Sunday, April 22, 2012

Alaverdi Sanahin and Haghpat: Cross-post with

The operator of the Alaverdi-Sanahin cable-car has a slight memory problem.
[When was the ropeway built?] I ask him
[When was it built? What did you have for dinner last night?]
[I don't understand. I'm sorry, my Armenian isn't very good.]
[What did you eat for dinner last night?  I'm 65 years old. I can't remember what I had for dinner last night. How can I remember how old the ropeway is?]
[But is it safe?]
[Of course it's safe.  I remember how to drive it.]

Unlike the slick, newly opened cable-car in Tatev, the Alaverdi-Sanahin cable-car in Lori Marz is a daily commuter.  Its windows are scratched and cloudy, its paint worn and the operator must step out at each stop to keep the car from swaying on its single carrying cable.  But for a princely sum of 140 drams (~40 US cents) for a roundtrip, about 1/20th the price of the Tatev trip, the cable-car is an essential connection between the town of Sanahin, located on a clifftop overlooking the Debed River and the mining city of Alaverdi located in the valley floor.

The Alaverdi #2 Cable Car and the town's copper mine

 After overflying the river and rising up along a vertical cliff face, the cable-car deposits commuters and tourists at the bottom of Sanahin.  It's a 15-minute walk out to Sanahin's twin tourist attractions: the Mikoyan museum, dedicated to the life and careers of Artem Mikoyan, the legendary fighter jet designer and Anastas Mikoyan the Soviet apparatchik; and Sanahin monastery, a 10th-century monastic complex and UNESCO world heritage site.

Haykush Mikoyan and the MiG-21
I'm an airplane nut, so I couldn't help but visit the Mikoyan museum, where I had the pleasure of meeting Haykush Mikoyan, the museum's curator and niece of the Mikoyan brothers. The centerpiece of the museum’s collection is Artem Mikoyan’s most successful fighter, the MiG-21.This particular jet, Haykush explains, was built in Tbilisi, little more than an hour’s drive away. Appropriately, a family of wasps has taken up residence in the right aileron. The museum itself houses a collection of flight suits, books and aircraft models. The first floor also houses artifacts relating to life in Sanahin, including a medal presented by Soviet authorities to Mikoyan’s parents for having five children.

Artem’s brother Anastas Mikoyan occupies a corner of the museum.  He had a storied career as an unusually long-lived Soviet apparatchik with a close relationship to Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.  Photos show Anastas cavorting with dignitaries and revolutionaries ranging from Latin American guerillas to Ford engineers.  His official GaZ car is preserved in a glass case outside.
Tourists explore Haghpat
After I've got my fill of aviation history, I head up the hill to Sanahin.  Its archways, domed halls and grottoes are majestic in the light of the Spring day.  From Sanahin, it is possible to see its sister monastery, Haghpat, across the gorge.  Haghpat and Sanahin share majestic medieval Armenian architecture, blending secular and ecclesiastic styles and featuring intricate khachkars, the cross-stones that are a central feature of Armenian art.  Although most travelers will choose to take a taxi or marshrutka down the hill, through Alaverdi and back up the gorge, intrepid travelers can choose to walk the 6-kilometer hiking trail between the two.  I personally choose to ride the cable-car a second time and return to Alaverdi to catch a taxi.  [It's a beautiful walk and it can be done in a few hours,] says my driver [but you're too fat.]

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Reddit Questions and Comments

I got some pretty good questions about Peace Corps from folks on reddit.  Here are their questions and some of my responses:

[–] from c------------- sent  ago
Hey! I just found out I'm going to Armenia in May. I'm really excited, but obviously I have a lot of questions. Do you know if most of the volunteers are in cities or remote villages? I'm hoping to go to a decently sized city. Also, how did you get an apartment? I told my recruiter I would prefer living alone, but I wasn't sure if there's any breakdown on how many people live in apartments vs with host families? Do you know if they prefer people to live with host families, and if so, do you have to argue your case at all to get an apartment?
Also, is there anything you wish you'd packed but you didn't? Not so much clothes, I think I'm okay there, but like comfort things? I'm going to buy a Kindle before I leave, and some adapters for my computer/camera, but then is there anything else you wouldn't have thought of packing, but just randomly want? Like Woolite?
How much longer are you there? I feel like I'm stressing so much now trying to get everything together, so I'm really excited to just get on my way. Any answers you can give me/other advice you think would be useful would help a lot. Thanks!
[–] to c--------------- sent  ago
Congrats on getting your nomination. I'm an A18 TEFL leaving in August, so I may or may not get the chance to meet you.
  1. Some volunteers are in cities, some are in villages. It's about 50/50. At some point during PST you'll have an interview with your program manager. Tell them then that you would prefer a city to a village. If you're CYD pretty much all the placements are in cities. Regardless, you'll have to live with a host family for 3 months during PST, then for 2-3 months at site. Yerevan is the only real city in Armenia, and no volunteers are assigned there. Gyumri, the 2nd biggest, is about 100,000 people but is really just a giant village. At least it has a park, good supermarkets, some outdoor cafes and pizza delivery though. The volunteers there also live in nice apartments.
That said, there are some villages that are very beautiful with good housing options.
The real division ends up between the South and the North (somehow it always comes to that). Getting to Yerevan from Syunik Marz takes 5-8 hours of uncomfortable marshutka travel on mountain roads. If you're assigned to the South, don't expect to see people in the North and vice-versa. But the Southerners tend to have a good time partying it up with each other, while Northerners are more likely to go to Yerevan and do their own thing when they need some R&R.
Everything is going to be very intense for the first few weeks of PST, then the first few weeks at site. Your highs will be higher than normal, your lows will be rock-bottom. Peace Corps tells you to exercise or do yoga or something for this. Other volunteers get together in groups to have a few drinks and blow off steam. I think there's not really anything you can do except keep calm and carry on, but it just helps to know that things will even out over time. The first 12 months, you're basically running a mental and emotional marathon. It took me until December to start to feel competent in Armenia and Armenian, and then until July to feel like I really knew what I was doing. The second year is much more calm.

[–] from m-------- sent  ago
Hi! I am very interested in joining the peacecorps and I saw your reply to someone's post about your experience. I was just wondering if you had any incite on the application process as well as any pitfalls you noticed during your experience. I am a junior in college, have farming experience, am fluent in spanish, and have been grooming myself for a the last couple years to gain experience for this kind of thing. I would love any advice or wisdom you might have gained along the way.
Thanks! m---------
[–] to mannyrabbit sent  ago
Hi M----------,
It's pretty hard to condense two years of work and personal life, struggles, failures and successes into a reddit reply. The best thing I've learned is recognize when I need to do something myself because Host Country Nationals (HCNs) will not be able to, and when I need to find an HCN to do it, because they can do it in 2 minutes, when it would take me 2 hours of frustrated yelling and screaming. A few months ago I wrote a blogpost on "what I've learned" after 1.5 years
[–] from m----------- sent  ago
thanks a lot! You're blog had some good incite. However I am curious about your placement. Were you placed there by yourself or with other volunteers? Also, is the work you do for PC something that was outlined explicitly in your training, or were you left to use your discretion in finding out what help was needed in your assigned area? I haven't really heard a lot about that aspect so far. thanks for taking the time to get back to me.
[–] to m----------- sent  ago
I was placed in a village, in a school as a Health Education volunteer. The other school in the village got a TEFL (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) volunteer. It turned out that what my school also really wanted a TEFL, so I switched to doing TEFL. After a year, I moved to the village just north of mine, which didn't have any volunteers, and spend my time spread between them. I also got the village just south of mine to apply for a volunteer, so now there's a little cluster of three of us, spread out over three villages. Some PCVs live in cities or regions where they're in walking distance of each other. I live about 2 hours from the capital, which is full of foreigners, and about 2 hours from the country's second city, which has about 100,000 people and 5 PCVs. The country I'm in (Armenia) is about the size of Massachusetts, so you're never that far from another American. But PCVs in Mongolia or the Philippines might be a day's travel from another Westerner.
Also, you mean to say "insight." To "incite" is to agitate people, e.g. "the unjust killings incited a riot."
[–] to m---------- sent  ago
sorry to grammarnazi you, it was just getting to me.

[–] from c---- sent  ago
I am actually very interested in this idea and wanted some "first hand experience" kind of feed back. I just spent a few years being homeless on the street and on people people's floors/couches and what not,; I realize this is nothing compared but I have a new understanding and urge to help and I'd like to know more. Firstly, do you sign a "contract" making it so that you have no choice once you decide to join? Secondly, How do you provide for yourself once you get to the location? Thirdly, is there any choice in where you end up going? Lastly... do they drug test? ( I feel ashamed for asking but I cannot deny my past.) Anyways I was just wondering and am genuinely interested in helping people and traveling and experienceing other cultures and locations. Thank you for your time.
[–] to c----- sent  ago
Hi C-----,
  1. You're free to leave the PC at any time. If you decide to leave, you'll be on a plane back to the states within 72 hours.
  2. PC gives you a monthly living stipend for the country you're in. Mine is roughly equivalent to what my school's principal makes. If you stay at your site and eat local food, it lasts you pretty well. If you go to the capital and go to bars, clubs and restaurants, you can blow through it in a weekend.
  3. You can't pick the country you want to go, but you can indicate which region you prefer. You'll probably get sent somewhere else though. One of the first tests of PC is seeing if you're flexible enough to go anywhere in the world.
  4. They do a basic background check, and ask you if you've used drugs in the past. If you've got felony convictions or a pattern of misdemeanors, you're not likely to be accepted. If it's truly in the past, they'll likely accept you. A PC recruiter would know more.
[–] from c----- sent  ago
Thank you so much for responding! Honestly, I would go anywhere, I love traveling. No felonies, yes drug drenched past but that is behind me; What kind of work do you do in the field? Are you feeding people or building things or what? I just want to make a positive impact on this planet while I can.
[–] to c------ sent  ago
My primary project is Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). I work in a village school teaching 3-12 grade, working with the local English teachers. I've brought a bunch of books and computers to my school through donations so the kids have more resources, and worked with an NGO to get a grant to hire teachers who actually speak English to work afterschool with motivated kids in the region. Last summer, I worked at a bunch of camps (Environmental, Boys Leadership, English Language). This summer I'm helping my former host family start a homestay on their organic farm so they can make some money and get free labor while their son is doing his military service.
[–] from c------ sent  ago
That is amazing, props for your effort in making this a better place for people to live. Do you need a degree of any sort to teach english to people? Or do you just have to speak english? Also, what other things do people in the PC do?
[–] to c------ sent  ago
You need at least a bachelors, preferably with experience teaching. I was assigned as a health volunteer, but my site really wanted an English teacher instead. I sortof learned it as I go along. Since, unlike the local teachers, I speak English [as a native], know how to use a computer and have access to English language books, it's a big improvement to the school's English language teaching. Check out the PC website for all the different programs.
[–] from c----- sent  ago
That is fascinating! Thank you so much for talking to me.

[–] from i-------- sent  ago
Hey, I'm pretty interested in the Peace Corps. Rough conditions don't bother me much as I was preparing the join the Marine Corps for a year and 3 months till I had a revelation in life and couldn't see myself killing, or being part of it; which led to my resignation two weeks ago. I'm not sure what I want to do yet but Peace Corps came up a few times. I was wondering if you could shed some light on to how I could go about signing up. what are requirements and what to maybe expect.

[–] from L-------- sent  ago
Can you pick where you want to go? Where were you sent? What language(s) did you pick up? What're the conditions of where you are now?
[–] to L-------- sent  ago
Hi L---------,
You can't pick the country you want to go, but you can indicate which region you prefer. You'll probably get sent somewhere else though. One of the first tests of PC is seeing if you're flexible enough to go anywhere in the world.
I applied right out of college, because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I wanted to travel and get some experience working outside the US. I said I was happy to work anywhere in the world, as was assigned to Armenia as a Health Education Volunteer. When I got to my site, it was pretty obvious they really wanted an English teacher, so I switched to TEFL. I speak Armenian pretty fluently and so now I'm switching to Russian, which is more useful [outside of Armenia]. Two years of work and personal life is pretty hard to sum up in a single message. If you're interested, my blog is at
[–] from L-------- sent  ago
Wow, that's pretty damn awesome. I tip my hat to you sir. What happens at the end of your, uh, rotation? Are you given the choice to stay/go home? Do most people go home, or stay? Oh! How were you taught the language, how long did it take for you to pick up the language, and what did you do until you had? I'm 18 and a senior in high school, and I've taken 5 years of Spanish and French each, and 2 years of Russian on top of that. I speak French fluently, I'm from Quebec (French Canada) and being pretty gifted at languages, a big part of going on a Peace Corps trip would be picking up another language, so thanks for any answers :)
[–] to L--------- sent  ago
After about 1.5 years, if your projects are going well, you can extend for up to two years. Of our group of 50 volunteers, about 5 have decided to do so (most for one year). After PC, many volunteers go to grad school (there are some PC/gradschool programs out there) and some enter the job market. Many use it as a way to jumpstart their careers in international development or domestic non-profits.
I started learning Armenian in June, was given 10 weeks of intensive tutoring in-country, then was sent to site in August. By December, I had a breakthough moment where I realized I spoke the language well enough to take care of myself and solve problems on my own. It involved a taxi ride from Yerevan-Tbilisi and a forgotten library book with $80 US tucked between the page. The solution involved patiently but aggressively munching on a pomegranate. By next June, I was totally comfortable with any and all daily situations. Last December, I gave an interview to a TV station and embarrassed myself miserably tripping up on the word for "Environmentalism." It's Bnapahpahanakan, fyi. And the trick to pronouncing it correctly is to say it so slowly that it takes a full 45 seconds. Last week I gave a 5-minute talk to a group of young professionals, and did quite well using very simple vocabulary and wordplay.
Ultimately, if you're already tri- or quad-lingual, learning another language becomes much easier due to physiological changes in the brain, even if the language is Swahili, Geogian or an indigenous Mayan tongue. Did I mention you have to be prepared to learn a language that's spoken by only a few hundred thousand or few million speakers, who only exist in a small, landlocked country? Because you do.
So if that hasn't scared you off/or has gotten you incredibly excited, I have to ask a question that may burst your bubble: Do you have US citizenship? You don't need to be a native, there's a swede and an aussie in our group, but you do need to be a citizen. You sound like a great candidate so I hope you are. If not, the Canada International Development Agency (CIDA. Very Canadian name, BTW) is very highly respected worldwide and I recommend you check out