Khatchkars - "Stone Cross"

Khatchkars - "Stone Cross"
Khatchars are everywhere in Armenia; in and around churches, on streets and roads, and out in the countryside. There are tens of thousands all over. Some characteristics of khatchars are that they are seldom symmetrical left to right or top to bottom. This symbolizes the assymetry of the world. The carved background patterns (similar to celtic knots) on many khatchkars have no beggining or end - symbolizing the eterenity of the universe. And, finally, a common practice was to break a small piece of the carving with a chisel. This symbolizes the idea that nothing on earth is perfect. Khatchkars date from at least the middle ages if not earlier. .

Saturday, September 1, 2012


There is a wonderful verb in Spanish – despegar. It means to become unstuck. It is the verb that is used to describe an airplane taking off, or becoming “unstuck” from the planet. I began the process of becoming unstuck from Armenia today. It really started before my plane ride. I looked around Anahit’s apartment as I was waiting for the taxi to arrive to take me to the airport. I saw the pictures her father painted, I saw the guitar that I’ve been playing and I saw my luggage waiting to be carried down the five flights of stairs. I’ve been in Armenia for a month and it seems as though a lifetime of things and events have happened. And all seem as distant memories now.

Me, Nazeli and Arvad
Last night at Mer Gyug (Our Village Restaurant) , Nazeli and Arvad, both musicians in the band, and I talked about our children. We shared something in common; Nazeli has a son in Quebec who is studying nanotechnology, Arvad has a son in the Army and Kristina and I have Todd, Natalie and Quentin in Texas. We are very grateful to have children close to us and we miss the ones that are not. In another country, speaking in another language, we find that we really aren’t so different. I know that my abilities in the Armenian language, while they still have a long way to go, are developed enough that I could have this talk with them and that we could share each other’s longing for distant family.

Gohar V, Anie, Annette, Kyra, Larissa and Gohar P
   And virtually every day, someone would provide a kindness to us. And old lady in the street, Frieda, who realized that we were looking for the difficult-to-find Sergei Parajanoff museum, insisted on walking us partway there and then getting someone to walk us the rest of the way. Zorik and Larissa, the parents of the family whose house we worked on, took us into their orchard every day and with great pride loaded us down with peaches and hazelnuts.
Larissa, Anie and Hovakim
Gohar P. Gohar V., Rouzanne, and the rest of the staff at the Fuller Center invited me to wonderful lunches at their office – and toasted my farewell with a bottle of wine. Toran, Nune, Lara, Lusine and Rouzanne volunteered to guides for us on our non-work days. 

Nune at Zvardnots
 Strangers invited us to their houses for barbeque. Artur and Alla invited me to a daylong picnic in the forest by Ashotsk. Hasmik and Andranik made a wonderful dinner for me and sent me home with walnut jam for Kristina. The list goes on and on. Yes, there were the occasional people who were cranky or rude – but such a small number.    And there were special moments. Anahit and I playing the old 50’s song “Carol” or “Norwegian Wood” on piano and guitar. The farewell feast at the Fuller Center House project where “Johnnie” not only beat all the guys arm wrestling but also demonstrated his strength by picking two of us up – one in each arm. The band at Mer Guyg singing and playing “Seghan E Arad” night after night because they knew I like it so much. Oh, and Avedis and I playing duduk in the deep pit (Khor Virap) where St. Gregory Lusovarich was held prisoner in the early 4th Century. Team Shat Lav – a group never to be forgotten.

Team Shat Lav
   So I’m unsticking from all that today. We are currently somewhere in the North Atlantic near Greenland heading to Los Angeles. I am so looking forward to seeing Kristina and Sarah, Jake and Kyle, Leslie and all our friends. It will be good to be home again. And I will miss my second home…

Thursday, August 23, 2012


   We finished our project with the Fuller Center and on Zorik and Larissa's house on Wednesday. On Monday and Tuesday, we had groups of young volunteers from the Future Leaders Exhange Program (FLEX)  working with us. They were lead by a wonderful young woman, Anna Hovakimyan, who coordinates the program. These are all young people who are in high school or have recently graduated. They spent a year in the US living with host families. Armenia invests in its future leaders with FLEX, IREX and other programs that help develop the skills of young people. I don't know of any programs on this national scale in the US.   I am very impressed with the skills that these youth have developed.
Kyra and Annette in the blue room
   Sometimes the work got a little hectic with so many people. Our team worked so well together that we would often just work on rooms ourselves while the FLEX team worked on other rooms. We were into painting by Tuesday so FLEX team finished spackling and sanding.  It was an amazing feeling to be painting bedrooms and seeing them get near completion. I thought of Hovakim and Anie having their own bedrooms after 10 years of sharing one communal room.  The room colors of the three bedrooms were a light green, a light blue and a lavender color.
Karnig and Avedis in the apricot room

Gohar V., Anie, Annette, Kyra, Larissa and Gohar P.
   And our team has been awesome. While there were only six of us, we worked so well together that under Larissa's gentle guidance, we were able to accomplish the same amount of work that larger teams would do. Larissa, Karnig, Kyra, Annette, Avedis and I have become good friends and we spend nearly all our off-time together as well.  It has been an honor and a privelege to work with such incredible people.  And also the coordination and work of Gohar Vardanyan and Melik was very integral to our work. I would also like to thank the staff of the Fuller Center for all of their support and their dedication to ending poverty housing in Armenia. Gohar Palyan, President Ashot Yeghiazaryan and Director Armen Avetisyan not only provided background support but also came out to work on the project.
Johnnie and Zorik
   We finished the day with the first coat of paint in the living room. It was apricot colored - of course - and it was so inspiring to see it go from rough concrete, to plaster, to a painted room.  We cleaned our tools and sat down to yet another fabulous meal. This time we had lamb kebobs, cutlets, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers (from the garden) cooked outside on a barbecue grill. If I said that the meal was amazing, would you believe me?  Of course, it was.  We ate, drank local wine and had plenty of toasts to the family, the volunteers and the Fuller Center staff.  And Johnnie, Zorik's childhood friend was there. He is an incredibly warm man who is also incredibly strong. He challenged us to arm wrestling matches and not one of us could even come close - not even using two arms.
Larissa, Anie and Hovakim
   Oh, and the title of this posting.  So after the wonderful meal, the pictures, the arm wrestling and many toasts with shots of vodka, I decided that a little coffee would be a nice alternative to yet another drink of wine or vodka. So I spied a small cup of coffee that someone didn't drink. There were often extra cups of coffee and I would usually quickly claim those. After all, I can't pass up a cup of the nectar of the gods!  So even knowing it would be cold, I tossed it down my throat,,, and discovered that someone who also decided they'd had enough vodka, had surreptitiously dumped their shot into a coffee cup that still had grounds in it. Gasp, choke, sputter!!!  I will be more cautious in the future. However, I am happy to report that I felt fine the rest of the day and no hangover the next day. Vodka, or "Haygagan Chur (Armenian Water)" is very much different - and forgiving - than vodka elsewhere.
  We still have a few group activities left. Today we are going to Khor Virap - the site of the conversion of King Trdat III and the whole country of Armenia to Christianity in 301 AD - the first nation to do so. In the afternoon, we are having a dance workshop with our friend Hasmik Harutyunyan assisted by her husband, Andranik Michaelian.  We will be refreshing our knowledge of traditional Armenia dances and learning some new ones.  Then dinner at Mer Gyug (Our Village) where we will hear some outstanding traditional Armenian music.  Avedis leaves tomorrow morning and our group will start to disperse. But we will always have the knowledge that we formed friendships in one of the best ways possible - working together to make the world a better place.
No Contest!

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Half of our team - Av, me and Annette
      Since our team all arrived early for the project, we decided to start work on Monday.  Our team consists of team leader, Larissa Printzian, her daughter, Kyra, Annette Stepanian from SF, Avedis Kargenian from Illinois, me, and Karnig Haladjian currently living in Abu Dhabi.
We had an orientation at the Fuller Center for Housing in Armenia in the morning and went to the jobsite around noon. 

The family we are working with consists of mother, Larissa, father Zorik, son, Hovakim (13) and daughter, Anie (12) and an aunt whom we haven't met yet.  They have been living in a single room in a borrowed house for 10 years without running water.  They started a house but due to economic conditions have been unable to finish it. That's where the Fuller Center comes in.

The home last winter
      On the first day, we were joined by a team of young Armenians. from IREX, an international non-profit that promotes global change through leadership opportunities and training.
     Our work on the first day consisted of finishing the concrete work on the main floor of the house. To do this, we did a bucket brigade to move red, crushed rock from the staging area up to the main floor, The rock provides a filler and insulator.  Once that was done, we started the afternoon-long process of mixing cement and moving it up to the floor where several people were working. It was a very hot and sunny day and the work was very tiring, but for me, it felt so good to be doing something physically active that provided tangible results for the family's home.  And I think there are few things better than working together to bring people closer together. Our small team of six, came together very quickly and this work was the chance to cement our friendship. (OK, pun intended! :-)).
We had several coffee breaks and some fabulous food to keep our bodies fueled up, but these breaks also gave us a chance to get to know the family members and each other better.  Family and friendships are just such an incredible center theme to Armenian life.
On day two and three, our team returned to start plastering the walls and ceilings. We were joined by some other, local volunteers who are going to be young leaders in Armenia. They volunteer because it is an investment into Armenia and it also helps them improve their English.  Two of the volunteers, Taron and Nune have also meet us in the evenings to take us on tours of the city.  They are wonderful young people.
Larissa and Anie in background
Karnig/Michaelangelo on the ceiling fresco
So - plastering...  The cement walls and  ceilings need to be covered with a thin layer of plaster to make them smooth and even in preparation for painting. The plaster is applied with putty knives and the idea is to get a very thin but smooth layer which will then be sanded.  Melik, our driver, whom we are comparing to James Bond for his fearless and competent driving, is a also a great plasterer and worked with us to get our plaster right. I thought it would be easy, but not so much.  I think it wasn't until the second day that some of us started feeling better about it. But we got the walls and most of the ceilings done.  The family and neighbors work at night to do sanding and cleanup.
Our Team
We have really come together as a team but also as friends. We are all very like-minded people who work and play very well together. We come home tired and dirty in the evenings, but after a shower and change of clothes, we head out into Yerevan for dinner and some of the night life.  And the night life inYerevan is incredible. Families and friends are out walking in the downtown area by the thousands. The streets are full of walking people and the cafes are full of people having coffee, ice cream or other wonderful treats. And the streets stay full until well after midnight. And this includes young children.  It is so different than evenings in most cities in the US.
We now have two days off where we will tour parts of the country. This is one of the parts of the volunteering I didn't realize would be included. Melik drives us in the Fuller Center bus and we have some of the staff and volunteers as tour guides. It is really a great way to see the important places and learn more about them and also to continue to be together. I guess I can't emphasize enough how valuable to friendship is that we have developed in our group and with some of the staff.  I know we benefit from this experience as much as the family does.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


     One of the most valuable things Kristina and I have learned for our travels is that the greatest adventures come when we forget THE PLAN. Well, to be honest, I'm the one who finds it harder (all right, much harder!) to take the side trips, go down the hidden lane or stop and ask people about something.  And time after time, it's when we do those things, that's when the fun starts. Even mechanical breakdowns usually end up creating a whole new world of opportunity to know a place and people. Although there was the time that our transmission went out just after we crossed the Mexican border into the San Diego area.  Would have been more fun to have been stranded in Mexico. But that's another story. 

All Thursday evening and early Friday morning, my heart had been telling me to stay another day with the Mikaeyelyan family. But of course my travel plan said, "Go to Gyumri."  Gyumri is a very beautiful city; and it's beautiful in part because it was devestated by an earthquake in 1988. Much of the town was leveled and tens of thousands died. So it is a very new looking city and is still being rebuilt. On the other hand, it is a big city - second largest in Armenia - and really, aside from looking at some interesting buildings, it didn't have anything that Yerevan doesn't have. And I was really enjoying the open spaces, fresh air and companionship of the Mikaeyelyans. 
Edgar-jan and me
   So I asked Alla if it would be all right if I stayed another day. She said, "Of course," and told me that her mother-in-law, Nellie, had asked if I would be coming on the family picnic that day.  So, it was all arranged, I would stay the day and go on the picnic. I had met Edgar, Nellie, Marina, and Artyun the night before and really enjoyed them.  Nellie sent some spas (a soup made from yougurt) to the house for me - it was lovely!
   Friday is a rest day for the family.  Sergei and Mika are both in training for skiing. They work out every day except Friday.  Sergei is 20 and is training for the next Winter Olympics. And I say, "next" because he was in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver when he was 18.  And if you ever wondered how skiiers train during the summer, well, here is part of the workout.

     Sergei's workout is to run about 45K in the morning. If you do the math, that is just a K or so short of a marathon.  Then he has lunch, rests a bit, and roller skis.  They have roller skis that work on asphalt and others that work on the countryside. 

So we went to the picnic. The family consisted of Nellie, the grandmother; Edgar, Marina and Artur, the offspring; Alla, Artur's wife; and Mika and Artyun - Marina's son.  They are all very loving and affectionate with each other.  One of the things that warmed my heart immediately was this:  the forest was young, 25-years old and beautiful.  But there was a lot of garbage and trash there. This is another story I'll tell at a later time.  But as the family was gathering firewood and preparing to cook, Artur went around with plastic bags and picked up trash in a very large area around our picnic spot.  Edgar and I also pitched in to help.  Artur, Alla and their sons are very aware of the beauty of the Shirak region and are constantly cleaning the environment. 

We played soccer and volleyball - even Nellie!  Then we ate a wonderful meal and I played duduk for them. I also remembered an old civil war song called "Seeing Nellie Home" so I sang it for Nellie.  Artur and Edgar took me down to the Ahostsk River where some natural mineral spring water bubbled up.

We finally rolled home about 8:00 in the evening - tired, full and happy in our friendship.  See what happens when we stray from the plan!

Friday, August 10, 2012


Artur, Alla and Mika

Ashotsk is an awesome place and I'm so fortunate to be here in this village of 2,000 people in Northern Armenia just below the Georgia border. I just saw a little paragraph in the Lonely Planet Book about Artur Mikayelyan and his family and contacted them. They have a B&B here and have year-round activities. Artur is the six-time cross-country skiing champion for Armenia, his wife, Alla, was six times the Russian cross-country ski champ and their twenty-year old son, Sergei, is also an Armenian champaion.  All three have competed in the Olympics.  Artur trains the Armenian National team. Their thirteen-year old son, Mika, and I have been having a great time together. It's like hanging out with Kyle when he was 13 and we were learning to ski and back pack. By the way, everyone in the family speaks Armenian, Russian and some English and German.

My Pal

Our big expedition yesterday was to mountain bike 22 kilometers to Lake Arpa.  Artur and Samvel, a friend of Mika's, drove the car with the kayaks and made sure we were OK during the trip.  Mika was my trail buddy. We had a great time talking, joking and biking.
Representing Peninsula College in Northern Armenia.

Cow dung is stacked to dry everywhere. It is burned in the winter for heat. But don't get the idea that this region is separated from the modern world.  Atur and Alla's house has TV, video, internet , Skype etc.etc.  They just have had years of knowing to survive and to not waste anything. 

We then arrived at Lake Arpa which is just a few K below the Georgia border.  We inflated the kayaks - Mika and I in one; Artur and Samvel in the other. We paddled about 3K to an island where we proceeded to play in the rocks and vegetation.  I was thinking about Kristina as we saw familiar (Yarrow and Cow Parsley) and unfamiliar flowers and plants and had a picnic.

Finally, Mika and I headed back to Ashotsk.  Our entire trip was 7 hours long, we biked 45K and paddled about 6K.  I was pretty tired when I got back, but a nap, a sauna and dinner - well, I was a new man.  I love being here and being with this family so much that I'm going to stay an extra day instead of going to Gyumri or back to Yerevan. I needed to be out of the city for a while.
Samvel and me.
Yesterday, when Mika and I were kayaking - he said,"I love my Ashotsk!" He said how beautiful it is, how cold but how much fun it is in the Winter.  How many 13 year olds would say that?  Today, we are going to the forest for an afternoon picnic.  Artur's mother, Nellie, specifically asked if I was coming.  Yes, this is a good place.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Journey to Khndsoresk and Tatev

     On Sunday, August 5, I went with a tour group, Arevi, to the village of Khndsoresk and the church/monastery/fortress of Tatev.  I'd been to Tatev last time I was in Armenia, but it's so beautiful, I wanted to go again.
     Gevorg Gasparyan is the owner and guide for Arevi. I learned about him through Gohar P. at the Fuller Center.  During the trip to Khndsoresk, Gevorg and I discovered that we both play duduk and guitar.  More on that later.
Khndsoresk - the black dots are caves.

The suspension bridge to Khdsoresk and my newest brother - Avo-jan
     Khndoresk - means Apple Village - Khndzoresk is widely famous for its canyon with picturesque rock formations and ancient cave settlement. The artificial caves, some of which are currently used as stables and warehouses, used to be inhabited till the 1950s. In the bottom of the gorge there is St.Hripsime church, dated back to 17th century.
   We had lunch near the village and Gevorg brought a guitar along so we shared some songs.
And we also played duduks in the church of St. Hripsime.

Later we went to Tatev an absolutely jaw-dropping church perched high up in the mountains. I always marvel at how much work it must have been to quarry, shape and move the stones to this spot.  We took a tram car/funicular to Tatev. It is new and is the highest and longest in the world.  There is a Guiness Book of Records stamp on the signs to attest to that.


Tatev and some detail of the archway.

Our happy group finally got back to Yerevan at about 12:00 midnight. It was by far the best tour I've been on. More casual and relaxed than some of the older tour companies.  Gevorg was wonderful as a tour guide and made sure I understood everything he was explaining.  The group was all Armenians (native language) from Armenia, Russia, France and me from the US. Everybody was wonderful, outgoing, sharing of food and laughter.  I would recommend to anyone coming to Armenia to travel with Gevorg.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

First Full Day in Armenia

     Yesterday was an incredible day. I haven't scheduled much for a couple of days and it's actually not all that easy to be spontaneous. I'm so used to tight schedules that it seems wrong to not have the whole day planned out. But surprises come up when the planning goes out the door.  I spent the morning walking around, changing money and buying a few food items. 
     I had been invited to join the Fuller Center for Housing staff for lunch. I assumed that we would go out to a restaurant. Instead one of the staff members cooked a beautiful lunch of cheese, pasta, bread, salad and a chicken mushroom fry.  The meal was followed by the absolute best watermelon and honeydew melon I have ever had in my life.  Gohar, my friend at the Center, explained that all the fruit and vegetables are grown very close nearby and without chemicals, fertilizers etc.  Absolutely fabulous.
     I told Gohar that my international cell phone was being very difficult to operate (presumably operator error).  She found a spare cell phone they had, lent it to me for the month and we went and bought time on the SIM card. All very easy.  Oh yes, and they picked me up at the airport on Thursday and wouldn't accept any money.
    In the evening, Holger Brune, a very fine person I met who is from Germany, and I walked up the Cascad. I thought I was pretty tired with all the walking, but he hadn't seen the Cascad. So off we went. I mentioned to him that I ran the Cascad some mornings when I was here before.  He said, "Well, let's do it!"  We managed to get about 1/4 of the way before stopping absolutely out of gas and sucking air... :-)  He is a professional photographer and took some great pics which he will send to me.
    That evening, we went to Mer Guyg (Our Village) cafe right next door to our apartment and featuring authentic Armenian music.  Much to my surprise, the two singers, Edgar and Nazeli whom I remembered from 5 years ago, were still there.  And - FOR INGRID - Kato Kachatryan was there playing dohl.  I didn't talk with him but maybe I will another night.  I started requesting songs and they obliged and I can't tell you how that warmed my heart as I sang along.  Holger had tears in his eyes on some songs - though he didn't understand the words,he got the sentiment.  I told him that his wife was lucky to have such a sensitive man as a partner.
    So today I'm on my own. Holger left for the south of Armenia. The couple from Holland and the couple from Poland have left.  I'm heading over to the Vernissage - a huge outdoor art and craft and clothing market that occurs on weekends. Other than that and looking for a haircut - I'm just walking around seeing what adventure will pop its head out.
    Tomorrow off to Tatev Monastery/Fortress, Khndsorev Village, the Devil's bridge and a ride on the longest and highest cable/tram car in the world that goes up to Tatev.  More to follow.

Aram Katchaturian - Composer
Armenian Assembly Building

Boghosian Gardens - Water Features

Boghosian Gardens - these gardens and the park are lovely and they have recycling and a non-smoking childrens' area.

This wall is at the American University of Armenia and of course I thought of Jack.  Awesome stonework.

Just some people on the street. I have not seen a single tattoo on any of the local folks.