Thursday, January 6, 2011

Istanbul - Ստամբուլ

Armenian teachers get pretty generous breaks from school. First, there’s a full week off in October, the fall break. Then, there’s at least two weeks in December/January for the holidays. And finally, there’s another full week in March, the spring break. There are also numerous one or two day holidays throughout the year, much like in the U.S.

This year, during fall break, Nicole and I went to Istanbul. We took a bus all the way from Yerevan through Georgia and then Turkey along the Black Sea coast. Sixty bucks and about thirty two hours later, we arrived in Istanbul…not bad. The bus ride itself was an experience.

I’m not an experienced international traveler, but of the few places I’ve been, Istanbul may be my favorite. Once the heart of Eastern Christianity and then of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, the city displays a fascinating fusion of east and west. The Aya Sofia, or Hagia Sofia, beautifully embodies this interesting history. It was the largest Christian cathedral in the world for over a thousand years before Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, at which point it was converted into a mosque. Much of its Christian features were removed and replaced by Islamic ones at that time, but the Ottomans did well in preserving the structure and in 1935 when it was converted into museum, much of the original elements were restored and placed on display next to their Islamic counterparts creating a stunning work of art and history.

In the picture below, Nicole is sitting next to the remains of the old basilica built in 415 AD currently placed outside Aya Sofia. In the original relief, there were twelve lambs depicting the twelve disciples.

Across from the Aya Sofia is the Blue Mosque. With six minarets and a beautiful interior adorned with blue tiles, there’s no wonder why it’s a major tourist attraction. It’s still in operation, but after taking off your shoes and covering your head (for females) you can enter certain parts of it.

In the picture below, I’m standing on the carpet in the Blue Mosque as a worshiper would. You can see that the pattern is designed for kneeling and prostrating during prayer. You stand with your feet in the two ovals, kneel down placing your knees on the flowers in front of you, and then you bend forward to the floor where there are two more flowers for your hands as well as one for your face.

There are roughly three thousand mosques in Istanbul. Needless to say, we only visited a few, but the customs and architecture were amazing. In the first picture below, men are washing their hands, forearms, faces, and feet before entering the mosque in a purification process typically required before prayer. I believe we took this picture at the Yeni Mosque. In the second picture, you can see the front side of the same mosque from the Galata Bridge. If I remember correctly, the final picture is of Suleymaniye Mosque, another famous Istanbul landmark. I apologize if I got any of the names or locations wrong.

The next two pictures were taken just outside of the Yeni Mosque.

Another highlight of the trip was Topkapi Palace, the former palace of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly four hundred years. Although it’s a little expensive to tour both the palace and the harem, it’s definitely worth it. Comprised of over four hundred rooms, the harem housed the sultan’s family, concubines, and servants. The first picture is of the imperial hall with the sultan’s throne and the second is of Nicole standing against some beautiful tiles somewhere in the heart of the harem.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is just as impressive as its mosques and palaces. Its labyrinthine shops encompass a huge area of the city and provide an amazing shopping experience, if you don’t mind some intense bargaining. Below you can see one of the entrances, a congested hallway, Nicole browsing through scarves, and a beautiful display of Turkish delight, which was delicious.

Equally as delicious as the Turkish delight was the astounding array of baklava and tea.

Tea, spices, food, and tobacco can all be bought from colorful back street markets or from the amazing Spice Bazaar near Yeni Mosque, second in size only to the Grand Bazaar.

Here’s another interesting observation, Istanbul was full of stray cats. Nicole and I even stayed at a hostel called the Stray Cat where cats wandered in and out at their discretion without being pestered. Everywhere we went we saw food and water bowls set up for these cats in random places and they all looked well feed and healthy. It was actually pretty nice. The picture below was taken inside Topkapi Palace.

The trip was great, even the bus ride was memorable. I could definitely go back to Istanbul.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

We're Alive

Despite good intentions, it’s been over five months since my last post. To satisfy the curiosity and concern of my dedicated followers who are undoubtedly waiting in suspense for my next post, I’ve provided a brief update as well as some pictures below.

This is our nineteenth month in Armenia and by now I think we both feel fairly adjusted to life here. All of the things that were once new and different to us now seem somewhat ordinary. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been motivated to write lately, or maybe it’s because we’ve been too busy. Nevertheless, after reflecting on the last five months, I realize that much has happened and that I am living in a complicated country where there is still much that is unknown to me.

We’re now the senior group of volunteers in the country. Well, we’ve been the seniors since the new group was sworn in on August fifth. Nicole and I now have two more volunteers living in our town who we call our "site mates". The first picture below is from their site announcement ceremony. A friend of mine prepared a welcoming sign for the new volunteers coming to our region of the country, which we call “the bear marz” (a marz is like an administrative region). One of my site mates is in the second picture and both are in the third.

The summer seems like such a long time ago, but there are definitely some things still worth mentioning. A large portion of our work efforts were dedicated to the incoming group of volunteers. We organized several training sessions for them and observed their performance during open English classes. We also continued teaching our community English club, which has grown substantially since then.

We spent the Fourth of July with a group of friends in Sevan where we rented a few cabins along the lake. Lake Sevan is located 1900 meters above sea level, so the water was still cold in July, but under the summer sun it was refreshing. I think we all had a great time.

As a member of the volunteer advisory committee, I had the opportunity to attend a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the US Embassy in Yerevan. Her visit in July was the first time the US Secretary of State has come to Armenia in almost two decades. None of the pictures I took of her came out very well, so I included a picture of myself instead. Of course, the crowd wanted me to give a speech too, but I didn’t want to overshadow any of the dignitaries or diplomats.

The summer ended quietly as we enjoyed abundant time with friends and nice weather. In the first picture below, I’m standing with the director of an environmental NGO that has a long history of working with Peace Corps Volunteers. In the second, a good friend of mine came to visit us along with his friend from the US. We had an excellent time together. In the third, Nicole is enjoying the fresh greens and vegetables while she can before the change of seasons. Finally, in the fourth, Nicole and I are standing on our balcony as the summer changes to fall.

With the end of summer came the start of the school year. During the last two weeks of August, I had a lot of work to do in my school to prepare for the opening of a language center. I think I mentioned in a prior post that the center is being funded by a grant that my counterpart and I wrote in the spring. We’re a little bit behind schedule on completion, but it’s open and we’ve been using it for our classes since the start of the school year. The local press visited during one of my counterpart’s Russian lessons and wrote an article on the language center that was published in the newspaper. I included a copy of the article below although I know it’s probably illegible for most of be honest, I don't understand much of it either.

Both Nicole and I also put a lot of time into classroom management and lesson planning improvements during the first few months of school that seem to be paying off. As the school year progressed, we also added extracurricular English clubs to our workload both at school and in the community. Nicole in particular has seen much success with the clubs. She has three after school student groups, a teacher group, a professional adult group, and she’ll be adding a second adult group after the holiday break. Unfortunately, I don’t have any good pictures to show for these things, but I’ll try to get some.

Winter has been strangely mild throughout Armenia so far, even more so for us than for other volunteers. We live at a lower altitude in a river valley that helps protect us from inclement weather. Although the cold is finally setting in, we enjoyed almost fall-like weather up until the end of December. After spending five years in Syracuse, we’re welcoming the change. My apologies to any Syracusans out there who’ve already seen over seventy inches of snow this season. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve had my share of bone chilling baths and showers. I’m not sure which is better, a mild winter without heated buildings and ready access to hot water, or a harsh one with all the amenities. Anyway, we haven’t had any snow in town yet, but there has been snowfall on the mountains and hills surrounding us, as shown in the picture below.

In November we had our annual all volunteer conference in Yerevan where we celebrated Thanksgiving together. Amazingly, a small group of volunteers prepared a traditional turkey dinner for over a hundred people. The pictures below were taken at the dinner.

On the way to the conference, Nicole and I visited a friend in another region of the country where we discovered an Armenian alphabet stone park in a town called Aparan. The stones commemorate the 1600th anniversary of the Armenian alphabet (405-2005).

During the conference, we also took part in an interesting HIV/AIDS awareness event. About 75 of us found a busy street in Yerevan where we posed in still positions for one minute displaying posters and wearing HIV/AIDS t-shirts. I would call it a flash mob, except flash mobs are generally unorganized and are rarely in support of a cause. Anyway, it was a really interesting and fun way to get involved in something important.

Lastly, I’d like to express my deepest condolences to Nicole and her family for the loss of Joe Moritz Sr. He passed away in mid-December. Nicole and I struggled over the decision to come back to the US during this time, but for various reasons we were unable. In the last picture, Nicole is admiring a small memorial that we made for him in the mountains outside our town. He was a great man.

There are some more things I’d like to talk about, but I think that’s plenty for now. As always, I’d like to thank you all for your continued support of our work here. I hope you are all healthy and happy. Please feel free to comment or send us an email.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Celsius to Fahrenheit

Fahrenheit = (Celsius x 1.8) + 32

This is the equation for converting Celsius into Fahrenheit. As many of you are probably already aware, the majority of the world uses Celsius, not Fahrenheit when recording temperatures. Nevertheless, whether out of utility, convenience, or just good old stubbornness, we Americans have chosen to continue using the Fahrenheit Temperature Scale…which is fine, while you’re living in America. But, if you decide to live or travel abroad, you have to make some adjustments. Not just for temperature either. You have to think in kilometers not miles, kilograms not pounds, and liters not gallons. I wonder what really lies at the root of our reluctance to adopt these international standards. Maybe it’s the same phenomenon that suppresses the popularity of soccer in America. I digress…that’s not what this post is about.

Anyway, I haven’t really been that interested in temperature conversion until recently. Last summer was wet and mild…plus we lived at a higher elevation for most of it, so the heat felt bearable. Winter seemed long and cold, especially without adequate heating, but not quite as bitter as I expected in terms of temperature. What I’m trying to say is that the temperature has not been severe enough for me to take interest. Then, about a week or two ago, the heat came. Since then, there have been a few days when I can’t even get up and walk to the kitchen without breaking a sweat. Recently, Nicole and I have spent much of our time sitting in front of the fan trying to stay cool…well, warm is about the best that can be hoped for.

So, a few days ago, out of curiosity, I began to ask the locals about the actual temperature. The responses I got were all in the range of 40 degrees Celsius, which meant very little to me at the time. In fact, in my Fahrenheit mind, 40 degrees sounded pretty cool. Then, a friend of mine shared with me the equation for conversation…

(40 x 1.8) + 32 = 104 degrees Fahrenheit

Now I’m paying attention.

I know I shouldn’t be complaining. It won’t be all that long from now, probably sometime in November, and I’ll be complaining about the cold. The grass is always greener I suppose. It’s actually not that bad, as long as you’re sitting in front of the fan, drinking a glass of cold water…however, we can’t just sit around all day. We’ve got places to go and people to see. Unfortunately, our main mode of transportation involves stuffing ourselves into small buses already packed with people sitting, standing, and squatting wherever space can be found. Consider another interesting factor regarding this mode of transportation: here in Armenia, there is a commonly held belief that exposure to a breeze or a draft of air can cause sickness. Consequently, those lucky passengers who find seats next to the window keep them either closed or at a slight crack to reduce such risk. As a result, the bus becomes a kind of sauna…sadly, not the nice spa or health club kind either.

I hate to say it, but I miss spending most of my days going from one temperature controlled building to the next back in the US. However, I’m sure that once I return, I’ll be complaining about excessive energy consumption, high utility bills, and our dependence on unsustainable sources to produce such conveniences. Like I said earlier on, the grass is always greener.

I’ve heard that there are similar heat waves back in the US. Stay cool and enjoy your summer.


PS. Today is actually a bit cooler here. Maybe we’re on the tail end of this heat wave. I suppose everything happens in cycles. I guess it’s just a matter of waiting patiently while the cycle runs its course.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Halfway There

On June 30th, Nicole and I will have been living in Armenia for 13 months. We’ll also have about 13 months left until our close of service. On some days it seems like the time has gone by so quickly. I think to myself, “I can’t believe I’m already half way through this experience”. On other days, the end of service seems like a world away.

A new group of volunteers came into the country at the end of May and the group that came before us will be moving out in July and August. During this last week, at the request of our program manager, Nicole and I facilitated a couple training sessions with the new group. It feels weird to be considered a kind of “expert” on any matters related to this experience; but, I suppose I do feel like I have some useful information to pass on. It’s strange to think that around this same time next year, the new group will be considered the “experts” and our group will be making arrangements to leave the country.

When I first considered joining the Peace Corps, I was hesitant to commit to a full 27 months of service. I wanted something shorter. But now that I’ve been here a while, I question whether or not something shorter can even be effective. My first year was kind of a trial and error process. It wasn’t until March or April that I felt like I was actually able to accomplish any “real work” in the community. With all this in mind, I understand that my second year of service has the potential to be much more impactful, I just hope that I have the stamina to persistently apply myself along the way. It sometimes feels like running a marathon (not that I’ve ever actually ran one). In the second half of the race, I’ll be looking for that “runner’s high” that can carry me through to a strong finish.

Anyway, Nicole and I are enjoying the summer months. The weather has been nice and we’ve had lots of friends visiting us, using their time off from school to see other areas of the country. We’re not doing as much work as we were during the school year, but we’re definitely staying busy. I just recently got my first grant approved. In the next few months, my counterpart and I will be developing a language center in the school where I’m working. Next year, we’ll have access to a computer, projector, printer, scanner, etc… Plus a variety of language resources that aren’t usually available in the Armenian classroom. The process of writing this grant was pretty painful, but I’m glad I did it now that the project is up and running.

We’ve also been facilitating an adult English club in the evenings. So far, it’s attracted some local professionals and university students who seem genuinely interested in learning. It’s very common for volunteers to see high levels of interest in the first few weeks after opening a club only to have attendance plummet shortly thereafter. Luckily, we’ve been meeting regularly for a few months now without experiencing this common phenomenon.

One more thing to mention before rolling out the latest pictures…as some of you already know, Nicole and I made a trip back to the US for a couple weeks. It wasn’t something that we planned on doing; however, we decided that we couldn't miss my grandmother's memorial service. Finishing up some projects in Armenia before heading back proved to be an exhausting effort. Also, I agreed to give a presentation about Armenia to a group of high school students in New York on my first morning back in the US. These obligations, coupled with jetlag and a pretty high level of unexpected culture shock contributed to my exhaustion. I’m only saying this because I think it may have affected my interactions with friends and family during the first few days of the trip. I’d like to apologize to anyone who might’ve thought that I didn’t seem like myself during that time. It took me almost a full week to readjust and unwind.

Anyway, Nicole and I would like to thank everyone who helped us out during our time in the US. We both agree that we have some of the best friends and family that anyone could ask for. We greatly enjoyed our time with all of you and to those that we didn’t get to see, we apologize. Limited time and resources made it difficult to see everyone and do everything we wanted to do.

Well, here are the latest pictures from Armenia accompanied with some brief descriptions…

The first 4 pictures were all taken during our trip back to the US. In the first one, I’m giving a presentation about Armenia to a group of high school students in Queens, NY. The second and third were taken at my nephew Mikey’s third birthday party. We were really happy that the dates lined up so that we could be there. The last one was taken with my family just after my grandmother’s memorial service.

The next set of pictures was taken in Paris. On our way back from the US, we flew on an Air France flight into Paris and we couldn’t resist the opportunity to extend our layover for a few days and see at least some of the sights. I wasn’t sure how much I’d like the city since I heard a few mediocre reviews from friends, but I thought it was amazing. We had beautiful weather the entire time. I think the Louvre was probably our favorite experience, although one could easily spend an entire week exploring that museum alone. To really get a feel for Paris, I think you need more than just a few days, but time and money didn’t cooperate. In one picture, you can see a small painting behind me enclosed in a glass case…that’s the Mona Lisa. We didn’t find it to be that visually impressive, but I understand its significance…and hey, it’s the freak'n Mona Lisa, so I had to include it.

Here’s a really interesting set of pictures. They were taken in a village called Khndzoresk, near the border with Karabagh. This section of the village is called “Old Khndzoresk”. The caves that you see were at one time inhabited by the people of Khndzoresk, who not so long ago shifted their community to a nearby area where the village is currently located so that the Soviets could provide water and electricity. It was fascinating to hike through this gorge thinking about the people who lived in this community of houses and stables built into the mountainside. The last picture gives you the best idea of how big this place was. If you look hard enough, you can even see an old church with grass growing all over the roof.

One of Nicole’s favorite things about Armenia are the wildflowers that grow in the spring. In some areas of the country, where the plateau landscape allows you to see for long distances, it seems like endless fields of wildflowers spread out in all directions.

During the same visit to Khndzoresk, we also visited Sisian where the following two pictures were taken. The monastery is called Vorotnavank and it dates back to the 11th century. Again, you have to look really hard to see me in the second picture.

This picture of our front porch was taken during a violent hailstorm. The hail came down so hard and for so long that it damaged many of the fruit trees in the area. It also caused our roof to leak, sending what seemed like waterfalls down our walls and into our cupboards. The mold that was disturbed in the process did wonders for my allergies…I digress…after all, this is Peace Corps, so I suppose we should be suffering a bit.

The last picture was taken on June 19, our 6-year wedding anniversary. To celebrate, we treated ourselves to a great khorovats, which is basically pork cooked over an open fire on skewers. Khorovats is some of the best food I’ve had here despite the excessive amounts of fat that are usually left on the meat. This was our second anniversary celebrated in Armenia.

As always, I hope everyone is well and enjoying life. I’d like to send some love and luck to both my sisters who are both getting ready to go on big adventures. I’m proud of you guys. As for everyone else, we miss you and you’re always in our thoughts. Please send us a message if you get a chance…we’d like to hear how you’re doing.

(goodbye and good luck)