Not Your Average School Director

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March 22: I found out today that the School Director received a phone call on Friday telling him that he had to get to Yerevan within 3 HOURS to pick up his boxes or they would be shipped to Stepanakert … Continue reading

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There is Spring Somewhere

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On March 21st an Oregon friend wrote to say that spring had arrived in Portland. To me there is no place more wonderful than the Pacific Northwest in February, March and April. Winter was hard here in Lori Marz. Not … Continue reading

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Journal entry 7/11/10: SITE VISIT

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I have been in Armenia for 6 weeks, living in the sweet little village of Karenis, which is near Charentsavan. Yesterday I traveled to Dsegh to see what my long-term home will be like. It is definitely a step down … Continue reading

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PRACTICUM – The Final Training Project

In an early Tech Session the CBD’s learned that we would design and conduct a final project during the last two weeks of July. For these projects we would be separated into three groups: IT’s, NGO’s and Business. In previous years projects were conducted with individual enterprises or for a specific village. We expected to do the same. But this year our PT took a different tack: when the projects were announced in mid-July we discovered that we were to become trainers. Each team would be tasked with creating a weeklong workshop for its targeted group.

I was assigned to the NGO (nongovernmental organization) group with two people from my home village and two from Solak. The Workshop attendees would all be host country volunteers from NGO’s in Yerevan and elsewhere. Some knew English; some did not. Some had a fair degree of experience with NGO’s; others only a few months.

We had a week to prepare. Every afternoon after language class that first week of Practicum we were driven to Charentsavan to plan, research, kibbutz and generally organize ourselves. Anne, the other ‘over 50’ woman from my home village quickly assumed responsibility for presenting a session on Strategic Planning. Two of the other 3 individuals claimed topics from the list provided by Armen, our amazing Program Trainer.

Jay (from Solak) and I held back. For me it was out of fright as much as anything else. I was hoping to go on Friday, that way I could see how the others conducted their sessions, have extra prep time and maybe learn a trick or two. So I had my Friday session, tentatively about Financial Management, in the back of my mind and up there on the chalkboard. Somehow I agreed to co-teach the opening day session with Anne, because team teaching is a PC value. Monday’s session was to be an overview of NGO development in the US –a topic very close to Armen’s heart and a way to set the stage for the rest of the week.

If life in the Peace Corps is not always easy, it is also not predictable. One day a trainee is there, the next she is gone. During our 10 weeks of preparation we lost 3 of the original 58 individuals who rode together through Republic Square back in May. The last to leave was Anne. Her departure in the middle of week 8 came after much private soul-searching and I do not doubt that it was the right decision for her. She would have made a terrific Volunteer.

So Practicum continued. With only four of us left on the NGO workshop team we re-grouped and carried on. We created a survey; called in Zara, our translator; and recast the topics. Fortunately for us the bright young IT trainees suggested that all three groups offer four 2 ½ hour classes rather than 5 two hour classes the following week. No Friday session? No problem. I was happy to drop the Financial Management presentation.

Oops, somehow that left me with the Monday kickoff workshop, which I would now teach alone. Somehow also our little group rallied to produce a series of workshops which gained in attendance as the week went on. Zara, who had recently lived in Nebraska, became an integral member of our team translating back and forth into English or Armenian as necessary. The 10 original registrants invited colleagues to join them and asked for contact information and copies of our PowerPoint presentations. Jay, who struggled during Prep Week to overcome the lack of a useable laptop and limited internet access, ended up being my favorite presenter in a very strong group. Guess I might have predicted that.

Finally, with Practicum complete we were ready for Swearing In. We had our last language class on Saturday morning and Practicum Review on Saturday afternoon. Only Final LPI on Monday remained between 55 tired trainees and the long-awaited title of Peace Corps Volunteer.

VILLAGE LIFE: See the next blog entry – coming soon, I promise – for daily life in a training village.

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Pre Service Training (PST) – Posh Corps and Training (Jun 1 to Aug 5)
After a few days settling-in time in at a small hotel somewhere north of Yerevan, the capital city, my group of 58 trainees was placed with families in 7 villages surrounding the town of Charantsavan. There were 8 of us per village, except for the two villages with married couples who had 9 trainees each. We were armed with a minimum list of Armenian phrases, a maximum allowance of luggage, and varying degrees of terror.

Like Harry Potter and the Sorting Hat our names were drawn during a celebratory ceremony – ostensibly at random – from a common bowl. When my village was announced I learned that I was to be in the “Posh Corps” at Karenis with a group of fellow CBD (Community and Business Development) trainees. Six were young idealists in their 20’s and very early 30’s; two of us were women in what PC calls the ‘over 50s.’ In my training group the ‘over 50’s’ are nearly all 60-somethings.

Mine was a comparatively affluent village formerly known as “Mooshi.” All of us in this village had running water 24/7, indoor plumbing/bathrooms, electricity, internet access and rooms that met Peace Corps standards – more or less. The other villages rationed water, when they had it all. One over-50 trainee in the poorest village had to use a falling-down outhouse, traversing the family’s chicken-poop filled garden when Nature called (pun intended) for the entire 10 weeks of PST. Kath showered in my village (at a fellow trainee’s home) on the rare Sunday when there was free time available for travelling on personal business. I couldn’t begin to imagine how I would have handled that particular challenge. I was thankful every day for the good fortune that had placed me with the Alexanyans in Karenis.

Language: For 9 weeks we had language classes in our villages 6 days a week from 9 to 1:30, except on days when we had Tech classes and/or cultural sessions in the afternoon; and on Central Days when we had a break from the usual schedule. On Tech days we only studied language from 9 to 12. Each village had two teachers who were host country nationals. Most villages divided the 8 students into two classes of 4 individuals each. In June I studied with Zhasmina, a 60 year old PC veteran in her 14th year of teaching; in July my group of 4 switched to Naira, a 33 year old newbie. Both were excellent with unique strengths as language teachers and personal coaches.

At week 5 we had a mini-LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) to assess our proficiency level and to get a sense of what the test would be like. We would need to attain the rank of Novice High at our final LPI during 10 week in order to be sworn in. Not until we passed all the required competencies would we be eligible to move from Trainees to Volunteers, with the rights and privileges attending thereto.

With a great deal of concentration, regular ingestion of fish oil capsules and much advance preparation with my teacher I reached the level of Intermediate Low – one level beyond Novice High. Woo-hoo! Not too shabby for an ‘over 50.’ My teacher was thrilled. So was I. As it turned out, I would be very grateful for this achievement when week 10 arrived. But that is a story for a later blog entry – which will be posted in a day or two.

Tech: For Tech Sessions we were driven by mini-van to another village where a few CBD’s lived. We had classes in Alapars until the younger people begged to go to Solak. I don’t know what reasons they gave our Program Trainer and Program Manager but in reality we were all curious to see the poorest village for ourselves. From the outside it looked like any other crumbling rural Armenian school. In this building, however, the bathrooms were not functional. Other than that it was the usual story of wooden floors with wide spaces between the slats and maybe some broken or missing windows. It was life in the village itself that distinguished Solak from the 7 other training villages.

My home village school had standard Soviet style squat toilets. They weren’t fancy or particularly sanitary, but they worked. The hearty folks who lived in Solak were compelled to use an outhouse, dodging the snakes or sheep or cow dung which could block their path. Fantan, which we visited for Culture sessions, had some crazy German style squats. I won’t describe how icky those things were. (In case you are thinking I am spending a lot of time and words on plumbing, you are right. It’s endlessly fascinating to this Amerikatsi since I began village life with a serious case of dysentery. Most volunteers experience diarrhea in some form during their service. ‘Nuff said.)

As CBD’s we had it easy. The busy TEFL’s (Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) had training sessions nearly every day following language classes whereas our tech sessions were limited to one or two a week. Like the EE’s and CHE’s (Environmental Education and Community Health Education volunteers), however, CBDs were expected to plan and execute a volunteer project in our individual training villages. That pretty much took care of Sundays and any other spare time we had during the month of June. No sooner had we completed our project of digging irrigation ditches with the children and reporting on it at Central Day, than July 4th was upon us and we were tasked with creating an American Independence Day Celebration for our village.

I will spare you a description of the drama that occurred at that time when the 8 of us were all so tired and stressed from the unending daily challenges, yet forced once again to work together as a team. Let me simply say that words were uttered and sometime later apologies were spoken. I attribute the difficulties we experienced to differences in perspective between those ‘over 50’ and those in their younger years and to the usual challenges of becoming a group: forming, storming and norming. For a day or two it was all about the ‘storming.’

Central Days: Once every week to 10 days, all 58 of us were transported from our various villages by mini-van to Charentsavan, where we met at School #6 for day-long Medical, Safety & Security and Cultural Training Sessions. I looked forward to those days both for the respite from language homework and for the opportunity to see new/old faces. We got to walk into town for lunch and sometimes do a little shopping. We also got to see the doctors who had ready supplies of supplements available: like melatonin to help with sleep, pro-biotics for digestion and other items not in our Medical Kit. A fair number of us were glad to get addditional remedies or antibiotics for digestive issues.

Since my village was close to Charentsavan, a mere hour’s walk or less, many of the hale young people stayed in town and strolled home in the evening. They liked to frequent an open air restaurant called Bella Café. Trainees from other villages soon took up the practice, returning to their home communities by train, bus or taxi. I think they (and later myself as well) gave a big boost to the profitability of that little enterprise.

Central Day was not all frivolity and fun however. The Program Training Officer, the Safety & Security Training Officer and the Program Managers all had booklets/journals for us to complete (at home of course) to demonstrate our understanding of and competency for our eventual role as PC volunteers in Armenia.

My village mates: Karenis

Our teachers: Naira and Zhasmina

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Two plus weeks ago I arrived in Yerevan along with 57 other trainees.  We got in at 5 am on a Saturday morning after a pair of back to back overnight flights.  Before winging our way to Armenia we flew to Vienna, from Washington, DC.   I spent the daytime layover listening to German and walking around in a city filled with freshly painted houses.  Tiny gardens in every yard, one of which had bright trailing clematis as big as Jerome’s open hand.  Sleep deprivation doesn’t begin to describe my mental state as I walked through Passport control in Yerevan and pulled all 4 bags together for the first time since DC.  Customs check consisted of an officer verifying that the ID numbers on the bag check card I showed him matched the numbers on my bag tags.  Bright lights, uniformed personnel and shining floors stopped somewhere along a rolling uphill tunnel, but I didn’t notice when that backdrop changed because there were groups of American Peace Corps volunteers carrying welcome signs and cheering us into the country.  The odor of diesel or some other unfamiliar fuel, walls that turned into unpainted, corrugated tin and dark, unsmiling men reaching for my bags in the morning light hit me somewhere between the stomach and the throat and I thought: Omigod what am I doing here?

Our first stop in those early hours was the ruins of Zvartnots, a restoration project supported, according to a plaque onsite, by the diaspora citizens of Watertown, Mass.  This temple, built in the 7th century AD, three centuries after the adoption of Christianity as the country’s official religion was only one of the many ruins I observed from my seat on the Peace Corps bus that day.  Strictly speaking, the other crumbling stone and cement structures I saw from the windows of the van were not designated ruins, but to my eyes everything we passed looked like it was falling down or patched together.   Trailing the group I stood at the end of a long line of women who were waiting to use the facilities.  I learned that there were squat toilets, no lights and no tp in the women’s section.  I figured I was good for now.   Avoiding a couple of mangy, hungry dogs I joined the in-country staff and experienced volunteers.  Waiting for us were fresh coffee, delicious fruit juices and pastries that even my nephew Joey would admire set out on temporary tables.  Lee Lacy, the PC Country Director, welcomed us as the 18th class of trainees and we posed for our first group photo after wandering about the stone pillars and oversized steps.   Then, with rain misting in the air we returned to the comfort of our very modern vans.  It was kind of embarrassing to realize that ours were the newest vehicles on the road.  I felt like a fraud and not at all like a suffering volunteer.

We made a brief circuit of Yerevan center and glanced at Republic Square before beginning our ascent uphill between the university’s ill-kept buildings.  This is where the best and the brightest of Armenian youth study, I thought, perched in my air-conditioned van seeing everything through a window, darkly.

So this is what it was like in Soviet Russia.  As a child growing up in the 50’s and 60’s I was schooled to be wary of the Russian Menace.  There was an Iron Curtain, behind which mysterious economic and social practices took place.  They, the Russians, were not like us because we were better than they were.  Except for Sputnik.  But then we took the moon.  The existence of a wall made everything on the other side seem wondrous, despite or perhaps because of my teachers’ warnings.  Their economic practices were ill-conceived and doomed to fail, I was told.  In 1975 I learned they thought same about us when I met a fellow graduate student in Baltimore.  He was from Moscow and not at all interested in socializing with greedy capitalistic Americans. 

 So, here I was, finally peeking behind the curtain and there was no Wizard.  There was no paint.  No color.  There were only rocks and cinder blocks and mortar patches crudely applied, forming random semi-circles in the rigidly rectangular designs.  Roofs that suggested shelter, but not protection.    Eighteen years since the Soviets departed; yet today grey concrete dominated the landscape.   Potholes defined the roads.   Rocks, dun-colored rocks, strewn about barren hillsides, blended with the grey dust of abandoned factories.

These were my thoughts after a long journey.  I do not do fatigue well.  In the next two weeks I would have several opportunities to return to these old notions; to revisit them from a different perspective.  On this day, however, I could not even find beauty in the geology.  Seventeen years Peace Corps volunteers have been here already and everything so faded and worn.  What can I and my 57 new compatriots possibly hope to accomplish?  We continued to gain altitude dancing our way along roads well outside their maintenance schedule, playing chicken with oncoming traffic.  In some adult corner of my mind I suspected there were many things I would one day see differently.  But today, craving sleep, I saw an impoverished country, totally lacking in infrastructure, and dreamed of an Armenia where Sherwin Williams paint was available in every province.

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Hello world!

Two days to departure.  The floor is covered with stuff that must be packed, stored or tossed.  Otherwise the apartment is empty except for an aerobed, a deacon’s bench and the PC which will soon be given away.  The past ten days have been exciting, frustrating and downright exhausting as they began with a minor car accident.  Yes, when time was not abundant someone ran into my old Camry in a parking lot.  The good news is that the other driver took 100% responsibility for it all.  The bad news is that I still lost about 4.5 days to insurance reporting, car repairs and followup with the Peace Corps for medical review and clearance.

Yesterday I sang with Voices from the Heart in a Spring Concert entitled “We’re gonna have a Time.”  It was.  We did.  Our song “I Feel like Going on” was a powerful message for me as I struggled through a week of wondering whether all would be safe and clear following the accident.  Wednesday, a week before departure, I sang those words “Though trials mount on every hand, I feel like going on” with wet eyes and hoarse vocal cords not knowing if my dream of being a Volunteer would be suddenly snatched away.  How fragile plans seem when a stranger’s momentary distraction and careless actions could cause so many unintended consequences.  May I be mindful of this lesson when I am the stranger in a country I will soon call home.

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