Sunday, September 16, 2012

Border2Border Video

Check out a video of one of my summer projects, Border2Border.

See more of Peace Corps Armenia YouTube videos here:

Monday, August 13, 2012


I've always loved to cook. Since mom let us make velveeta nachos and johnny cake for dinner and later as many batches of cookies as we wanted, I've loved it. Now that I'm living in Armenia where convenient fast food isn't even available and processed, pre-prepared food doesn't exist, I am cooking more than ever. Also, cooking is a perfectly valid form of entertainment in Armenia. You can spend an entire afternoon cooking, in my case sometimes an entire day. Best of all, cooking here is constantly challenging. I don't have access to many ingredients and many ingredients here just aren't the same as they are stateside. For example, the powdered sugar here just isn't as "powdered" as back home. The curry powder isn't as "curried" and to have brown sugar, I have to make it using molasses. Also, my stove top and oven are constantly surprising me with what temperature they are. One minute my oven is 450 F, the next it is 275.

I'm starting a new blog with recipes that I've made, some of the recipes are favorites from back home with a few changes here and there. Others are Armenian. Others are recipes I have found and changed to fit the ingredients I have here. Try some of them out, waste a whole afternoon cooking, and enjoy the delicious food.

Check out what I've been cooking here:

16 days of pure bliss (I mean it) in Spain

Sun. Greek yogurt. Cheese. Grocery stores. Tapas. Efficient public transportation. Camping. Mumford and Sons. Ben Howard. Radiohead. Sangria. Beaches. Sunsets. Hiking. More beaches. City Parks. Spanish.

Blog post: done.

Say all of those words with a huge smile on your face and that was my vacation! I'll give you a few details though...

The joy of taking a vacation during Peace Corps Service. Even though you have almost no money, you are satisfied and even overjoyed with buying Greek yogurt and real cheese at a grocery store and eating this for two meals every day.

While my favorite city was San Sebastian, we spent some time on the Costa Brava and all we did was lay on the beach, swim in the almost crystal Mediterranean water, and hike to the next beach when we got bored. The coastline was rocky and rugged which made for tiny, secluded beaches and great sunbathing rocks from which you could just jump into the sea. One day we we hiked to a small beach where we found a family run restaurant. We promptly ordered fresh calamari and two coca-colas, the signature drink of PCVs world-wide I think.

Other highlights include: Seeing the Sangrada Familia and other Guadi architecture in Barcelona, reading in the parque del reiro in Madrid, eating tapas in San Sebastian, and seeing Mumford and Sons in Bilbao.

...and then I walked halfway across the country...

This year, the second annual Border2Border project started the day after my parents left. In a hurried frenzy, I unpacked my vacation clothes and repacked some tennis shoes, a few clothes, a sleeping bag, a tent, and lots of sunscreen. I headed down south with the rest of my team and we were off!

Our team started hiking from Armenia's southern border. For those of you who still don't know where Armenia is (Don't worry, most Armenian students don't either), Armenia's southern border is Iran. No big deal for Armenians but hiking near Iranian borders hasn't worked out so well for Americans in the past. We avoided the border road patrolled by bored, often overly excited Russian military guards and started our hike a few kilometers up the road.

We hiked over 250km. Climbed over multiple mountain passes, some over 2000 meters high (a little over an American mile), walked through countless villages, fields of wildflowers, and some rain and hail storms. We stayed with volunteers, in schools, tents, and once: in a hayloft. Armenians were always friendly with waves and shouts of hello, offers to retrieve us vodka, apricots, water, bbq, and cigarettes, and of course there obnoxiously loud, incredible annoying car honks.

Along the way we stopped in 10 different villages to teach lessons of health and the environment. Our audiences were school kids, parents and the occasional curious passer-by. Attendance was never predictable. In one small village we held spur of the moment lessons at a volunteer's house and close to 30 kids showed up!

In the end, we met up with the Northern team (who was doing the same thing, originating at the Georgian border) in the middle of the country and held one last set of lessons. We were all tired, hot, blistered, a little lighter in the weight department, and filled to the brim with beautiful views of Armenia and its constantly changing landscapes. The project took a total of three weeks and during it we a) saw a lot of Armenia b) taught a lot of children c) got some good exercise d) got to spend time with other volunteers. A and D were probably the highlights of the project.

I taught the environmental lesson. It was a fun lesson to teach to younger children. They were excited and shocked to learn how long it takes for trash to decompose and all promised that they would help keep their community clean from then on. The older students however had different responses. One of the questions I asked to wrap up my lesson was "What would you if you leave here and see a plastic bottle in the street? Will you pick it up and recycle or throw it away? Will you ignore it?" Almost all of the students said that they would do nothing, that it was not their problem. I also liked to ask this question "There is a lot of trash in Armenia, do you think that you should help take care of this problem or that other people should take care the trash?" They almost always answered: other people. These kinds of attitudes are very discouraging and very hard to change. They all understand that trash is bad  for the environment and health and you shouldn't throw it in the streets or in the rivers, but none of them think that they should be the ones to change.

This attitude seems contradictory to other behaviors displayed by Armenians. They keep their houses immaculately clean and are experts at re-using household items and jerry-rigging contraptions out of any old thing. But the trash that exists in Armenia exists in public spaces: streets, parks, rivers, school yards. This is where the line is currently drawn.

...and then the next day I left for Spain...

Summer Activities, Part I: Mother and Father Lauer's Journey to the Caucuses and Turkey

Wow, what was I going to do now that I wasn't scheduled to work my regular 8...hours a week that is?

Well, I was going to find myself busier than I had been since training.

Mom and Dad flew into Tbilisi, Georgia where I welcomed them to their very first caucus city. Tbilisi is a city with an old town, a river, a fortress, some large soviet-style streets, and probably 100+ churches. Although we often hear reports from Georgian volunteers that highlight the glaring similarities between Georgia and Armenia in terms of food, dress, and village life, the capital cities of each country highlight some of vast differences between the two countries as well.

Tbilisi seems more characteristically a country's capital. It has a river, a trait that although un-noticed at first, is a typical city focal point that is missing from Yerevan. Tbilisi has been a capital city much longer than Tbilisi and therefore has an "old town". Yerevan has only served as Armenia's capital and a large city center since the early 1900s after thousands of refugees from the Armenian genocide settled there. Both countries became a part of the Soviet Union, which to the western eye is obviously recognized in the soviet-style architecture so abundant in Yerevan.  In Tbilisi, due to its longer and more varied history, the soviet architecture is tucked between building of other influences as well.

Another superficial and almost silly observation highlighting yet another difference between the two cities was women's shoes. My Dad remarked that "All the women here wear high heals!" At the same time he remarked this, I was noting what I considered A LOT of flats being worn by women. Every time I am in Tbilisi it feels like the fashion capital of the world for a few moments as I look around and see variety and glimpses of personal style. Style in Armenia, compared to Tbilisi makes it almost seem like Armenians are all wearing uniforms. The men where black pants with black shirts (maybe white in the summer) and black pointy shoes. Young women wear skin tight pants or dresses, often very revealing by western standards and high high high heals. Older women were long skirts, conservative shirts, and stockings all the time.

Finally, the attitude of both cities highlights stark differences between Armenia and Georgia.  In Georgia, the first foreign language written on signs or spoken to you is English, in Armenia it is Russian.  It seems that Armenia gladly joined the Soviet Union, I get the impression that given the time and mitigating circumstances, the becoming a part of the Soviet Union saved the people of Armenia. Certainly, to this day, time under the Soviet Union is recalled fondly as it was a time when people had their own homes, good jobs, plenty of food, and good education and social services. In Georgia, my parents and I visited the history museum where my ignorance (other than information gained from recent current events) was shattered. Georgia's time in the Soviet Union punctuated with anti-Russia and anti-Stalin protests.

Next Stop: Istanbul

Istanbul was busy. For starters, it is a large city, and on top of that it is a city that is one of the top-ten tourist cities in the world. We couldn't really get lost, all we had to do was follow the steady stream of camera holders to the next destination. We got to see the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar, the Topkapi Palace, and Dancing Dervishes. We topped it all off with a Bosphorus River cruise which took us to the black sea. It was easy to see the appeal of Istanbul; it is a city full of history,  full of culture, full of modern conveniences, and so full of lively people.

Now it was time to return home, for me that is: Armenia.

First stop: Dilijan. Mom and Dad got to see my apartment, my school, meet my counterpart and my sitemates. After Dilijan, we traveled down south. (to my Dad's amusement, the road we took used to be part of the silk road) We stayed in Goris and visited another volunteer in Halizdor where we did some hiking, visited old Halidzor in the gorge and took the cable car to the Tatev monastery. In Yerevan we visited the genocide museum, enjoyed some good food, and took in the cities sights. We also managed to visit my training host family and take a day trip to Lake Sevan.

It was a busy but fun two weeks and I will be forever thankful to mom and dad for the two weeks of their visit.

School's...back in session.

School in Armenia officially starts on September 1st. As that date quickly approaches, I'll reflect a little bit on the past year and my hopes and dreams, followed by brutal realities, for the two years I have halfway completed as an English Teacher in Armenia.

Everybody who's anybody will tell you that the second year of your Peace Corps Service is drastically different from your first year. The usual reasons are cited: you are more experienced, your language is better, and the people of your community are more familiar with you. These certainly are contributing factors but as I analyze the differences in myself one year ago compared to today, I recognize a few factors that aren't cited as often or maybe just not said as bluntly:

Reasons your second year is better:
  1. Over half of your grand ideas from last year failed, some of them painfully. You got over it and realized that the only way to get something done is to start on a minuscule level, I'm speaking of ant-hill level. 
  2. You've found your niche, you've found out exactly how and when you can contribute to your workplace. You have also realized that this means you won't be doing ANYTHING on some days.
  3. You've finally written a to-do list for the next year that can fit on a a post-it note, not an A4, single spaced, typed document.  
  4. You've also realized your limits: I personally will never teach alone in a room with my 8th graders again. EVER. If I find myself in said situation, I will run screaming home to my apartment, lock the door, and not leave for the rest of the week.
So, what are my goals for the next school year?
  1. Obtain my own copies of the text books we use to teach. Neither my counterpart nor I actually have copies of the textbooks. 
  2. Help my counterpart understand the importance of subject matter review before testing. Testing seems to be random at best in both timing and content.
  3. Introduce a few new activities to the lessons and refine the popular ones from last year. My counterpart is ALWAYS open to new activities and methods to teach the students, I just have to come up with them.
  4. Have fun with the kids. This includes laughing silently at their antics during class.

Alright folks,

I've been out of touch for a little while with many of you. I apologize thank you all for your patience. A combination of a cold dark winter, the many disappointments seen by every PCV during their first (and I am sure second) year, followed by a bout of laziness and then extreme business has led to my cyber-silence. Maybe it is the pending new school year, the large amounts of Vitamin D I've been soaking up on walks, or the fact that I don't want to sweep my apartment that has led to this new motivation,

whatever it is, here goes...

The following posts will tell a few stories...