Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Karine Becomes Karen...

Today was my last full day in Armenia. I spent my day trying to see everyone I know here just one last time...I mostly succeeded :) Tomorrow morning, my flight leaves at 10am for Paris, after which I fly to Montreal, before finally arriving some 21 hours later in Chicago. I'm certainly excited about going home, but I'm also really sad to leave, because these past ten months have really been one of the best experiences of my life. I've met soooo many amazing people here, seen soooo many amazing places...It's been absolutely fantastic.

Everyone has been asking me, "When are you coming back to Armenia?" I don't know the answer to that question yet, but I know I need to come back. There's still so much here that I haven't seen and haven't many places I haven't been (like Lake Sevan! Okay, I saw it out the window of a marshrutka, but I haven't *been* there.) So some day, I know that I'll be coming back here. (After all, I have to show my Armenian teacher that I did all the homework he gave me! ;) )

But for now, I must say goodbye to this country that has been my home for the past 10 months. I'm sorry to leave here...but I'm excited for what the future will bring.

Hajoghutyun dzez,

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Mountain

Though Mount Ararat is the symbol of Armenia, the tallest mountain which is actually within Armenia's present day borders is Mount Aragats. This volcanic mountain has four peaks, only one of which is really climbable without ropes...and even the route we took, at least, you have to be in really good shape. (Ideally, better shape than me......)

There were approximately 20 of us, maybe more, and we gathered in central Yerevan at 8:30am to begin our trek. This being Armenia, we left some time after 9. The drive was good...we played 20 Questions and looked out the windows at beautiful flowers and small (Kurdish?) shepherd camps. After about an hour, we arrived at the lake at the base, next to which is the cosmic ray monitoring station. After last minute preparations such as the application of sunscreen and putting on sweatshirts because a cold wind was blowing, we started off.

At the very beginning was a (slightly muddy) easy incline, no problem. We stopped along the way to take pictures of the lake and the mountain up ahead. After crossing a grassy field which was crisscrossed by streams and swampy mud from the melting snow (there was still ice on the lake, by the way), we arrived at the first field of rocks. Stepping carefully from one loose rock to another was a bit tricky at first, but eventually I got the hang of it, and by the end of the rocky field, I was still with the bulk of the group, feeling confident. We continued on up the slope, crossing some snow (which was rather more strenuous than the rocks because you had to try to keep from slipping) and eventually reached our first stopping point, where we had some snacks and some water, and then continued on our way.

The climbing got trickier...sometimes people extended hands to help pull me up, and at one point I was actually half lifted from the bottom, half pulled from the top to get me up on top of a large rock. My out-of-shape-ness began to show...but we kept going. I fell towards the back of the pack, but I wasn't always the last...usually I was...but not always!

At one point I started talking to one of the other guys who I had assumed was one of the guides, but was actually a university student who had never been to Aragats before either. I felt better having someone with whom to have conversations like:
--Is that the top?
--I don't know, I hope it is...
--Yeah, me too.
--Hey [person who's been here before], is that the top?
It's deceptive when you're up on the keep thinking you've come all this way and then you look back and the lake still looks close, and you look ahead and you think that the highest point you can see, way far above you surely must be the top, and then it's a bit of a crushing disappointment to learn that it's not, that you can't even see the top yet...

Eventually, after climbing over and around more and more rocks, boulders, slippery pieces of slate (or whatever those flat rocks were)...we reached a point just before the final slog to the top. My feet were killing me by this point with blisters (on the arches of all places) but the guides told us we had to keep moving because fog was rolling in. So we made a final push and made it to the top, where we discovered the rest of the group sitting around waiting for us (they'd been there for half an hour at least.) Gohar started handing out bread and cheese to everyone, while those who hadn't already put on their jackets or other outer layers of clothing did so...except for the crazy guy who stripped to his boxers and started rolling around in the snow...

After everyone had rested for a bit, taken photos, adjusted shoes, clothing and backpacks, and eaten some food, we headed over to the other side of the peak to start the trek down. Except, the trek was actually going to be more of a slide...because we were headed down the glaciers*!

Those who had plastic bags of their own got them out...the guides had extras for those who didn't. And so the first brave souls started sledding their way down the mountainside...

I started off walking, but eventually realized that the snow was wet enough that I wouldn't get going fast enough to be out of control, and besides which it was so hard to keep my footing that as I was inevitably going to fall down anyways, I figured I might as well start sliding too. So I sat down on my plastic bag and started scooting and sliding my way down the mountain.

Reaching the bottom of the first part of the slope, the land leveled off for a few meters before continuing to slope downward, much steeper than before. Some brave souls started sledding down the steep slope as well, even as one of the guides was shouting out instructions (in Armenian, which I asked him to repeat in Russian) to keep right because it was dangerous to go too far left. As I was debating whether or not I really wanted to go hurtling down a quite steep slope sitting on a plastic bag, one guy stepped off a rock onto a particularly unfortunate patch of snow and promptly sank in up to his chest. It took three guys to pull him back out again.

A few more people headed down the steep slope, but the rest of us discovered that it was possible to walk down the rocks on the side, so about ten of us decided to go that way. A minute or two after we had started, the dark clouds which had been gathering ominously in the distance started to let loose...

Someone shouted in Armenian that it was raining, but soon it was apparent that it was not rain, and since snow is one of the words in Armenian which I actually know, I shouted back that no, it's snowing! We picked up the pace as best we could without falling on the rocks. At the bottom of that rocky section was more snow, which we alternately walked across or tried to slide on, but the slope was too shallow and the snow too wet to get up much speed until we arrived at another steep slope. By this point the group of 10 had broken into separate pairs, and I was with one of the guides. We debated about whether it was safe enough to slide down, but in the end we ended up half sliding half walking, until we got to the bottom where it was relatively level...just a slow incline all the way back to the lake, which, by this point looked extremely far away. The wind was whipping the snow in our faces as we started to alternately run and walk, depending on how firm the snow was packed under our feet. Soon, I could feel that it wasn't snow whipping in my face anymore but hail. Thunder was rumbling almost constantly in the distance. We were running out of time before the storm *really* hit.

The way back was basically in a straight line, with alternating fields of snow and saturated muddy fields of grass, crisscrossed by streams. Out in the open, there were no rocks or anything of any sort to give us shelter. We moved as quickly as we could across the slippery snow. But then, we saw the lightning.

Standing on a mini-glacier on the side of a mountain in a completely open area with nothing else around, not even a few rocks is NOT where you want to be when the lightning starts striking. So we ran faster, hunched over, as close to the ground as we could be while still running. It's a very unbalanced way to run...I wiped out a couple times. It didn't hurt...just got me even wetter. And keep in mind it's still hailing and the wind is blowing fiercely. But as bad as it was on the snow, it was worse on the swampy patches because you had to jump over streams and small rivers, and you wanted to go faster since the water would conduct electricity....

As we got lower, the snow got meltier, and was undercut by fast-moving streams of meltwater. At the edge of one such stream, we stepped on what we thought was a rock covered by snow but which turned out to just be an overhang of snow. It cracked, and we both ended up with our feet in the icy water. We sloshed our way to a rock and sat down to dump out our shoes, because lightning and hail or no, it's very hard to run with a lake in each shoe. (Though I was somewhat concerned that I would not be able to get my wet shoe back on if I took it off, but I had to get some of the water out.) Then we kept running.

Eventually we made it back near where the road had been and where a river now was. Jumping from stone to stone was tricky since there were no flat ones, and they were slick with rain and snow, but eventually we made it down to the lower part of the road which was just muddy, not a flowing river, and then to the parking area and the vans.

Inside the van, I tried to dump the water out of my shoes, and to change my socks, but I discovered that the dry socks I had brought with me were wet too. My jeans were completely soaked, as was my jacket, but that at least I took off and hung over the seat in front of me. It was a long, wet, cold, uncomfortable drive back.

*By glaciers I mean the large fields of snow on this side of the mountain that hadn't melted yet. I'm not sure if they ever melt all the way or not, but in most places they didn't seem to be more than a few feet deep. It's not like the Greenland ice sheet or something.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The busy month of June

Somehow it has gotten to be the end of June and I realize that I haven't posted all month! Sorry about that! Things here have been busy in my last full month in Armenia...

Earlier this month was a giant sociology conference--the 39th World Congress of the International Institute for Sociology--which had the ever-so-enlightening title "Sociology at the Crossroads." There were some really awesome things about this conference, and some really ridiculous things, and it was great for learning about corruption firsthand. I'm not going to get into speculation about who specifically was pocketing money or getting kickbacks...I'll just tell you the facts as I know them and let you draw your own conclusions.

But before I get into all that, I'd like to mention the awesome parts! Like having lunch with Immanuel Wallerstein and his wife! There were some really interesting talks too. At one of the sessions Professor Derluguian chaired, I got to hear Vadim Volkov speak! And at the session I went to on migration, I was one of three people other than the speakers who actually stayed to the end, so I got to ask my question and have actual discussion with people! And then of course on Saturday was Immanuel Wallerstein's talk which was really interesting to listen to!!

But as for the organization of the conference.....
They were expecting about 600 people to come to this conference from all over the world. The full program, with descriptions of the sessions, etc, was a gigantic pdf file that my computer did not like to scroll through. An extremely wide range of topics were scheduled to be covered...from the world economic crisis to the significance of toasting in the Caucasus to environmentalism in South Korea to a mathematical analysis of the 'Caucasian identity' (no, really!)

Now these 600 people were expected to pay their own way, pay for their own lodgings, and pay an approximately $350 participation fee (more to present). Needless to say, 600 people did not show up. Only about 150 did. But it still had the potential to be (and in some ways it was) a great event.

A number of my student-researcher friends and I wanted to attend the conference, but we were at a loss as to what we should register as. Students? So-called 'accompanying persons'? And how could we avoid paying for hotel booking assistance? We live here! We don't need a room in the Golden Tulip! Well, after asking around, (well, I asked Professor Derluguian who talked to Immanuel Wallerstein and Craig Calhoun...) it was determined that local students, ourselves included, should be let in to the conference sessions without paying. (Obviously this would not include attending the opening reception or congress dinner, but we didn't much care about that...we were in it for the academic enlightenment.)

So we come to the first day of conference sessions. My friend and I arrive at the door of the university, completely by chance, at the same time as Professor Derluguian's wife. And the security guards aren't letting any of us in. They said they wouldn't let in anyone who didn't have the proper nametag/lanyard/registration. But the registration table was inside on the second floor! After several phone calls to Professor Derluguian and some heated discussion in Armenian (thanks, Arusiak!) we were allowed to go up to the registration table. Where...we were still told that we could not be allowed in. Eventually, we ran into the person who was organizing the conference from the Armenian end, and she recognized us, and let us in the end we got nametags that just said "visitor". But this did nothing to help all of the other local students who wanted to go....

In protest against this, Immanuel Wallerstein threatened to give his talk on the steps of the university if they didn't let students the end, he gave a second talk on Sunday afternoon specifically for students.'d think that with the high registration fee and exclusive entrance, there would at least be some benefits, right? Like, for instance, translators? Because while most of the presentations were given in English, some were given in Russian, and not everyone could understand English, and not everyone could understand Russian. (But they probably could have gotten away with just translation into English and Russian, since everyone pretty much knew one or the other) But no...there was not a translator in sight. Even at the much much smaller conference I attended in October they had simultaneous translation--to and from three different languages! But here? No translators whatsoever...

I'm not going to even get into the whole Hyur Services (a tour company) issue....suffice it to say they were hired to serve refreshments in between sessions, to organize tours at exorbitant rates, and to book hotel rooms at even more exorbitant rates.....
(really, according to the laws of supply and demand, if you're booking hotel rooms in bulk, you would expect a discount, not a price hike!)

So yeah. There were some definite issues.

But nevertheless I did enjoy the sessions I listened to and I made some important contacts!!

* * *

Last weekend was nothing special to report. I was attempting (unwillingly) to learn contract law.

* * *

On Friday, I went to the university where my Armenian teacher teaches to attend the graduation for all the students there. In the beginning it was awkward because I didn't see any of the people I knew from his class (I had run into one girl as she was leaving and I was coming, but that didn't help me any!) But then later I met one of the Iranian girls whom I had talked to before, and who speaks perfect English, so I ended up hanging out with her. Of course with so many Iranians gathered there was some talk about the elections....the main conclusion seemed to be that while the protests, arrests, etc might not be successful in changing who's in power right now, at least it has taught the people not to blindly trust what their government tells them....
Also it was rumored that someone from the Iranian embassy was there to....keep an eye on this gathering of young Iranians.

But for the most part it was an apolitical event. Certificates were handed out, speeches were made (mostly in Armenian, and mostly incomprehensible to me...), and then there was a talent show. Because no event is complete without one. People sang, read poems, acted out was really quite entertaining. And then the "disco" started....but as it was really hot in there and I hadn't had lunch, I decided at that point to make my exit. But it was fun! :)

* * *

As for yesterday's mountain climbing adventure....another post will be coming soon!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

More thoughts on electricity...

In light of the unstable voltage here, it would seem to me that it would make sense to somehow build in a surge protector to the lightswitches, light fixtures, outlets, etc. But that's just me.

I do now, however, have working lights in all of the rooms of my apartment, as well as hot water in the bathroom, and outlets that, as far as I can tell, all work. (i.e. none of them are scorched-looking anymore.) :)

But just in case, I try not to have more than one light turned on at a time.

Wildlife, Asphalt, and Elections

On this last day in May, a few more observations about life in Yerevan...


The black and gray crows (or maybe they're ravens?) are out in force of late, and they are obnoxious!! During the day, it's not such a big deal, but when they wake you up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday by squawking right outside your window?

Also, the cats seem to have given birth and kittens abound! Two of them were sitting right on my porch for most of the day yesterday, and for a little while one was hanging out on my windowsill! They're really cute and were I staying here for another year I'd be so tempted to adopt them...but...then again as cute as kittens are, I'm not really a cat person...

That's pretty much it for the wildlife stories so now moving on to the second part of the title...asphalt! (and elections. because they're related.)

Asphalt and Elections

This weekend are the mayoral elections for the city of Yerevan, and as far as I can tell, at least from the people I interact with regularly, they're being met with a whole lot (indifference and/or cynicism). Maybe I just don't spend enough time with the politically motivated, but as far as I can tell the sentiment seems to be that the elections are more or less rigged, it's a foregone conclusion who's going to win, and they're all just a bunch of crooks anyways so why bother. (Disclaimer--I don't have a TV and thus don't watch the Armenian news, and this observation has been formed based on an extremely unrepresentative sample of people.) But no one I've asked has really been able to tell me much about who's running or what they stand for etc etc. (So if you want actual coverage of the elections...don't look here. Try A1+ or something.)

But there does seem to be universal agreement about the fact that the roads are being paved now (as quickly as possible, it seems) due to the elections-- i.e. so the ruling party can be like "look what we're doing for you! we're paving your roads!" and then after the elections, they can just sit there and line their pockets and be like "what? we already paved your roads. we're done now til the next elections." (Thanks to Inna for those observations.)

They really are doing a pretty awful job of paving too. Essentially it looks like they're pouring a dumptruck-ful of black gravel on the road, squishing it down, and calling it paved. It'll be potholed again in the space of a few months. One argument as to why this is, is that the pavers want to do a bad job paving so that next year there will be work for them when they have to re-pave again. And on the surface this makes sense...but Yerevan is a big city. And paving roads properly takes more time. So if you do fewer jobs in a year but do them well (thus taking longer, so still getting paid), and then the next year do some more roads, the next year some the time you finish with all the roads in the city it'll be time to repave the first ones again. Thus ensuring the workers a perpetual source of income and the residents a decent set of roads. Is there any reason why it doesn't make sense to do this?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bank Survey

HSBC may be the best bank in Armenia, but I still can't use their ATMs! The CEO does get points for personally responding to his email though. (and quickly!)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"Every horrifying situation will be destroyed."

Arman was trying out some new vocabulary words while reassuring me that somehow or another they'll solve everything. :) And it's true...

I already have light again in my bathroom--yesterday Arman came down and managed to get out the broken stub of the old lightbulb, and then spent a good half hour trying to rig things so that the lightbulb wouldn't touch the metal frame of the drop ceiling (the lightbulb is above the drop ceiling). And hopefully today Mher will be down to rewire my bathroom (since the outlet is totally fried) and then I'll have hot running water again too!

On the bright side, the (unseasonably?) hot weather means that at least the first five minutes or so of water that comes out of my faucet is not completely ice water, so it has been possible to shower (quickly!)

* * *

We're supposed to get thunderstorms tonight...and every night hereafter for the next 10 days at least. I'm excited...and hoping that there will be more than one clap of thunder. Thus far I have not been overly impressed by the thunderstorms here, but I have high hopes for these!