Thursday, December 13, 2007

Lisa, Hassan, Nadeem & Gabriel Part 2

The day before Thanksgiving we returned to Yerevan so that we could see the world famous football match (soccer game) "Armenia v. Kazakhstan". In case you didn't know, Armenia lost.

On Thanksgiving day, we headed out to Goris, a town about 4 hours away. Our plans were to see Noravank, Khor Virap, the stonehengle-like rocks, the cave city, and best of all, Tatev, a beautiful Armenian monastary. We lose the keys for 2 hours so we get a late start, and decide to go straight to Goris. About 3 hours into the trip, we hit major fog, then snow. Hassan does a great job getting us to the town; I then have to remember exactly where our B&B is - in the dark and in the snow. We finally arrive and our hosts turns on the heat.

Heat. In USA, it is usually central. In Texas, it is needed for only a few months out of the year - if that. In this B&B, there was a huge gas furnace in the center of the common room. Our two rooms were off that common room and the heat in the bedrooms did not work. When I asked for some portable electric heaters, the owner told me to open the doors into the bedroom to heat them up. Now, this was fine when it was just our extended family. But I felt a little exposed when the 3 Russian men came into the B&B a few hours later and spent the night in the third bedroom. Then, the owner kept coming into the common room to turn the heat down. It was probably in the low-mid 20's outside, the heater was inadequate anyway for 4 rooms, and there was really no sane reason to turn down the heat. We kept turning it up. Lisa even got up in the middle of the night to turn it up.

Friday we wake to the boys yelling about all the snow. They were excited. We were not. It had snowed about 6-8 inches, cars were having trouble driving on the not-yet-plowed streets. Our rental car was a van, had no snow tires, or 4 wheel drive. Lisa, Hassan and I figured out quickly that we would not be going to Tatev - higher in the mountains, horrible unpaved roads. There was just no way. Then we debate whether we should attempt to drive back to Yerevan. I call my office and Zaruhi tells me the weather forecast: more snow for the next 2 days. We take a quick 15 minute walk with the kids, take pictures, buy supplies in case we get stuck, and head out.

We have trouble getting up the first hill in Goris. Now, this spells major trouble because if we can't get up a hill in a town where cars have been driving for the past 5 hours and made the snow slushy, we are going to have major problems driving through 2 mountain ranges. So, we stop to get chains for the tires. L, H & I think this is a great idea - we get the boys out (who act crazy in the store) and the mechanics start the process of putting chains on the tires. The process doesn't go very far or very fast. First, they can't get the tires off. Then they want to know whether the van is front or back wheel drive. Eventually, we figure out that the chains they have won't fit our tires. There is nothing we can do. Those poor guys were outside in the cold, in the snow for an hour trying to help us. When I offered to pay them something for their trouble, they refused and wished us a safe trip.

The trip home: Hassan was a master driver. After our first major mountain slope and sliding back down 4 times, we finally figured out that if we went between 40-60 kmph, we could get up most mountains. At one point, Hassan was going downhill over 60 and kept saying "I can't control the van; we are going to crash." Luckily, we were on a straight stretch, no cars were around, and a hill was coming. We had several other scary moments - driving slowly past massive numbers of cars and trucks that had lost traction, seeing cars doing 180's, and having people race by us, oblivious to the danger. But Hassan, a Texan who doesn't drive in the snow, managed to get all of us home very safely. We quickly turned the heat up in my apartment and didn't drive the next day.

The last few days of their stay was great. We finally managed to see Khor Virap and Noravank. The kids went down in the dungeon, but were disappointed not to climb the steep slippery snow covered steps at Noravank. Lisa, Hassan and I toured the brandy factory and tasted Armenia's famous drink.

Lisa and Hassan then gave me (and Tom) the best gift ever: they took Cole Ryan and Austin home with them and their sons. This was no easy feat given that there was 4 kids, three adults and only three gameboys. Everyone arrived safely, Granddaddy and Teddy took Cole and Austin for 3 days and acclimated them quickly to all things American. When Cole couldn't remember what he liked at McDonald's, granddaddy was there to help. Teddy and Granddaddy also took them shopping - this was crucial since Cole had exactly 1 pair of pants that still fit and weren't ripped. Mom helped out the last day too. Thank you Lisa, Hassan, Daddy, Teddy, and Mom - we would be flying standby right before Christmas if it weren't for you.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Lisa, Hassan, Nadeem & Gabriel's visit Part 1

When Sergo, my friend and our office driver, called to say Lisa, Nadeem and Gabriel arrived at the Yerevan airport, Cole and Austin started jumping up and down. When they arrived about 15 minutes later, Austin and Cole went outside with sandals on (it was very cold), met their cousins, and then all of them raced through the house jumping up and down. For a few days, Lisa and I were alone with the kids because Hassan missed the flight to Paris and arrived 4 days' later.

During those 4 days, Lisa and I took the boys to see some sights around Yerevan. One of the first stops was Square 1 - an American style restaurant in the heart of the city. It was Nadeem's birthday and we told him that he could decide where we would go. With great input from Cole and Austin who love the place, Nadeem picked Square 1. Lisa who had not flown 8000 miles with 2 boys to eat cheeseburgers was not thrilled (nor was I), but we couldn't convince Nadeem to change his mind. So, the boys gorged on cheeseburgers, french fries and shakes while Lisa and I pondered the absurdity in eating American food in Armenia. We then took them to the Vernissage - the outdoor art market. Thanks to Aunt Christy, all the kids had money to spend so we were constantly stopping to ask prices. Because it was his birthday, Nadeem had the most to spend, but ended up buying nothing. Everyone else walked away with some goodies: wooden necklaces, handpainted wooden tops, Russian stacking dolls.

On Sunday, the 6 of us crammed into a taxi and went to Tzakhadzor - the ski resort. The highlight was going up the moutain on the ski lift and then playing in the snow. We also stopped at Kecharis church, but they were not as interested in it. Hassan arrived Sunday night and we planned our ambitious drive tour through Armenia.

In 10 days with the rental of a 9 seat van, we managed to see a huge chunk of Armenia. First we saw Garni/Gerghard and then spent the night in Dilijan. I warned Lisa and Hassan that it was the best hotel (Daravan) that we would stay in and to appreciate it. The owner is Armenian from Iran, speaks about 8 languages, is incredibly hospitable and didn't blink when the 7 of us pulled up at 8:00 pm without a reservation ( I couldn't find the phone number or remember the name - just the location and even that took awhile to remember). We were also hungry. His staff quickly put together a delicious meal and we shared the hotel with a couple from Australia.

We then saw a monstary in Dilijan and then traveled to Vanadzor where we stayed at a hotel that we had used when mom was here. At the time, the people were very nice, the hotel very clean, but the walls were thin. We had a hugely different experience this time: there was no heat,two people were having a "private" party in the room next to Lisa and Hassan's. Since there is no soundproofing between the walls, nobody could sleep. When we complained, nothing was done. The administrator initially gave us rolling heaters, but then took mine out of my room before we went to bed. When I asked about it, she indicated that she had taken it for herself because there was no heat at the front desk. She returned it to me, I heated the room, and then gave it back to her because it was so cold. I figured - incorrectly - that we would be warm enough once we went to bed. I also planned to heat up the room using the shower turned on high. That only resulted in making the smoke detector go off and the adminstriator think that one of us was smoking. At midnight, Hassan, Lisa and I complained - no heat, prostitute next door, and no response. The administrator could do nothing. Eventially the director came to the hotel around 1:00 a.m., I asked for a partial refund, and we eventually got it only after asking for a full refund and saying that we were going to drive back to Yerevan beause it was 2:00 am and nobody was sleeping (even Cole had woken up). The director commented that I had washed my hair and used the rolling heater and should pay for that. The next morning, we had agreed that we would leave at 8.30; the director continued to ask me to return the partial reimbursement because I had used heat and water! I couldn't believe it. She then told me she was calling the embassy to tell on me. I said to go right ahead. We left.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Kelly's Visit

This is a very, very overdue posting from Kelly's trip. She made a huge effort to come to Armenia on our birthdays - mine being the big 4-0 (as she likes to point out, she is younger). We had a fabulous time, but her words describing her trip are great. I have edited an email only to make sense for the blog and added a few comments:

I do have to start way back in Armenia, and tell you that it was a great and yet very funky experience. The thing is, I thought that I knew "travel." I thought I knew HOW to travel, at least. But Armenia was like nothing I had ever experienced before ... this was not any kind of sissy travel like, "Where is my next latte coming from today?" Oh no ... this was: (1) your taxi may be able to get you all the way to your destination, or it might not; (2) you need to hold your breath if your taxi drives past one of the many big trucks giving off black smoke, because all the windows are open since there is no air conditioning, (3) many, many remote and yet very beautiful churches; (4) long stretches of road lined with fruit-stands where they sell what I like to call big-ass fruit rollups; (5) and my good friend Lori who sallied forth and helped me navigate everything like it was Old Hat to her. (Thank God.)

One of my favorite days was when we went to a big monastery (Khor Virap) by Mount
Ararat, which was BEAUTIFUL. We climbed down a ladder in a dark narrow hole in the ground, and fifty feet later, we emerged in what was apparently a prison hole complete with snakes for some king or other famous person that apparently crossed the wrong person and got thrown down into the pit for 13 years. Fortunately, all the snakes were gone, but the ladder itself (into a dark narrow opening that just went down and down) was pretty scary ... a lawsuit waiting to happen. (Lori edit: Khor Virap is where King Trdat imprisoned St. Grigory the Illuminator. Bad karma apparently affected the king who later went mad. After 13 years in a dungeon with snakes and no light, St. Grigory was summoned to return the king to reason. The King then converted himself and Armenia to Christianity.)

We continued on to a beautiful church on the top of a hill--one that you see in my pics, with the funky steps on the outside--but at this point, our old Soviet Lada taxi cab, which had chugged like a lawnmower over the mountains at a top speed of 20 miles an hour, failed to make the hill. So, with five people in the car, the driver kept rolling back to the corner of the last switchback (right by a long big drop over the hill, as we were pretty high by then), and then charging up the hill in the manner of the little train saying, "I think I can, I think I can." We did this 5 times. Finally, we all had to bail out and walk up the rest of the hill, and the taxi driver went sailing blissfully by us, since he had lightened up the load enough for the engine.

Lori edit: Kelly really did make it to the top of Noravank, the 2 story church, with very treacherous and steep cantilevered steps. Here are the pictures.

Help almost here

Hi everyone. Some of you already know this, but many of you don't. I let our nanny go about 2 weeks ago. My boss, Sonya, was incredibly understanding and agreed to let me work from home. The plan was that I would work in the morning while the boys were at school and at night when they were asleep. The plan hit a snag the very first day because it was fall break and there was no school for a week. So, I adjusted: work in the morning while the boys' brains were turning to partial mush watching cartoons in German. The second week I woke up estactic because school was in session. We got up, dressed, and I happily walked them to school. Cole Ryan goes into his classroom without any problems. Austin's classroom door is locked. Another mom explains (I think) that there were no classes for another week. Another modification: take Austin with me to work everyday. And, I had to deal with CR's very indignant whines of "it's not fair that I have to go to school when Austin doesn't." (Note, when Madisen had school and Cole did not, there were no whines from Cole; pointing this out to him seems to only increase his whine factor as he struggles to differentiate it). Luckily, Austin liked going to my office, printing out coloring pages, coloring, cutting paper, and playing computer games. I actually got work done.

The best part is this upcoming week: Nov. 12. My sister Lisa, two nephews, Nadeem and Gabriel, are arriving Wednesday night. My brother-in-law, Hassan, will arrive on Saturday night. We are all so excited that they are coming! Not only are they bringing such necessities as shoes for Cole (thanks, Mom), pancake syrup, tortilla chips, and hot cocoa, but they are also staying for 2 weeks to see Armenia, watch the football match (soccer game) "Armenia v. Khazahkstan", see the Armenian philharmonic orchestra, and check out lots of very old churches and monastaries. Cole and Austin cannot wait to play with their cousins (and not go to school) and I am so excited to see and talk to Lisa and Hassan.

I found a babysitter who is starting tomorrow afternoon. Nana (pronounced "nahnah") has even agreed to watch all 4 kids. Freedom! We are going to the genocide museum and the brandy factory - two places that wouldn't be good with the kids.

And the icing on the cake: Lisa and Hassan very generously offered to take Cole and Austin back to the States with them. While all four boys will have their individual gameboys, books, activities, etc., this 30+ hour plane trip (much of it standby) will not be easy. Tom and I really appreciate Lisa and Hassan's volunteering to do this and we hope their sanity is not completely shot when they return home.

Here's a picture of Cole, Austin, and me with Mt. Ararat behind us.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Playground Rules

I expected culture shock for all of us. We all have had those days where we just don't get why people do things differently than we are used to. Cole is constantly baffled by Armenians who are always dressed very nicely; I am still baffled by the 5 inch heels that women wear everywhere; and we are all stunned when babies show up clothed like Alaskans when it is 70 degrees outside.

We have a new issue that I didn't anticipate: playground rules. I figured my children would meet other kids, play football (soccer), hang out at our playground, and play tag. I assumed that children would figure out how to communicate. That is half correct.

Our playground is used by everyone. Adults, however, only supervise babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers. Kids from about 4-5 are on their own. Teen girls congregate together like all teen girls do. The teen boys gather to look at the girls, look "cool" and pass around cigarettes. (Girls and women smoke here; it is just not culturally acceptable to do it in public). I am almost always the only mom supervising elementary aged children.

The playground is mainly dirt, three wooden benches, and a separate concrete section containing dirt that gets turned into a mud pile when water is added from the fountain that doesn't turn off. There are two wooden swings that are more suited for toddlers. There are a few trees, many grape vines overhead, and metal garages all around where kids climb. The garages are one main reason why I supervise; the other is to attempt to prevent throwing rocks, dirt, and trash at one another.

Despite attempts by an older woman to keep the playground clean, it never stays that way for more than 5 minutes. Trash is routinely thrown on the ground. A few weeks ago, we went out and a women with full hair and make up was busy cleaning the park. She did the normal things - pick up trash, sweep the sidewalk, but then she did something very odd: she watered the dirt. Really. And it had just rained (not a lot; there was no mud). The same woman later went to my landlord and complained that my kids were messing up the playground - probably the ONLY children in our neighborhood who do not intentionally litter because they constantly hear me say "Armenia needs no more trash." So, if Cole & Austin don't litter, what was she complaining about? The nest they made out of leaves & twigs the day before.

And then there was the mud pie day when they were chastised for making mud pies on the sidewalk. But the constant cigarette butts, plastic bags, and snack food are not a problem. Go figure.

We sometimes go to the "soccer park". It is across the street and has a soccer field covered in that fake grass stuff, torn nets, and a half field or less surrounded by wooden railings. The park also has more equipment - several sets of monkey bars, 2 see saws, some swings, and multi-level bars to climb on. We should probably call it the Lenin park because a lovely bust of Lenin is there. Here are the boys - and our neighbor Manet - climbing on it. Nobody has yelled at us at the soccer park or accused us of littering. We have, however, found a dead rat that was not moved for several days.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Landlocked and worse!

Armenia borders 4 countries: Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. We have already been to Georgia on a train ride from hell (see posting back in June 2007), Tom would divorce me if I took the kids to Iran (and I have to say after Almadinajad's comments in NYC, I would be a little concerned), and the land borders to Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed. Azerbaijan and Armenia are fighting over Nargorno Karabagh, a region the Soviets declared was Azeri, but populated by Armenians. Once the USSR fell, the countries had a war and have not resolved the conflict. To get to Azerbaijan, we would have to go back through Georgia.

Turkey. I want to take the kids there and see how Istanbul has changed in the 20 years since I have been there. Cole would love the mosques, Austin would like the Topkapi palace and the swords. For many reasons, the relationship between Armenia and Turkey is not good. Turkey supported Azerbaijan in the NK war. But first, Turkey killed 1.5 million Armenians in WWI. Turkey denies it was genocide, minimizes the number dead, or claims the deaths were essentially collateral damage. Armenia doesn't buy it and argues it was the first genocide of the 20th century. Armenia was part of the Ottoman Empire, but had protection from Europe and that didn't make the Sultans very happy. Armenia was the first nation to observe Christianity; Turkey is primarily Muslim. So while this dispute has historical, religious, and cultural underpinnings that scholars debate and study, the main thing it means to me is that I can't get to Turkey easily.

If I go by plane, I pay $450 per ticket for a 2 hour plane ride. But wait, the plane leaves and returns after midnight. So, I would have to either keep my darling angels awake until we get on the plane, throughout the ride, and until we get there sometime before the crack of dawn, or constantly wake them up every few hours. Either option makes me cringe. The other option is to go by bus via Georgia. First to Tbilisi and then on to Istanbul. That great option is 36 hours of pure unadulterated hell.

So, while Congress pushes the genocide resolution, Bush critizes it, and others argue passionately on both sides, the continuing political stalemate means that we are not going to Turkey. Did I mention that I see Mt. Ararat - now in Turkey, but part of the Armenian ancestral homeland - every morning? We are that close to Turkey. But still can't cross the border.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Bar Exam Bathroom Monitor

In all my dreams of living overseas doing international development work, I never once imagined myself as a bathroom monitor. The second annual monitored and transparant bar exam in Armenia changed all of that.

To give some background, a Texas bar exam lasts for 2.5 days, covers about 20 subjects, requires about 2 months of intense turoring and studying, and is incredibly stressful on not just the applicant, but on anyone who knows that person. The exam is multiple choice and essay and timed. The exam is closely monitored and even a hint of improper glancing about or communicating with someone is enough to get you in serious trouble - if not expelled and forever barred from practicing law.

In Armenia, law graduates who have 2 years of work experience are qualified to sit for the bar and can chose to take the civil or criminal law exam. Once registered, the applicant obtains a book of 1000 questions and answers and has 2 months to study. The exam itself is 100 questions randomly selected from the book. Supposedly, the questions tend to be fairly easy - especially if the person studies. The applicant has 6 hours to answer 100 questions.

On August 25, the test was supposed to start at 9:00, but because the head of the Qualification Commission (like the name?) arrived 1.5 hours late, the test did not start until 10.

Here's a description of the testing facilities at Yerevan State University gymnasium: Large enough for the 200+ registered applicants and the 60+ international montitors. Soviet built in 1980; I would have guessed it was from the 1940's. The floors were wood originally painted a lovely blue, but that had worn off many years ago. Plywood covered worn or rotted planks so the floor was mostly uneven. There was no airconditioning nor fans; the only circulation was from the one door into the gym and one door to the smoking area.

After checking purses, bags, and cell phones, a security guard wanded applicants for cell phones. At the front of the room were the some exam monitors, members of the Qualification Commission and the place to turn in the exam. The applicants sat in wooden desks with attached bench seats. Since most Armenians seem to smoke, we provided a smoking area right outside the exam room. While the smoking area was shady and received a nice breeze, the bathrooms were not so well situated. And that is where I was for the first three hours.

Susie, an embassy employee manager type with law enforcement background, had monitored the bathrooms during the last bar exam and was in no mood to have similar situations of large numbers of women talking together. So, she designed quite a detailed plan to prevent chaos and attempts at cheating. First, every person who came to the bathroom had to be escorted to the bathroom checkpoint by a monitor. Once there, the person who needed to pee handed her identification card to Susie. Susie would turn over the identification card and note the time the woman approached and keep the card. When the woman was finished, Susie would write the time she came out, return the card, and make sure the applicant's monitor was there to escort her back to her desk. Too many trips to the bathroom, inordinate amounts of time in the bathrooms would target you as a potential cheater.

Now for my glamorous job: actual checker of bathroom stalls. The bathrooms visually appeared clean, but smelled bad - most likely because one of the three squat toilets didn't flush. You walk in to a room with 2 sinks only one of which works. There is soap, paper towels, and a small trash can. Turn a corner and there are three places of potential cheating. The tanks were up high and each stall was separated by a white tiled wall that ran to the ground. As I am not a sewage system expert, I do not know why it is, but apparently you don't flush toilet paper down a squat toilet; instead you put the used TP in the trashcans. Trash cans that were obviously too small for the 100+ women who had to use them. It was most unpleasant.

That is where my life of international intrigue starts. After an initial sweep of the bathroom located a pen and answers to at least 2 tests (turns out it was some English exam), I began to check each stall after each woman left. That meant using a paper towel as a physical barrier while I lifted and inspected the filthy trash can, swept above the tank and tiled walls. Once I hollered "all clear" Susie would let the woman who had just done her busines return to the test. I also would sometimes follow any particularly suspicious woman (those who had to go to the bathroom more often than was normal was one tip off or the woman who tried to cheat last year was another) into the bathroom. If there were mulitiple women at the same time, I would stand outside the stalls to make sure there was no talking. I felt like a KGB spy --- not a very good one, mind you, as I could not possibly have known whether they were discussing the exam or asking about the weather.

Almost giddy with excitement, I escaped the bathroom and monitored the gym. The attempts at cheating were amazing. Smokers would go outside and talk to commission members (the ones who administered the test!) and other applicants. Applicants would look around the room at each other and give eye signals; the qualification commission board members would whisper to applicants. One did it with me 6 feet away and before I could walk over to hear their conversation (not that I would understand it). Several people would attempt to look at material in their pockets and one woman tried to leave the gym with the test. Another man left, returned, and then tried to demand his right to continue! And even respect for people taking the test was not to be found. Several QC members would answer and talk on their phones while sitting next to an applicant and then give me dirty looks when I said "che" (no).

On the upside: it was by far the fairest exam given. The pass rate was slightly higher than expected: about 50%. The ones that were suspected of cheating did not pass; a couple were expelled outright.

Next year I told my boss Sonya that the bathroom monitors needed surgical masks, disposable gloves and aromatic candles.