piece of candy from the dish at her window.  I completed the purchase ready to recommend traveling through Poland if only to experience how pleasant the transaction was.

Granted, train travel is not common in Armenia except for travel to Batumi during the summer, so it may not be the best example.  But from my prior experiences during my two years, it was indicative.

The longer things go on, the harder it will be to resolve the genocide issue with Turkey.  While in Lviv, I met a young man from Turkey at the hostel in which I was staying.  After explaining where I was coming from and what Peace Corps does, I went and opened Pandora’s box by asking something I had wondered about for a while – what to students in Turkey learn about the Armenian Genocide?

His answer was interesting, both because of what he said and by how the force of his answer increased the longer he talked.  In a nutshell, what he learned is that there were groups of Armenians who had anti-government feelings and acted upon them (for the sake of clarity, let’s use the word “insurgents”).  Therefore, for the sake of national security, the insurgency had to be stopped, particularly because it was wartime.  He acknowledged that people were killed but turned it around on me with respect to US actions in the current day.  In addition, he said he believed that the number of people that Armenia claims to have been killed has been exaggerated.  He ended by stating that there was no genocide – it was a security issue. 

By that point, I realized that what I observed in Armenia (with respect to how children are educated about Turkey and Azerbaijan) is also happening in Turkey – a lack of critical examination in favor of intractable statements of fact.  And as people so educated grow into positions of policy-making, the issue is likely to continue and become more bitter.

From what I have read and understand, I believe that there was in fact what is termed “genocide” but that neither what the Armenians or Turks learn is the whole truth of the matter.  But I wonder if any real discussion will ever be able to take place.

Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves.  I have written a lot about the role of women in Armenian society and how different it was from the US.  Well, it is different from the other former Soviet/Communist countries also. 

In the countries I visited, I saw women driving buses and trams, and women working as police officers, street cleaners and bartenders.  I saw women smoking casually in restaurants.  I saw pairs of women enjoying a drink together in a café.  I saw women driving.  On the occasions that I went to a gym, there were women there at the same time.

One amusing thing I had not seen in Armenia, though, was the art of flirting as negotiation.  Several times (coincidentally having to do with trying to get a better seat on a bus or train when seats were reserved) I saw a bleached-blond use the same tactic.  She lowered her head and looked upward; she batted her eyelashes; she spoke in a voice that was almost cooing.  She didn’t ask someone if she could have the seat but instead made a case as to why she should have it.  And sometimes it worked (although I found it amusing when a guy called bullshit on the tactic). 

There are plenty of Armenian restaurants around that have no Armenian employees and menu items I do not recognize.  I suppose it gets into the differences between Western and Eastern Armenian, but c’mon – no khorovats?  

Overall, I am glad that I eased my way on the transition from Armenia to the US.  It gave me an interesting perspective and opened my eyes to a lot of things, such as how superficial a tourist visit can be.  Also, by going to more developed countries, I was able to re-acclimate to the First World amenities that I now enjoy again and lessen the culture shock.  But that is the topic of my next (and last) post, so I won't get ahead of myself.   

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Pictures - Post 2

After quite a bit of frustration with Picasa Web Albums, I finally have pictures up from the remainder of my trip home.  Links to the six albums are to the right side of the blog.

And stay tuned for two final entries, coming soon.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pictures - Post 1

Pictures from Georgia, Turkey and Bulgaria are in the album "The Trip Home" linked under "More Pictures" at right.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Is That All There Is?

Revisiting week one
Two years later

As I said in my last post, my Peace Corps service is over and I have already left the country.  I won't be back in New York for a few months, but I am already anticipating the questions I will hear when I see family and friends (and some of which have already been sent by email).  What was it like?  What did you do?  Would you do it again?  If you could go back in time - knowing what you know now - would you still go? What are you going to do next?

The short answers are: Very interesting; not much but quite a lot; maybe; yes; and I don't know yet. But, of course, the real answers are much more complicated than that.  Since I understand that peoples' tolerance for listening to long, complex answers to questions about an experience like the Peace Corps is (justifiably) limited, I figured I would tackle it to an extent in writing so that people can read at their own pace and ask me more (if they want) when they see me.

What was it like?  Rather than rehashing that, I will refer back to my earlier posts.  Overall, though, the impression I am left with is that my service was easier than I had expected.  As far as Peace Corps countries go, Armenia seems to me like a pretty easy one (and being placed in a city as I was, a relatively easy location).  We had a fairly modern capital city within not-too-far a distance, 3G internet was widely available, I had running water (most of the time), a comfortable apartment with an excellent heater, a lot of English speakers around me, several other volunteers in the same city as I was, and lots of other "creature comforts", albeit more expensive than in the US (I could buy soy sauce, peanut butter, MGD and tahini if I wanted to). Also, if so inclined, I could have shopped at places like Swarovski, but I never did.

Having said that, I think back on a conversation I had with one of my more philosophical fellow PCVs.  He pointed out that, amenity-wise, Armenia seems to be a pretty easy placement but psychologically it was up there with some of the other, more obviously difficult countries.  Beyond the issues that the female volunteers have to contend with in such a patriarchal society, there is the "learned helplessness" that makes it very tough to get motivated when working with people who don't seem to want to learn how to help themselves.  A recent conversation I had with an Armenian woman gets to that point.  I forget the Armenian word she used, but she lamented that Armenians had lost something (we struggled for an English translation of her word and settled on "pride").  After the earthquake in 1988, the Soviet Union accepted foreign assistance for the first time.  Prior to that, she said, not only the Soviets but specifically the Armenians had been very self reliant and wary of accepting assistance.  Since then, with foreign aid and remittances from family living abroad providing a lifeline for a lot of families, many have forgotten how to help themselves or don't want to.  As an example, numerous times, I was asked for help with a project.  When discussing it, I would inevitably say "OK - what I need you to do is..." and the eyes would glaze over.  That takes a toll after a while.

Having said that, I think the experience was great.  I had never lived outside the US and living in another culture - even as an outsider - is significantly different from visiting as a traveler. I am really glad that I did it and am glad to have gotten to know a lot of wonderful people in Armenia.

What did you do?  My primary assignment was to help an organization improve its management processes.  Other than that, I was free to develop or get involved in other projects but was encouraged to focus on my sector of Community and Business Development.  While I made a lot of suggestions for my primary site, many events conspired to prevent me from being involved in or carrying through things both they and I had wanted me to work with them on.  So, what was supposed to take up roughly half of my time wound up taking maybe five percent. 

The benefit of having a mostly unstructured system, though, is that it allows you to make the most of the downtime that results from a situation like mine.  At first, I focused on seeking out other projects in Gyumri and worked with some other organizations that I learned needed help.  I also worked with another volunteer to develop a business English class.  With yet another volunteer, I took over an English conversation club that a departing volunteer had been running. As time went on, I also got involved in other projects that were more nation-wide in scope such as the Gyumri edition of a youth camp and the walk across Armenia.  And then I got into what I termed "volunteer support" roles such as leading training sessions for other volunteers, working on a grant review committee and helping to update training materials. 

So the longer answer was that I did a lot of things that I never expected to (and not the well digging that many people think all PCVs do).  What I did not do was something that many organizations in Armenia want - and that is to be a locator of funding.  Armenian organizations tend to be very dependent upon grant money and some will design projects to fit a grant opportunity that is available.  I decided early on that I would take the skills transfer idea of Peace Corps seriously and help organizations develop a fund raising strategy and help with their applications (offering comments about the structure of a project, how a question on the application is answered, how to frame a needs statement) but I would not be there to write applications with no one from the organization playing a lead role.  While Peace Corps stresses to organizations that we are not placed at their sites to apply for grants on their behalf, many still expect us to do so.  Some volunteers do a lot of grant application work because they work well with their organizations to develop projects needing funding and take a lead role in the application because they are generally in English. [As I wrote in my last post, I have issues with why the government does not take the lead there - on projects such as renovating classrooms, buying textbooks and blackboards, renovating school bathrooms.  Not that they are not worthwhile projects, but I think it is a shame that the organization and the PCV have to do fund raising for them.]  Others go along with grant applications writing to maintain relations with co-workers, to feel like they have accomplished something tangible during their service, or to fill the time if bored, among other reasons. I am not saying that this is a bad thing but, for better or worse, I chose not to go that route.

This is also a tough question to answer because I have no concrete accomplishments to point to.  I realized pretty early in my service that I would not likely see tangible results from my work since things like organizational management, confidence building, health education and critical thinking are not going to show benefits in a two year period.  Once I realized that, it became easier to deal with the frustration you can encounter, because who wouldn't prefer to point to a school that they helped build?  Again, this gets back to my earlier point about addressing people who feel helpless and helping them to feel otherwise. One of our newly arrived volunteers has a counterpart with a story that illustrates this point.  When the counterpart was a child, there was a Peace Corps volunteer in her village teaching English.  The child later became a motivated adult who is a school director and who is open to alternative methods of teaching - bucking the lingering Soviet system common in the schools here.  She credits her thinking to the example set by the PCV early in her life.

That is the type of lasting impact I am hoping to have had.  I don't think my time was wasted as I did notice small signs of progress with respect to certain individuals I worked with, I put some organizations in contact with donors and they have established relationships independent of me and I think the Peace Corps Armenia materials are in better shape than before.  I am fine with that.

Other than the day-to-day work assignment part ("Goal One" work, referring to the first goal of Peace Corps, which is to provide skills to people who want them), there was also the "Goal Two" and "Goal Three" things, which are helping Armenians understand Americans better and helping Americans understand Armenians better.

For Goal Two, that was sometimes a challenge.  Because of the pervasiveness of American culture around the world, people have some pretty set opinions about us based on what they see in movies (I often found myself explaining to people that there is in fact poverty in the US - and most were shocked to hear about homelessness).  I often had to explain why we volunteer and that we are not spies.  Most importantly, it means letting people understand that we are not all assholes.  There is a temptation to tell people what to do (especially given how Goal One is supposed to be accomplished) but communicating that you understand them before trying to sell them on something is tougher.

For Goal Three, I had a set up to correspond with a school on a regular basis to help them learn about Armenia but that petered out, so this blog and my pictures are my primary way of tackling that. So, you tell me how I've done on that.

Another thing I did is see a lot of the country.  Part of it was the Border 2 Border walk last year, part was visiting friends, part of it was outings with my co-workers. When Armenians ask me about the places I have seen and I start to list them, most say that I have seen more of the country than they have.  I suppose that is part of being somewhere temporarily and wanting to see as much as you can.

The thumbtacks mark the places I visited

In the background of all of that is the desire to do more.  One thing that is frustrating is that there are often a lot of great projects going on and other opportunities for volunteer support things to get involved in and it can be tempting to try getting involved in all of them.  As I am fond of pointing out, if you try to do too many things at the same time, some - if not all - of them are likely to get done badly. So, I did the things I was able to do and was happy for those who were involved in the things I couldn't be.

In summary, I think of what I did the same way that I describe how time passed.  The two years went very quickly (for me, at least) but when I think of all that I experienced, I feel like it was 10 years time. As far as work accomplishments go, it doesn't seem like a lot at the time, but it certainly adds up.

Would you do it again?  The answer is that I am not sure.  I found the adjustment to the different way of living easier than I expected and living in a different culture incredibly rewarding.  But doing another stint in the Peace Corps would likely entail learning another language and I am not sure if my aging brain would want to do that. And while I didn't have too much trouble adjusting to living here, I also made it a point not to go to the US during my service.  Whether I am more adaptable than I thought I would be or whether I just prepared myself mentally for two years away is unclear and I won't know the answer to that until I do go back home.  

If you could go back in time - knowing what you know now - would you still go?  Absolutely. We are often advised to come into this with no expectations.  I think I managed that pretty well - I didn't know what country I would come to, I didn't know what site in Armenia I would be sent to, I didn't know if my site placement would work out - but I managed through the unknowns and made the most of it.

Other than the challenges presented by life in Armenia, there is government bureaucracy, being part of a group that includes some, shall we say, dynamic personalities, and the uncertainty of life after putting yours on hold for more than two years.  But beyond that, there is the change in outlook that comes along. While my experience was not quite the same as the author of this article, I think the message is a pretty good one - being in the Peace Corps really does make you appreciate what we have.  It is almost a cliche but we often hear that you get more out of Peace Corps service than you put in and I agree with that. 

What are you going to do next? I had hoped to have an answer to that question by now but I don't. I left a job that I hated to go into the Peace Corps and figured that two years plus would give me plenty of time to figure that out (especially during the long winters).  Beyond the plentiful distractions (movies and books mostly) during those winters, I was too busy with other things and didn't carve out the time to make any solid decisions.  I could go back to what I had been doing (if the seismic changes contemplated in the US accounting arena were deservedly scrapped in my absence) although I would need to do some catching up. I could apply for a government job with the non-competitive eligibility that comes along with being a PCV.  I could retire if I chose to live in a place like Solak. While I have learned that I can live in a place different from New York, I need to go back there to see if I could do it on a longer term basis.  We shall see.

So, is that all there is to Peace Corps Armenia?  Maybe so - since as the song goes "if that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing.  Let's break out the booze, and have a ball."  That sounds an awful lot like an Armenian wedding.


Is that all there is to this blog?    Beyond the things that I have written about before, there were some things that were noteworthy but not enough to warrant long discussion so here is a short summary.
  • Many people don't wear watches, which is consistent with a general disregard of timeframes (appointments, opening hours, departure times).  
  • There is no voice mail in AArmenia, so people ALWAYS answer the phone when it rings - regardless of what else is going on at the time. I have been in a conversation with someone who stopped in the middle of a word to answer her phone.
  • I am pretty fascinated with how people really feel about the Soviet period versus now.  I am also interested in how people deal with the reminders of that time and like photographing the lingering traces.  But I was often frustrated in my search for old Lenin statues - and I received some strong reactions to my questions about them.  One man said "he is not part of our history" [because the Soviets pretty much imposed themselves on Armenia].  I responded that, similar to slavery in the US, just because you don't like a part of your history doesn't mean it didn't happen (and the man was born in Gyumri when it was called "Leninakan" for god's sake).  Despite the resistance I found, I did locate traces of some.

The statue of Lenin that used to be in what is now Republic Square (in the courtyard behind the art museum - I was told that his head is in the museum basement).
Where he used to stand in Solak
What used to be Lenin Square in Gyumri

His replacement
But is this finished? Not quite - I plan to write a last entry upon returning home and maybe a few along the way but they will be less frequent. I am traveling in the meantime but since that doesn't have anything to do with living in the Caucasus, there won't be any writing about that.

But there will be pictures....

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reflections of the Way Life Used to Be

So, my time is done and I have left Armenia.  Before I summarize my thoughts on the Peace Corps experience (that will be my next post) I thought it was time for some overall observations about Armenia.

I understand that it is a very complex society (as all certainly are).  I also understand that my two years in Armenia really amount to an extended tourist type view since there was always the knowledge that my time in country was limited and I could be in a bubble of Americans fairly often. The things I heard from Armenians were limited because (1) I never reached the level of language proficiency to eavesdrop on what people were really talking about or to have true in-depth conversations with people about issues; (2) for the most part people were careful about what they said to me because they didn't want to offend a guest in their country, or they thought I was a spy; and (3) unless you live through the things that people in Armenia (or - again - any other country), you can't really get it.

Having said all of that, there are benefits to being an outsider, having an (almost entirely) objective opinion and having spent two years observing.  So, this is intended to be a recap of those things that struck me as how Armenia can be its own worst enemy with respect to realizing its potential (to borrow some corporate-speak).

A big issue for many Armenians is how trapped they can become in their own history at the expense of the future.  That history is a tragic one full of empires fighting over the territory that they once ruled and genocide that the world has yet to fully recognize.  But the solution to the biggest issues that currently exist for the country to survive (the stalemate with Azerbaijan which is tied with the border closing with Turkey) seems to move further away over time.

As an example, the hatred that I sensed when talking to young people in Armenia (about Azeris and/or Turks) is troubling. More troubling is that - unlike their parents and grandparents - many have never even met anyone from those countries.  Instead, they are taught that they are bad people who wish them ill and who are not separate from the government of their countries (whose policies, in my opinion, you can justifiably take issue with). As this generation gets older, they will theoretically move into positions that might influence how the country moves forward so these attitudes seem counterproductive to me. Most will agree that the border with Turkey needs to re-open but quite a few young people I have spoken to think that Turkey must not only recognize the genocide and apologize but also make reparations. [For its part, Turkey has other conditions it wants addressed also and to the extent they involve Karabagh that is an entirely different can of worms - but I digress.]

Which brings me to the subject of Ararat.  You can see Ararat (weather permitting) from many points in Armenia and it is part of the national psyche.  One of the regions in named for it.  The stamps in your passport depict it.  Someone told me that the typical design of Armenian churches pays homage to it.  There are products carrying the name as their brand (including one of the major brandy factories). Many Armenian homes (and, I hear, the homes of those in the diaspora) have pictures of it on their walls.

But Ararat is not in Armenia - it is in Turkey. Once - years ago - Armenia covered parts of what is today Turkey, SyriaLebanonIranIraq, Azerbaijan as well as the current area.  Since then, the Persians, the Ottomans, the Russians (and later the Soviets) and many others have fought over and conquered and ruled the lands of ancient Armenia.  In the most recent imperial era, what is now the Republic of Armenia did not include the land where Ararat is. What is now the Republic of Armenia was part of the Russian empire while the area that includes Ararat was part of the Ottoman empire.  Armenia (the current country) then became independent for a short period after WWI and almost got the area including Ararat during the peace negotiations.  That fell apart when its then-war with Turkey was settled by a treaty involving Russia and Armenia then becoming part of the Soviet Union (that treaty called for rejecting the borders proposed by Woodrow Wilson).

For the past 21 years Armenia has been independent again and Ararat is still within Turkey's borders yet some do not seem to accept that.  At the time we arrived two years ago, Armenia was wrapping up a national tourism campaign focused on something like "Noah's Journey" and how he landed on Ararat (no one seemed to acknowledge that the campaign essentially directed tourists to Turkey).  During training, I heard someone in a cultural session state "You have the maps, but we have Ararat!" A young man recently told me that Armenia lost Ararat to Turkey at the time of the genocide.  Also recently, I heard an anecdote whereby a young Armenian woman said (during a presentation that mentioned that Ararat is the highest mountain in Turkey) that "everyone knows that Ararat belongs to Armenia." Whether they are learning that in school or think that a moral claim overrides internationally recognized borders is unclear to me.

In any event, this focus on historical matters rather than the practical matter of reopening the border seems self-defeating.  Armenian merchants already buy a lot of goods from Turkey but they must travel through Georgia, adding time and cost. Likewise, any exports become more expensive and (with respect to exports of produce) impractical.  I am not saying that they need to "get over it" and not push for recognition of the genocide - but it seems to me that focusing too much the way they do is not good for the country long-term.

Another issue that I have written about before is the distrust for one another.  A good analogy to me is sports.  In the Olympics this year, Armenia had 25 athletes - none in team sports.  People have told me that team sports (other than soccer) are not that prevalent because people don't work well together.  The Soviet system nominally promoted a communal mindset, but its legacy really seems to be every man for himself. That attitude manifests itself, among other ways, in the rampant corruption but also in the apathy toward trying to change things through civil society.  As I often pointed out to people, trying to change things may not succeed, but if nothing is done, I can guarantee that nothing will change.  And to get things to change, people need to work together.

I also believe that Armenia needs to examine how it does things and thereby wean itself from the charity on which its organizations depend.  Yes - I know - that is easier said than done and it is an extremely simplified view.  But foreign aid from the US and Russia (as well as from the diaspora) pays for a lot of projects that the government could probably find a way to fund themselves.  I have seen quite a few projects on which PCVs have worked to get a grant to purchase a handful of computers for a school - maybe five for a school with hundreds of students, or textbooks, blackboards or renovating a bathroom.  Meanwhile, there was a news report about a full-size replica of Noah's Arc to be built as a tourist attraction in Yerevan.  It seems to me that the spending priorities need to be reexamined (not to mention the Ararat thing again...)

Tourism is a good example of an industry that Armenia could build out but (in my view) misses the target. While the country has beautiful scenery, delicious food, wonderful people and historic monasteries all over the place, the tourism infrastructure severely lacking.  The roads are terrible, the hotels are overpriced, information about public transportation is either not published or is in Russian only (the trains) or Armenian only (buses). There are language barriers.  Flights into and out of Yerevan are widely seen as too expensive. There is no central tourist office in Yerevan - it was closed the year before last because only budget travelers were coming in and they only seemed to want to attract more "luxury" tourism. Then there is the "Noah's Journey" type thinking about the country promoting itself.

The MO for tourism seems to be in the "if you build it, they will come" category. The big draw that opened lately (the tramway at Tatev monastery - the longest in the world!) is a five hour drive (over terrible roads) from Yerevan with few services nearby, so the trip may need to be done as a day trip. As a result, many tourists going there seem to be diasporan Armenians who probably would have gone anyway.  As PCVs, some of us worked with local areas to develop tourist infrastructure, but there is nothing done on a national level to coordinate it.  Every man for himself.

Overall, the idea of being self-sufficient in any respect seems to be in jeopardy.  Based on conversations I had with people during my time there, it seems to me that they would probably join a new Soviet Union if Russia presented the opportunity. There were some interesting articles recently speaking about Armenia's history since independence (politically and economically) that indicate the tough choices that the country needs to make.  As Peace Corps volunteers, we work at a grass-roots level to try to effect change when they really need to be tackled at the national level.  But one thing you notice as you travel around Armenia is that there is not much grass.

In conversations with Armenians, I notice frustration with the rate of change in the country (similar to people in the US who are frustrated that Obama didn't wave a magic wand and solve the issue most important to them).  I point out that the country is only 20 years old and has only had its current constitution for 16 years and ask if they would trust their country to a teenager.  In the lifespan of a country, 20 years is nothing, but the question is whether neglect will lead to an untimely demise.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Time To Say Goodbye

Me being pensive (thanks for the pic Kevin)
Tomorrow I will end my Peace Corps service in Armenia.  I have written many times before that the time has gone by very quickly for me and it is still hard for me to believe that I have been in Armenia 26 months already.

So now the focus is on wrapping things up, passing things on and, most importantly, saying goodbye to many people.  As I have told several people, this is similar to when I left the US, but without all the shopping.

The goodbye process has been taking places over the course of the time I have been here.  Last year, it was the group that arrived the year before I did.  During the time my group was here, people left for medical reasons, for personal reasons or because a job came by that was too good to pass on.

But it really started to accelerate in April when the group I arrived with had our Close of Service conference.  Over several days, we talked about reverse culture shock, the paperwork that we need to complete as we finish up, how we feel about our accomplishments and practical matters such as medical insurance after service.We also talked a lot about our "Post-COS" plans, that included graduate school, jobs or (as in my case) travel. 

At that point things really sank in.

Peace Corps A-18 Group the day we arrived

Peace Corps Armenia A-18 COS Conference

During training in Solak with our teachers

Remaining Solakians at the COS Conference
In June, I paid a visit to Solak with most of the other volunteers who were there the same time as I.  I stayed with my first host family and had the opportunity to observe changes from two years ago.  Water now runs into the house (albeit on the same two-hours-per-day schedule that I remember). There is a new computer purchased by my host brother who had been away in the army while I was there. The kids are bigger. The entry to the property has been evened out and set with paving stones.  But the peculiar smell of the house - which I had forgotten - hit me as soon as I entered and gave me a comforting feeling of welcome.  Gohar made dinner and, after too many dolma, I had a goodbye toast with Rasmik who would be gone to work before I got up the next morning. 

With Gevorg, Tatik and Gohar
Some of the village kids who used to follow us around
I also visited with some of the other host families and shop owners I remembered.  The kids were playing in the schoolyard as also and we said goodbye to them also.  I met up with the others who had stayed overnight and we got in a taxi, with me not knowing when or if I would ever be in the village again.

Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to say goodbye to my Gyumri host family.  Over the past two years, they have been spending more and more time with their children and grandchildren in Russia and I think they may move there permanently.  I went by their house to learn that I had missed them by a week.  

And then more volunteers started to leave. Peace Corps has an option of taking an early close of service and a sizable number from our group took the option. We had a get-together in Yerevan just before their departure and it was a nice chance to see many of them before they headed out. When we have gatherings like this, it makes me thankful for one aspect of Peace Corps that is sort of under the surface - and that is, the chance to work with people very different from yourself and with whom you might never have otherwise come in contact.   I don't know if or when our paths will cross again, but I can say that this diverse group has made my service more meaningful and my life a little brighter.

A picture I took in Vienna on our way to Armenia - still in the "getting to know one another" phase
Two years later - after Austin and I had worked a lot together
The Northern team for the Border 2 Border walk in 2011
Half of Team North
The most difficult part is to say goodbye to the various people I have met and/or worked with in Gyumri.  Living there for two years was not just about my co-workers at the Social-Educational Centre and the participants at my English club.

With some of my co-workers at the Social Educational Centre and the bishop
It was also the lady in the shop around the corner who always knows that I buy six eggs at a time, the cafe manager who waves at me every time I walk past, the kids on my block who chase me down the street wanting a hand slap, the lady I buy spices and tea from who always gives me extra, the taxi drivers I pass every day on my way to work, the marshutni drivers who know which seats I can and can't sit in, and on and on.  And there are also the friends I have made here - who have included me in their Nor Tari celebrations, a wedding, an arm-wrestling contest or just a meal in their houses.

A man from my neighborhood who I see everywhere.  He and his wife had me in for dinner one night for no reason other than because we see each other all the time.
In my favorite restaurant across from the brewery.  I coached him on the English pronunciations for his menu.

The ladies who always know that I want a Gyumri draft

My spice lady
At my favorite cafe on the main square
At my favorite bread store
At my local grocery store
I also made a trek out to one of the villages we walked through last year during the Border 2 Border walk.  As I was researching the route before the walk, I asked for directions in a village I was passing through.  Before getting directions, I was invited into the house and given lunch.  We were given lunch again (with food to go) during the actual walk and I have kept in touch with the father since.  As the 2012 walk was due to pass the same way, an introduction to the new group seemed a good excuse for a return visit.

With Rubik in Yeranos village
I am often asked if I am happy or sad to leave and the answer isn't an easy one because it is both.  There are some for whom Peace Corps service is more of a trial and they can't wait to leave.  Others (including five in my group) extend their service for one or two years.  I will miss the people here but I also miss the people at home.  I am proud of the fact that I managed fine with all the life differences from what I was used to but I also realize that the privations I have "suffered" are a way of life for the people here.  I feel more comfortable here than at any other point in my service, but I also recognize the signs in myself then it is starting to wear on me (I am getting cranky at times).  So, for me, it is time to go.

Leaving also forces you to think about what you have accomplished during your service.  As part of the closing paperwork with Peace Corps, we write a "Description of Service" listing the various projects and programs we have done.  While I don't have any concrete accomplishments (I didn't build a school or latrine systems, as some people think all PCVs do) but I can see small changes that I think I can take at least partial credit for.  There is a quote in a training session for new trainees I helped with recently that (while it may be cheesy) is apt.  "In your Peace Corps service, you will help plant trees whose shade you will not get to sit under."  The other question I get from everyone is when I will come back (not "if", mind you, but "when").  My answer is that I probably will come again for a visit but I don't know when.  This being the only place that I have lived outside the US, it is a part of my life that I will want to see again - if for no other reason than to see if any of those trees have grown.

In the meantime, I worked on spreading around all the stuff I accumulated in the past two years - to my sitemates, to new volunteers, to my neighbors or to the needy people in my neighborhood.  This last part added a heavy note of sadness to leaving - in my last few days in Gyumri, I saw quite a few people preparing for winter, foraging for things to burn and the cardboard boxes and clothes past the point of wearability serve well for that.  Anything that can be burned did not last long after I left it by a dumpster and some people asked me for the things I was carrying in that direction.   

I am spending these last couple of days in Yerevan to finalize all of my paperwork, close my bank account, arrange my post Peace Corps health care and to say goodbye to more people. I will then visit Karabagh (the disputed area that Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over forever and which we are not allowed to visit while we are in the Peace Corps) and then a few last days in Yerevan to see the new volunteers sworn in and for the last goodbyes.

Where did the time go? 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

You've Got Mail

One of the welcome changes from being in Armenia these past two years is the absolute absence of junk mail.  When I live in New York and go away for two weeks for vacation, I return home to a pile of mail nearly a foot high - magazines, bills and tons of catalogs and other marketing driven mail. Mail in Armenia is not a foreign concept, but (as with everything else) it is very different from the US.

During training, we had a language lesson about dealing with the post office and the related vocabulary.  We also learned that the address format here is the reverse of the one we use in the US.  Specifically, the format is:

Republic of Armenia
Marz (region) name
City/town/village name
Street address

Our homework assignment was to ask our host families for the mailing address of our house and bring it to class.  I knew I was dealing with a different reality when my host mother looked at me like I had two heads.  She told me that if I ever wanted to send them a letter, simply address it to "Solak Village - Gohar and Razmik" and they would get it.  I asked about their surname (which I still to this day do not know) and she told me it is not necessary - everyone knows them.  [I subsequently learned that wives do not always take the husband's surname upon marriage, so not all family members have the same one - but I digress.]

I did not know at the time that Gohar works in the post office, but I don't think that is even relevant.  A former Armenia PCV sent a postcard to one of my fellow volunteers last year and the address (written in English) comprised the volunteer's name, his town and "Armenia" and it reached him. What is more important in may cases is to specify the marz (region) since there are multiple villages in the country with duplicate names (one of my sitemates learned that the hard way when she thought she found a 20 minute shortcut to a village that normally takes three hours to reach - oops - but, again, I digress).

Since that experience, I have learned that many people don't know their post code, where their local post office is, or even what their full mailing address is for one simple reason - they don't get mail.  One of the lifelines for a lot of PCVs is letters and packages from home, so you learn a lot of interesting lessons in trying to navigate the system that does exist.

For example, the time required for something to reach you here can vary widely.  We are told to use the US Postal Service only because there is some sort of agreement that allows us not to deal with some of the customs formalities that might be applied to the courier services such as FedEx and UPS.  But more importantly - those services do not normally deliver outside of Yerevan.  While a FedEx package might reach Armenia sooner, getting the package would entail a trip into Yerevan once you know it has arrived, and maybe a trip to the airport to pick it up.

But following the USPS route is not foolproof either.  My first year here, I left my winter clothes in New York and asked that they be mailed to me once I had a mailing address.  My brother-in-law mailed two boxes to me - both the same size and nearly identical weight and mailed at the same time.  One of  the boxes reached me in four weeks, the other in eight. In tracking the packages (thank you Priority Mail!) I saw that both reached Yerevan the same day, but one was returned to Newark where it sat for a few weeks and then came back again. I have no idea why it got waylaid.

Once the packages reach Yerevan, they are put on a train to Gyumri and I need to trek to the post office adjacent to the train station to retrieve them. It takes me about 30 minutes to walk there and I don't mind it  except that recent packages did not go there, but instead went to one of the local post offices.  I never got an explanation as to why the process changed, but that made me realize how few people here know where the post offices are - it took me two days to locate "Post office 18" (this was made more difficult because people here give directions without really knowing street names, but I digress yet again).

But the combination of the small-town feel of Gyumri (that is - how much people know of my business) and Armenian resourcefulness makes it a bit easier sometimes.  When a package for me was mailed to my Gyumri host family's address after I had moved out (and after they had decamped to Russia for a while) the mailman heard (I suppose from the neighbors) that I sometimes worked at the American Corner which is nearby.  So, he brought the letter there and left it for me. For the next couple of months, any mail I received was delivered there, even when the correct address was used. Another time, a mailman saw me near my apartment and chased me down the street to give me a package notification slip - even though I had never laid eyes on him before.  Likewise, when I finally tracked down the post office I needed to go to for the first of the packages that didn't go to the central location, I walked in and didn't need to ask about a package - one woman took one look at me and asked "Are you John?"

In any event, you had better have your passport with you to pick something up.  Passports seem to be the most widely used form of ID here and heaven help you if you can't prove your identity - even if they seem to already know who you are.  The information is entered manually into a big book; you sometimes see carbon paper (remember that?) if duplicate copies are needed.

Mailing things out is interesting also.  There is no apparent standard stamp rate here as every letter is weighed and postage charged accordingly.  In my first visit to a post office in Armenia, I sent a few postcards out.  Since the hours are irregular at best (many close for a lunch break and this was in a village so there are many reasons people wouldn't show up at regular hours) I decided to buy some stamps for future mailings.  When I asked to buy them, I was met with confusion as I did not have a letter to weigh so there was no way of knowing how much postage I would need.  I was still in the very preliminary stages of language learning  - plus the concept of no minimum postage was alien to me - so the whole exchange must have been comical to the other people there.  Finally, she sold me a couple of stamps, probably just to make me go away.  I still have them.

I have since learned to navigate the system and have successfully mailed various items, although I have no explanation as to why some things reach the US in two weeks while a letter mailed to England took four months.

I was in for a shock when I paid a recent visit to mail some of my things back to New York as I wind down here.  I had heard previously that packages needed to be mailed from Yerevan but recently learned that I could mail from one particular post office in Gyumri.  Whether the old information was incorrect or if the system had changed is unknown to me  - I was just excited that I could mail locally.  I decided to do a test package to gauge the process, the cost and the speed.  I packed a box the size of a shoebox with things that were non-essential but which I wanted to keep and packed it up in a way that I thought would be acceptable.  When I got to the post office, I was told by the very stern lady who handles packages that I needed to open it so that she could inspect the contents.  I did so and (although she did not look at everything) she asked me to explain certain items (as if she had never seen socks or glass jars before). 

Four copies of the mailing label were needed and this was not a carbon paper kind of place - I had to fill it out by hand four times.  And she required my passport to mail the package.  She then proceeded to wrap the entire box with packing tape so that in the end it looked like something I expected the post office in the US to treat as suspicious.  The kicker was that a 3 kilo package (about 6.6 pounds) cost 50 bucks to mail.  Looks like more of my stuff here would move into the no-longer-needed category.

Yesterday, I had to mail a letter-sized envelope to my Solak host mother (she of the unnecessary surname and street address).  The envelope contained a stack of photographs and a small flash drive I was sending so the family would have the electronic versions of the pictures. It turns out the stern package lady is also the person one needs to deal with when sending a letter also (this was told to me by another woman there whose purpose is a mystery to me if she is not responsible for letters or packages; since people pay utility bills at the post office, maybe that's her job, but I digress again).

My "customer service representative" looked suspiciously at the envelope which I had sealed with packing tape since the glue on envelopes doesn't tend to hold.  She asked me what was inside, which I thought unusual and which made me think also that either she generally distrusts foreigners or takes her job too seriously.  I am not aware of any customs restrictions on mail within the country but she started to make a big deal when I mentioned the flash drive and consulted her supervisor.  Thankfully, his response was sane: it's being mailed within the country - what's the problem? She asked for my passport and I think my surprised expression actually shut her up.  She seemed disappointed that the postage for this envelope was only 220 dram (about 55 cents).

But the funniest post office story I have relates to something the USPS botched, but in a very creative way.  The post code for my office is 3104.  I went into the post office near work one day to mail something and a woman who worked there said she needed  my help and produced a letter addressed to someone with an American sounding name - maybe I know him, she thought.  I looked at the envelope and saw that it was mailed from Tampa, Florida to another address in Tampa, Florida.  The mailing address, however, was 3104 N. Armenia St. (I looked on Google Maps - it's a legitimate address).  Despite normal US postage, the correct ZIP code on the mailing address, and no indication whatsoever that it was going to a foreign country, it made it's way here.  

Maybe it would have helped if the person mailing it had needed to show a passport.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Woman of Substance

Peace Corps has an initiative project to encourage volunteerism in the countries in which we serve.  The following is an article that I wrote to recognize one of the people I have worked with during my time in Armenia. 


In my conversations with Armenians, I am often asked about why I came here when the US has so much more.  “Why would you leave the US to come to Armenia??”  I explain my various reasons but also explain that, in the US, there is a well established tradition of volunteering.  

Armenia also has a history of volunteering, but of the Soviet kind.  During the 70 years when Armenia was part of the USSR, there were sometimes “Volunteer Days” declared, but the difference was that attendance was mandatory.  So, the confusion when I tell people I am a volunteer can be understood. 

Another legacy of the Soviet time, however, is the belief that the government should do everything.  While people complain about many things here, the complaints are often accompanied by a complaint that the government is not doing anything about it.  There is a lack of civic involvement, even with respect to things like trash – people litter all the time but think the government should be responsible for cleaning it up.  

In my conversation club, we talk about volunteerism occasionally and I give examples of how people can help others here – for example, those with even a moderate command of English can coach children who are just starting to learn, people can do trash clean-ups in their neighborhoods, time can be spent with children at an orphanage.  The response is normally a list of reasons why it wouldn’t work or be appreciated or various others excuses for not doing things. 

So it is always refreshing to meet someone like Hasmik.

I first met Hasmik a few months after I moved to Gyumri, with a big smile that I have never seen her without. She was attending a project design and management workshop with other alumni of a program through which she spent a year in the US (more on that below).  Since then, she has worked with me and other Peace Corps volunteers in teaching HIV/AIDS education seminars, as a youth camp counselor, helping with a children’s poetry recitation contest, and participating in a program to increase volunteerism. She is the person I immediately think of when an Armenian volunteer is needed for a project.

She was born in Gyumri and is of the generation born after the earthquake, for which the aftermath has been a daily presence their entire lives.  She lives with her parents and younger brother in a district created to replace housing destroyed in the earthquake.  When she was 6 years old, her mother started teaching her English letters along with English language poems and songs. She has been studying the language since then.

At the age of 15, she had what she describes as “a life changing experience” when she entered the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program to study in the US for a year.  FLEX is a very competitive program open to high school students in 10 of the former Soviet Union countries.  To apply, you must already have a good command of English, be energetic and committed to do volunteer work – both while in the US and after returning.  Her family was supportive, seeing the program as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, although her father was concerned about whether it would be detrimental to her performance on university entrance exams by taking away study time.  Ultimately, the decision was made to enter the program.  Considering that Armenian society is very protective of girls, who normally live with their families until marriage and then with their in-laws after, the idea of a girl going away to live with strangers is alien to many people.  The fact that Hasmik’s family saw the opportunity the program offers and supported her desire to go tells me a lot about how they helped develop her character.  I know of other, very qualified women who were not able to enter the program because their parents did not permit it.

As a member of the FLEX program, Hasmik lived in San Antonio, Texas – not exactly an Armenian hub in the US – while the other FLEX students were in other communities throughout the US.  She lived with a host family the entire time and attended the local public high school.  Her host family spent some of the year in Indiana, so she was exposed to two very different regions of the US.  I can’t help but to compare the idea of moving across the globe alone as a teenager (usually for the first time traveling outside the country) with the Peace Corps program where volunteers are all well above high school age, receive language and cross-cultural training upon arrival, and live in the same village as other volunteers as we settle in.  This comparison makes me believe that Peace Corps volunteers have a lot we can learn from these students.

The FLEX program requires students to volunteer for 30 hours during their year in the US.  Hasmik’s volunteer work included working in her school library and in a nursing home – and totaled about 150 hours. It was her first experience with volunteering but it was something that resonated with her and that she continues to do. In her view, she does not see being involved as volunteer service, but rather “as a social duty that as a true citizen, I have to do.”

Since returning, Hasmik has been studying full time to obtain a degree in English.  Despite 20 hours of classes and countless extra hours of studying, she devotes much of her free time to volunteer work.  Beside the activities with PCVs, she also volunteers with the Jinishian Memorial Foundation’s Civic Dialogue and Action project, the OSCE’s Anti-Corruption Student Working Group, and the Gyumri Student Council of the Armenian Apostolic Church.  She recently worked with the “Melodies of Peace” project – an international your orchestra with musicians from Armenia, Georgia and Turkey.  She is the Gyumri representative of FLEX alumni, and is also working as a Student Ambassador for the organization that runs the FLEX program (American Councils), teaching students about the benefits of studying in the US and helping them learn about the application process and all that involves. 

As to her future, she wants to learn more and experience more.  She plans to enter the European Volunteer Service (whereby people from one country travel to another for specific volunteer projects) and then pursue a degree in Communication and Conflict Management.  

So what motivates her?  How does a Hasmik come to be?  She credits the FLEX program and the challenges it presented to her. “At first, you don’t really see the changes” she told me. “They are not very visible for you. But after some time, you realize that the person you are now is the result of all the obstacles and difficulties that you overcame while living all on your own.

“What I have learned from my volunteering experience is that there are some people, who are always motivated and it is their type. I am among them. Although sometimes I get tired or discouraged by the indifference and inert state of people around me, it doesn’t stop me from what I do. I am always motivated, because to really make a change you have to take little steps. Eventually, those steps will lead you to real success.  Also, there are people [whose] example is a motivation itself. My hero for this is Mother Teresa, who inspires and motivates me.”  There are others like Hasmik in Armenia, and each time a PCV meets one it encourages and motivates us that our work is worthwhile. 

So what next? “As far as for now, I don’t know where the waves of life will take me. I keep planning things but as new opportunities come up, I take advantage of them.  I think I will stay in Gyumri, but as I said, nothing is for sure.”   

For Gyumri’s sake, I hope that she continues as a force of nature here for a long time.