Green wall! On the outside of a building! Whose colors are changing for fall! Cool.

Welcome to Tbilisi! I know it probably felt like we were never going to make it, but here we are! Despite our late-night arrival, I was determined not to waste any time! I woke up at 8 on Saturday, took a shower, got dressed, and returned to the room to find everyone else still passed out. It didn’t look like they were getting up anytime soon, so I sent them messages saying I was out for a walk and to text me when they were awake. After getting a map from the front desk, I set off with no plans beyond walking generally south where I knew I’d eventually hit a river.

First reaction: It was weird being in a foreign country that wasn’t Armenia. It made me realize how comfortable I’ve gotten here! Yes, I can’t have an in-depth conversation in Armenian (or even a non-in-depth conversation about anything besides where I’m from, what foods I ate today, or whether or not I’m married), but I can at least say enough to find my way around, say hello and thank you, and feel like I’m not a mute. I hate having to rely on other people being able to speak English because it makes me feel like a bum… I guess, though, that’s mostly because English is my first language. If my first language was Spanish and I knew English to help me when I travelled, I wouldn’t feel like I was just expecting everyone to cater to me. I would feel like we were speaking the international language of travel. But alas, English is my native language, and it doesn’t matter how many other languages I learn if I’m not in a country that speaks one of them.

I think this is an office building. I was sure it had to be something artsy to deserve such a cool facade, but I don’t think so. How about that!?

I tried to learn a few basic Georgian phrases, but I forgot how hard it is to remember things when you’re not used to the sounds. It’s almost better to not know how to say “hello” in the local language because then people know immediately that they need to speak to you in English. I guess after that you can say, “Do you speak English?” but I only like to do that if I can say it in the language. Too many words, so I focused my efforts on “thank you” and “excuse me”. It never really clicked… my default now when I hear other people speaking a non-English language is to start speaking Armenian, and I had to fight against that reflex the whole weekend.

Flea market

Anyway, my first impression of Tbilisi was that it’s not so different from Armenia. Maybe that’s because, if you remember from my Armenian Inventions post, Armenians built Tbilisi. It is true that there was a significant Armenian population in Tbilisi at some points in history (in the early 1800s the city was almost 75% Armenian), but who knows how much the Armenians can factually take credit for. I mean, practically, they’re happy to take credit for all of it. Factually, I’m not sure.

One big difference between Tbilisi and Yerevan is the river. The Kura River runs right through the center of the city, and it makes everything look a thousand times cooler. It’s also not super flat there, so the city is naturally more visually interesting. There are some skyscrapers and a few examples of weird modern architecture, making it feel more western. What’s a modern city without weird, modern buildings, right?

The Presidential Palace, complete with a glass dome, and a weird modern building that I called the macaroni building but that someone else more accurately described as a blood vessel building.
The river and the Bridge of Peace
Cliffs in the middle of a city… See how cool rivers are??
Cliffs cliffs cliffs
The coolest
Me and Tara

After wandering around for almost an hour, I made my way back to the hostel to check on my friends. They were just about ready for breakfast, and after eating, we headed back out onto the streets. Since I basically knew my way around the whole city by then, I was in charge of sightseeing destinations and navigation (though the latter is mostly because I had functional maps on my phone). We walked around a bit just to get a feel for the city before taking a cable car up Sololaki Hill to see Kartlis Deda, Narikala Fortress, and the National Botanical Garden.

Kartlis Deda is basically Georgia’s “Mother Armenia” equivalent (so… Mother Georgia). She was erected to celebrate Tbilisi’s 1500th birthday, and she has a bowl of wine in one hand for those who come as friends and a sword in the other for those who come as enemies. There’s also a fantastic view of the city from there, and after taking a million of the same picture, we headed to the fortress.

Kartlis Deda! Well, from behind. You really can’t get a good picture of her from up on the hill
The view from the top of the hill!
You can see the cable car and the park where we started our ride
The botanical garden plus a coolio building with a partial green roof/underground portion
World’s steepest steps, Noravank style

Narikala Fortress was established in the 4th century by the Persians. Since then, it was expanded and repaired in the 7th and 8th centuries, the 11th, and the 16th and 17th, all by different people… you know, whoever had control of Georgia at the moment. So basically, who knows what the heck it looked like in the 4th century, but it sure didn’t look like it does now.

The fortress is awesome!! It’s probably one of my favorite things that we saw all weekend. We should have just waited until we got there for our view of the city! I love the places where you can go and climb around on things and no one’s yelling at you or telling you not to go somewhere, and this was one of those. No entrance fee, no security people. Just the expectation that you’re not going to do anything stupid. Ah, the expectation of common sense is so rare these days.

We took our time wandering around and investigating as many nooks and crannies as we could find. There’s also a church in the center that was built in the 1990s to replace the previous one which burned down. It was beautiful on the inside (paintings galore!), but I don’t know what they were thinking when they picked the stone for the outside. It kind of looks like it was made of plywood. Ick.

Plywood Church
Narikala Fortress. Doesn’t it look like it’s just growing out of the top of the hill?
Have I mentioned that I want to live in a castle someday?
This was completely safe.
*insert emoji with heart eyes*
See the cliffs by the river?

Okay so every picture is practically the same, but the view is so cool that you feel like you need to keep taking them
Outside of St. George’s

From there, we walked down the hill with nothing more than a general direction to guide us (probably everyone else thought that I was actually leading the group based on the map or some plan, but they say ignorance is bliss, so sometimes there’s no reason to burst that bubble). By chance, we stumbled upon one of the two functional Armenian churches left in the city, St. George’s Cathedral.

There’s some disagreement about when St. George’s was built, so we’ll say it was maybe built in the 13th century and that maybe there was a 7th-century church there before that. It’s also the seat of the Georgian Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church and, which in my opinion should be the church’s biggest claim to fame, the burial location of Sayat Nova! He’s the namesake of about 50% of the streets in Armenia and was a poet and musician who, though he lived in Georgia, was Armenian. And don’t you ever forget it! HE WAS ARMENIAN.

I know, I got distracted again. Back to the church. It has a brick/stucco exterior, common to churches in Georgia, and the inside is covered in murals. It was interesting to see how different it is from churches in Armenia. Everything is way more ornate than in most churches here, and the murals are extensive. I could tell that all of us felt at ease there, maybe because we felt like we were among people with whom we could actually communicate. Oh, the luxury.

Inside St. George’s

After our brief taste of home, we were off again, trekking through the streets in a semi-planned direction. Our next stop was Juma Mosque… which may or may not have been the mosque I was aiming for, but no one has to know that. I actually don’t even know. There are two mosques on the map, and we made it to one, so that’s called a success. (I want to clarify the fact I CAN read a map. The issue, which I can refer to you my university cartography professor to hear about in more detail if you’re interested, is these darn tourist maps that try to be all artsy and end up making a map that’s barely usable because things don’t actually show in the right places. Isn’t the whole POINT of a map to show things in the right places??)

The mosque is plain looking from the outside, just a simple brick building, and we would have completely missed it if the doors weren’t open. The inside, on the other hand, is spectacular. The ceilings, the walls, the everythings were beautiful. I’m a big fan of blue, and it seems like that’s a popular color when it comes to mosque decorations. I was curious about the reason behind that, so I looked it up. It doesn’t look like there’s any connection between Islam and blue, but in the Middle East, blue represents safety and protection as well as immortality, spirituality, and heaven. Those seem like some pretty good reasons to pick blue for the primary color in a religious building! I don’t usually think much about it, but the psychology of colors is interesting. Blue does suggest a kind of peacefulness that seems appropriate in the worship context. Hm.

I didn’t take a picture of the outside of the mosque, but just picture a nondescript brick building and you’ve got it. The inside though… definitely not nondescript
The ceiling

I’m going to give you some time to ponder color psychology, mostly so that I don’t include a full novel in one post. If you’re busy, you can go do your busy person things. If not, look up the meanings of colors in different cultures. It’s interesting, I promise. If you’re into that kind of thing.

My family came to visit me!! Well, now they came and went actually. They were here for a week, and it was crazy busy and tiring, so I didn’t have a chance to write. I’ll retroactively post over the next week or so about some of the things that we did, but first, I have a life update for you!

Here are a few random, unrelated pictures… I laughed at this sign. At the bottom where it’s telling you not to litter, it says “person” under the person throwing trash into a bin and “pig” under the pig littering. In case the images weren’t enough hahahaha.

Surprise! My timeline for this trip has changed a little… I was originally thinking that I was going to be here for about four months, until sometime in October, but I’ve decided to stay until at least the end of February. I’m finishing my time with Birthright and will be volunteering directly with Aleppo-NGO.

My plan makes perfect sense to me, and my family is on board too, so I don’t think I’m crazy. I was a little worried that I was subconsciously trying to find an excuse to stay longer and put off figuring out what’s next for me, but maybe THIS is what’s supposed to be next. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced.

Here’s the backstory:

When I moved from Gyumri to Yerevan, I was placed with Aleppo-NGO, an organization that helps Syrian refugees in Armenia, as a content writer. I was excited about that. I love to write, I love to proofread, and I thought Aleppo-NGO was a super cool organization. Within about a month, they had a need for some architecture help, and it was all stuff that I could easily do for them. From there, things kind of just took off. The construction project became a priority, and they said that I could be involved for as long as I was around. Whattttt??

The sunset on my walk home from work one day!

It seems like the whole thing fell into place too perfectly for it to just be by chance. How many content writer volunteers also have a building design/construction background? I feel like I’m filling a need and am doing work that I’m uniquely suited for. Maybe it seems crazy to stay and work on this when I could go home and get a job and do similar things while also getting a paycheck, but I think it’s going to be a good experience for me. I’m getting to do all sorts of new things, and once the construction starts, I’ll be involved with that as well.

Coffee cup car. Why??

You’re probably wondering what exactly this project is… Two of the biggest challenges refugees face when coming to a new country are finding housing and employment. Aleppo-NGO has a few different programs to help with the housing challenge and works to help people find jobs. This project approaches the employment challenge from a different angle –creating jobs.

The project is a cuisine center that will mass produce Middle Eastern food for catering or grocery store distribution. It will provide jobs for Syrian refugees, especially those from underemployed groups like women and mentally and physically disabled people. Since it’s not for profit, the goal is to pay the employees higher-than-average wages and put any other profits back into the business. It’s a renovation project in an existing space, and there are a lot of things that need to be worked out to make the property function properly for this purpose.

This is the main part of the space that’s going to be renovated.

It’s a big job, and thankfully, all of the responsibility for the design isn’t falling on me. They also have a contractor and an engineer on board, and I’ve been very impressed with the two of them so far. They clearly know a lot, and I’ve gotten good vibes from them personality-wise as well. Sometimes it’s a struggle to be a woman in these contexts, but both of them have shown me nothing but respect. First of all, they both initiated handshakes with me when we met. That might seem like nothing, but here, it’s a big deal. Usually, if you’re meeting a man and you’re with men, all of the men will shake hands, and you’ll either get a head nod or completely ignored. I’ve started just sticking my hand out and leaving it there until it gets shaken, basically forcing people to acknowledge me. Second, they explain things to me, ask for my opinion, and listen when I have something to say. I think this is going to be a good learning experience for me.

Rachel (a friend who also works at Aleppo-NGO) helped me to measure all of the rooms and openings and such so that I could make an accurate drawing of the existing conditions. I couldn’t have done it without her!

Oh, and they both speak English fantastically well, so that helps too. I’m still getting good Armenian practice though. We had a meeting today, and it was at least 90% in Armenian with people cluing me in on the topic in English every once in a while. I did an okay job of following the conversation, but it’s hard when people talk quickly and are using words that I’m not familiar with (I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that we didn’t get to the “building design and construction” vocabulary list in Armenian class yet).

Anyway, there you have it! I’ll be in Armenia for at least four more months which means I should be fluent by the time I leave (not). I’m coming home for Thanksgiving because it’s a big event in my family and  I didn’t want to miss seeing everyone. It’s not exactly ideal timing for the project, but I have to remind myself that I’m a volunteer. I’m already staying longer to help, and I’m not getting paid. I’m allowed to take a break without feeling bad!

This was a weird week. There are a lot of things changing at once, and I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed.

Here’s a random collection of pictures of my and my departing friends *tear*…
Shant, Carineh, and me out at dinner.

The first big change was the weather. Last weekend, the temperature was still in the low 90s. This weekend, we’ve been in the mid-60s. That. Is. Crazy. I wore shorts and a tank top at the end of last week. This week, I’m wearing pants and a fleece and am sleeping with the windows closed and all of the blankets we have piled on top of me. Okay, that’s a small exaggeration, but it’s a substantial change which I completely wasn’t ready for.

My 3D model! I promise I didn’t select those building colors… that’s what they actually look like.

Next, my job went to like a full-on architecture position this week. That’s not a bad thing, just kind of funny. To give you a little more info about the project we’re working on, one of the big challenges that refugees face is finding employment. An even bigger challenge is finding employment that pays a living wage. A lot of people here were given apartments after the fall of the Soviet Union, so they don’t have to worry about paying rent. Refugees, on the other hand, don’t have that benefit, so they need to find higher-paying jobs than most of the people living here because they have a huge extra expense each month. The national average monthly salary is a little less than $400. Rent eats up half of that, if not more, and that’s not even in a central location.

Carineh and me on top of Aragats

Aleppo-NGO’s plan is to make cuisine center that manufactures frozen Middle Eastern food for sale in grocery stores plus has a little dine-in/carry out component. It will employ refugees from Syria, train them to work in the service industry here and develop management skills, and pay them wages that are higher than the market rate. From there, people can find other jobs, start their own businesses, etc, but it’s a way for them to get some experience and management training and get used to the logistics of running a business in Armenia.

They have the property, and now they’re fundraising and applying for different grants to pay for the construction and furnishing costs. I spent the first half of the week developing some possible floor plans for the report and the second half creating some graphics using the 3D model I started last week. It’s been fun to get to do something different and feel like I’m contributing in a way that is really taking advantage of my skills. Larkitect is taking the world by storm.

Finally, this is the last week that a lot of my friends are going to be here. We had a pretty solid crew of 5 of us who met in Gyumri and moved to Yerevan basically at the same time: Shant, Carineh, Gagik, Talene, and me. Shant has been gone for a couple weeks now, Carineh just left this morning, Gagik was supposed to leave last Friday night, and Talene will be in Armenia for a couple more weeks but is going to be sightseeing with her cousin which means she’s basically gone. The whole “Gagik was supposed to leave” thing is because he decided to change his ticket and stay another month! So that’s something at least. It’s still going to be pretty rough without the others though. My other good friend, Arin, leaves on Tuesday. That means I’ve been forced to try to branch out and make more friends. Ugh. It’s overwhelming because there are so many volunteers, and how do you even start going through 100 people to find the ones you get along with?

Talene and me enjoying each other’s company in Halidzor on the way to Tatev Monastery

I told everyone that they’re all required to find me one replacement friend before they leave. That’s only fair, right? They came through pretty well actually. I’ve met some people in the last couple of weeks who seem cool, so now I just need to do the whole “beginning of friendship effort” thing. Exhausting.

I think I’m going to be okay, though. Plus, it’s only three more weeks until my family comes to visit me!!! Yup, that’s right! My parents and my brother are coming for about 8 days at the end of October, and I’m super excited about it. We’re going to have so much fun!

You might be wondering how my Architecture, AutoCAD, and Laser Cutter class ended up going. It wrapped up about a week ago, and things didn’t quite go according to plan. I’m sure you’re shocked. I’m also going to maintain the claim that none of it was my fault, but I guess you can decide that for yourself.

Last time I talked about this class, I’m pretty sure I was recounting the saga of getting AutoCAD installed on the computers. Like I said, the program finally got installed, and I had my first software teaching experience. That all went well, at least in my opinion. I spent about 4 classes teaching different commands in the program.

Basically, I made a list of all of the things that I thought they should know how to do, and then I tried to put them into an order that made sense. I consulted some online AutoCAD tutorials, but there was a lot that I just made up on my own. Before each class, I would go into the lab and draw up practice exercises for each of the different commands. I tried to make things that would challenge the students who were catching on quickly but still be doable for the students who were a bit slower. That’s hard though! It never got easier, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I refused to move on unless everyone understood what was happening because I’ve been on the other end of this. There’s nothing worse than getting lost on something and then never being able to catch up because the teacher just keeps going.

After my four classes of instruction, I gave them a mini-project to design a house. I said that it needed to have 2 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom, but everything else was up to them. I really just wanted everyone to practice drawing, use the different commands I taught them, and be a little creative. Some of the students came up with some amazing designs. Some of the students came up with less amazing ones, but I know that they tried hard on the assignment. It was a very good way to see what level everyone was on. I also made them give little presentations about their houses. That was a mess and a half because no one wanted to present, but I forced them all to get up and say something about their houses anyway. Presentations are a part of life, and if you don’t practice giving them, you’re never going to be comfortable in front of a group!

One of the house designs. He said that he needed a lot of rooms because he has a lot of friends who are going to come and visit him.

The last week of the class was supposed to be laser cutting. I was going to have each of them design the exterior of a little house, use the laser cutter to cut out the pieces, and glue them together into a model. We got all the way to the week before the laser cutting portion of the class, and I still didn’t know how to use the laser cutter. I mean, I had an idea. I read the manual, did some googling, and asked Debbie (my architect friend from Peru) for some tips.

With no time left to space, Carineh (my friend who also worked at GTC and speaks Armenian) and I made plans with the guy at GTC who knows how to use the laser cutter to come in on the Friday before my last Monday class so that he could teach us. We asked the day before if he was free to meet sometime before noon, and he said that we could just call him when we were ready and he’d be there in 30 minutes. Okay, great… until we called at 10 and he was asleep, 11 and he said he was “waiting for something”, and 1 and he said that the workshop coordinator was supposed to talk to us. Huh?

I checked my email, and about 5 seconds earlier, I had gotten an email from her saying that we couldn’t use the laser cutter because we didn’t have approval to use it until October… which makes no sense because my class ended in August. We went to talk to her, and she said that we needed approval from the director,  she was on vacation, and we wouldn’t be able to get an answer until the end of the day. That wasn’t going to work. Even if we did get approval, when was I going to learn how to use it? Carineh asked why they hadn’t requested approval two months ago when they decided that I should use the laser cutter in my class, and her question was met with a blank stare. Wonderful.

This is one of the activities I drew up for the students to do during the final class.

Here’s the most ridiculous thing about the whole laser cutter story… I was literally sent to Gyumri because of the laser cutter. Originally, I was supposed to be placed in the technology center in Vanadzor, the third biggest city in Armenia (which means not very big). I talked to a woman who works for the organization that is responsible for the technology centers, and after we discussed some ideas for my class, she decided that I should use the laser cutter (even though I told her I had no clue how to use it), and that meant I had to be in Gyumri. She talked to Birthright, and my location was switched. Literally because of the laser cutter.

I decided to cancel that portion of the class because it just didn’t make sense to try to do it, and I didn’t need to be stressing myself out unnecessarily about another thing. Instead, we spent the last week doing more AutoCAD practice. I found some exercises online and also drew some things myself when there was nothing that I liked.

It actually went much better than I thought it would, and it was good because the students who were super fast workers actually had to spend the entire class working in order to finish the assignment. Perfect!

A mash up of the GTC staff and volunteers.

I can’t say that I was upset at all when the last class ended. This thing has been such a mess since the very beginning, and it took so much time outside of work to get all of my prep work finished. It was definitely a good experience to have. I hope that I never have to teach through a translator again (especially not while teaching computer software!), but I feel like now that I’ve taught it in that context, it could be fun to teach it in a normal class if the opportunity ever arises.

When I was talking to the jobsite coordinators for Yerevan about what job I wanted to have after moving to Yerevan, my only requirements were that I wanted to work for an NGO, I didn’t want to teach, and I didn’t want to deal with children. I need a break after this whole ordeal.

 

Here’s a random picture from language class. Here, Shant is wearing a fortune teller’s hat (balloon crystal ball not shown) to practice using future tense. Karen (our teacher) had us tell each other’s fortunes. It was pretty funny!

This week has been a struggle. I think it’s a combination of things, but they’re all adding up to me being in a funk. For one thing, I STILL have an eye infection. It’s the one I think I got from Vardavar, and if you’re thinking this is quite a long time for me to have the same infection, you are correct. I went through the first treatment of antibiotic eye drops, wore my glasses for a whole two weeks during that time (which I absolutely HATE having to do), and then went back to the doctor at the end to see if my eyes were healed and if I could start wearing my contacts again. She said yes, and I was thrilled.

 

Fast forward ONE day of contact wearing, and my eyes felt terrible, aka definitely NOT healed. Back to glasses. I went to a different doctor because I lost all faith in the first one, and she said I had another infection. I personally think I have the same infection, but that makes no difference. She tried to tell me that the infection came from my contacts… unlikely. I used a new pair, and I’ve never had an issue with this type of lenses before. I think that not many people wear contacts here, so they blame everything on the fact that you’re putting something unnatural in your eyes.

Now, here I am, going through ANOTHER round of antibiotic eye drop treatment. This time, I’m going to wait at least a week after finishing my drops before I count my eyes as healed and even consider putting lenses back in. So I think it’s kind of reasonable for me to be a little grumpy because having sick eyes impacts literally every waking moment of my day. Besides already feeling like I can barely see in glasses (not because the prescription is wrong but because I have no peripheral vision with them), I am horrible at keeping them clean, so that plus extra dust in the air here/at my archaeology job means I’m constantly looking through translucent glasses instead of transparent ones. I just feel like I’m living in the clouds a bit… like I’m not completely present because I can’t see clearly.

Sunset on my ride home from work!

If I separate my eye grumpiness from the situation, I guess this hasn’t been a bad week. My class is still going well and still stressing me out, but next week I’ll have a break from the stress at least. We finished going over different AutoCAD commands during Monday’s class, and yesterday we talked about space planning and the project. I constantly think about how much easier it would be to teach this class in a language I can speak or even just kind of speak. I would happily teach another class in Spanish. Needing a translator makes it so much harder to do everything. For space planning, we talked about the example of a school building. What kinds of rooms does a school need? How big do those rooms need to be? What rooms should be next to each other?

Here we have Shant getting ready to step over this nice gap on the way into a museum. This cracked me up… the street is under construction, so the entrance to the building is just floating. In the States, there would have been a whole plan for how to maintain safe access to the museum. Here, access is possible, and that’s enough. Mind the gap.

For their projects, they’re all supposed to draw their dream houses… or simplified dream houses. I told them that the best way for them to get better at using AutoCAD is by practicing, so they should make their houses whatever they need to be to challenge themselves. They’ll have all of Monday’s class to work, and then after about half of Thursday’s class, I’m going to make them all come up and give mini-presentations about their houses. I want each person to basically give the class a tour so that I can understand what they drew and why.

My big outside-of-class project for next week is going to be trying to figure out how to use the laser cutter. I have a week to work out the details, so I’m feeling nice and anxious about that. A big part of me was hoping that all of the students would forget about that part of the class, but someone mentioned it today, so I guess that means we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist (assuming I can figure it out). I’ve been phoning a friend (my Peru friend Debbie) to try to understand how the whole thing should work… keep your fingers crossed for me! I’m going to need all the help I can get.

This has been a crazy week! It was one of those ones that simultaneously feels like a lifetime and a split second. It started out on a rough note… Last Thursday was our last class doing pre-activities before starting AutoCAD, so I wanted to check out the program after class to make sure that it was in English like they told me. That turned out to be the least of my worries because the program wasn’t even installed! On any computer! Maybe I should be blamed for not checking sooner, but I thought that considering 1) I was literally brought to Gyumri to teach AutoCAD and 2) when I asked how many computers had it and what language it was in, I got answers to both questions, it was safe to assume that the program was installed. Wrong.

I have no relevant pictures, so instead, you can enjoy a random selection of wildflowers and this nice sunset picture of Gyumri’s main square.

This was probably my first T.I.A. moment in reference to Armenia (for anyone who wasn’t around for Ghana, T.I.A. – This Is Africa – became our mantra anytime something happened that our foreign minds were unable to comprehend. Having that mindset makes it much easier to just accept it, regardless of how seemingly ridiculous, and move on). So here we are, the new T.I.A. This Is Armenia, aka I shouldn’t have assumed anything even though in my mind, that was a natural conclusion to draw.

I immediately told the workshop coordinator, and she seemed shocked. That was comforting… not. She assured me that it could be installed by Monday’s class, but with my expectations shattered, I didn’t let myself believe her. Since I only work at GTC on Mondays and Thursdays, I wasn’t going to be there again before class. I asked if she could send me a message when the job was finished so that I didn’t have to worry… guesses, anyone, about whether or not I actually expected to get a message? Correct, the answer is no, I didn’t expect to, and no, I didn’t receive one.

I sent follow ups on Saturday and Sunday and was assured that they would be ready in time… until Sunday at about 7:30PM when I got the “there’s an issue, it’s not going to be ready for tomorrow” message. Ah. At last. I made the call to cancel class because there was no time to prep something new for Monday, and even there was, we would have just been killing time.

Thanks to one very helpful and hardworking person at GTC, the computers WERE ready for Thursday, and AutoCAD WAS in English. Phew. So my class turned into a combined English/AutoCAD class as I taught everyone the English words for the different commands and other relevant words. It was interesting. I feel like no matter where I am, I’m teaching everything for the first time the absolute HARDEST way. In Peru, yeah, let’s teach kids about robots in Spanish. In India, sure, let’s teach Shakespeare to kids who are at a 4th grade reading level. In Armenia, perfect, let’s teach AutoCAD in English to people who only speak Armenian. On the bright side, if I ever do any of these things again, they literally can only get easier. I’m sure of that.

It actually went fairly well today which was encouraging. There’s a huge abilities gap in the class though, so some people catch onto things really quickly, and others have to be walked through every step. It’s going to be a challenge to keep everyone busy and challenged, but all I can do is my best. That’s just the way computer program classes are, and if you’re one of the fast people, you need to either find some ways to entertain yourself or help the slow ones.

My amusement of the week has been discovering the Armenian way of pronouncing English words. For example, I was helping my friend Carineh (Cah-ree-neh) out by buying some Twix bars for her class. I went into a little store near GTC, and the shopkeeper asked if I needed any help. Normally, I’d say no and just suffer through trying to find what I wanted, but I decided that the evil of trying to speak Armenian was less than the evil of poking around the tiny shop while being stared down.

Me: “Twix oonek?” (Do you have Twix? with Twix pronounced the English way)

Shopkeeper: “Huh??”

Me: “Twix?… Tweeks?… Tweeeks??… Tveeks???”

Shopkeeper: “Ah! Tveeks! Ayo?” (Yes? – She points to a normal size Twix bar.)

Me (relieved): “Ayo! Vetz.” (Yes! Six. – My attempt to tell her I needed six of them.)

Shopkeeper: “Medz?” (Big? – She points to a bigger Twix bar.)

Me (ready for this to be over): “Che, vetz.” (No, six. – Also holding up six fingers because obviously words aren’t working.)

Shopkeeper: “Ah. Vetz.”

She goes and gets six Twix bars and rings me up. Success in the slowest way possible.

This was not the first time that pronunciation completely eliminated our chances of being understood. My first week, we were trying to confirm that GTC has a laser cutter, so Carineh asked one of the guys who works there if he knew where the laser cutter was. She said it all in Armenian except for “laser cutter”, and he just blank stared at her until she said it a few more times with different emphases. Finally, we got an Armenian, “ah! You mean the lah-zer cooter!” Right. That’s exactly what we meant.

This week, I was explaining in Lar-menian (that’s what I’ve started calling the horrible Armenian I speak) what I teach at GTC, and I said “I teach a class on architecture (I said this in Armenian) and AutoCAD (not in Armenian because there’s no translation, except apparently pronunciation-wise)”. Again, blank stares from people who definitely know what AutoCAD is.

“AutoCAD?… Ow-toe-cad?… Ow-toe-cahd??”

Finally, a response, “OH! Ahv-toe-cahd!” But of course. How did I not see the “v” in AutoCAD? Silly me! Carineh said that’s probably because the Armenian word for “automatic” is “av-toe-maht” which makes sense, but at the time I was thinking “WHAT THE HECK??”

As a result of all of this, my current favorite thing is saying English words with a heavy Armenian accent whenever I don’t know the Armenian word. The best is that sometimes, I’m actually right because there either isn’t an Armenian word for it or they use the Russian word which sometimes sounds like the English word. Candy names are the most fun though: “Keet-kaht”, “Sneekers”, “Muh yev muh” (M and M), “Skeet-ulz”. I could keep going, but I’ll spare you for now.

Normal life over the last couple of weeks has been hectic, to say the least. I still feel a bit like I’m a chicken running around with its head cut off, but now at least I don’t feel like I’m also precariously close to falling off a cliff. So that’s an improvement, however slight.

Planning time

The final count of students signed up for my architecture/AutoCAD/laser cutter class was 18, and on the first day, we had 10 actually show up, and their ages ranged from 15-25. I thought that was a perfect number. I met with Liana, my translator, before the class, and we went over what I was going to talk about so that she was prepared. I still am getting used to the whole translator thing, but I’m lucky to have someone translating who wants to do a good job. The translators are volunteers too, so their motivation is just wanting to practice and learn. Liana is just as determined as I am to make this a class that people are interested in. It’s nice to feel like I’m not the only one who cares.

Hard at work

We spent our first class doing a mini architecture history/around the world architecture tour. I had such a hard time putting that together because there is SO much you can include in an architecture history lesson. That’s the biggest challenge for this class in general. We don’t have THAT much time, so I have to decide what is really important for the students to understand and what can be skimmed over. I did a little bit of history and then tried to show them how different parts of the world developed different architectural styles.

Literally no chance this thing was going to stand… but they got some style points.

We then moved into talking about all of the people involved with creating a building today. Honestly, I have no idea how the construction process works here, so I just based it off of how things happen in the US. If they actually decide to go into this field, they’ll figure it out. That was my segue into my personal favorite team building activity, paper towers. You split the group up into teams of three or four and give them a long piece of tape, scissors, and 4 or 5 pieces of computer paper. The goal is to build the tallest free-standing tower possible in a set amount of time. I’ve done this in three countries now, and it never ceases to amaze me how everyone comes up with something completely different. Also, it doesn’t matter how old or young the students are. Someone always ends up with a tower that blows away the competition, and someone always builds something that immediately collapses.

The winning tower. Plus it’s sleek so they get some extra points for that too… but honestly, I think some of the kids in Peru built a taller one. Sometimes people think too much.
Drawing plans, elevations, and sections of Liana’s purse

We also started talking about the types of drawings that an architect makes: plans, elevations, and sections. We did a couple of activities with that over the three classes, including my personal favorite one where they drew a plan of the outdoor courtyard. I gave them all graph paper and told them that the scale was one step = one square. So they all had to walk around the courtyard measuring distances with footsteps. It was good because we didn’t need a tape measure, and I always think it’s better to have people doing something weird/interesting because it’s more likely to keep their interest than just sitting in one place for two hours. Next week, we’re moving into computer work. I think the students are all probably happy about that because it means they can stop doing my bizarre activities, and I am too because that means I can start using online tutorials to help me rather than having to make it all up from scratch. You have no idea how long it takes me to prep for classes when I’m starting from zero.

Courtyard measuring

Last week was also my final week working at the startup company! It was interesting working there, but I can’t say I’m too sad to go because next week starts my archaeology volunteer placement! I’m really excited about this. Sona, the Birthright job site coordinator, took me last week to meet with the archaeology people. Apparently, there’s a German group coming for the month of August, and they do a big archaeology dig each year. They showed us a drone video of the site from last year. It was awesome! I’m going to be joining them two days each week, and I definitely need to go buy a long sleeve so that I don’t get fried from being outside in the sun all day. Ah!! I can’t wait! Hopefully it’s as cool as I think it’s going to be.

Here’s the courtyard from above. I made them include all of the different ground materials, plus the benches, trash cans, doors to the surrounding buildings, trees, etc.

On the language front, my Armenian is slowly improving. I got promoted to the next Armenian class, but that’s mostly because I already knew how to read and not because my Armenian is any good. I have a lot of vocabulary to learn before I’m caught up with the people in this new class. There’s no use knowing 15 tenses to conjugate verbs in if you don’t know the right verbs. I am way better than before though. I sometimes will go to my host mom with a well-practiced sentence, and I’ll say it so well that she then overestimates my abilities and asks a follow-up question. Most of the time, I understand what she’s asking, but I just don’t have the words to answer her. So I do the mouth open and close like I really have something to say, and the words just won’t come out. I’m like a fish. In response, she usually just smiles, shakes her head, and says, “Ah, Lara jan” (Lara jan means “dear Lara”. People use “jan” all the time as a kind of term of endearment). At least she’s patient.

Anyway, I’m hoping that I’ll have more time to practice my Armenian now that we’re moving into the software part of the class I’m teaching. I really do think that the prep is going to be much easier now.

Goal for this week: feel like a chicken with a head (baby steps). That sounds reasonable, right?

Me and one of my teacher friends, Jessica.

Why does this always happen? Why, at the very end, do things always start falling into place and being so perfect? It’s like the goodbye is laughing at you and trying to make things as hard as possible. My last couple of weeks, and especially my last few days, have been the best ones. It’s not like things weren’t good before, but I finally had that feeling of belonging. I felt comfortable in the city and less like a caged animal. I had friends who were funny and goofy and reminded me of my friends back home. I went places and did things and hung out with the aforementioned friends. It was like I was just another person, woven into the fabric of the city, rather than an outsider. It took almost my entire time there, but I finally felt fully at home.

At the very least, the joy of having achieved that feeling of belonging outweighs the sadness I feel in leaving it. Again, it felt like the goodbyes weren’t permanent. Maybe I’m getting better at lying to myself and making my heart believe that I’ll cross paths with these people again, or maybe it’s true. Only time will tell! Everyone was talking like there’s no question that I’ll be back, “The next time you’re here, we’ll have to do x, y, and z.” I guess that means it’s settled. I do have a 10-year visa, after all. It would be a shame to let it go to waste…

The view of Jaigaon from monastery #2.
One of the royal residences in Bhutan. Apparently they used to come here often during the winter because it gets so cold in the capital.

Anyway, the last couple days were a whirlwind, as you might expect. The impending “end” is always just what people need to kick them into hyperdrive. “Well, you HAVE to do this before you leave.” “We can’t let you go home without going here.” “You’ve been here for two months and haven’t tried this?? You can’t leave India without at least TRYING it.”

So that’s what we did! In three days, I did more travelling around Jaigaon than I did in 7 weeks. We went to Bhutan and visited a bunch of different monasteries, I tried some foods and drinks that I couldn’t even begin to name if I tried, I hailed and rode an auto on my own, and I finally started feeling like I was a real person.

One of my completed plans!

I also made a mad dash to wrap up the architecture drawings for the Bible school, and I finished on Monday morning, my last day, at noon. Pretty good, I think. I didn’t even have to stay up late to get everything done. Packing was also surprisingly easy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned how to do quite well over these last 10 months, it’s how to pack a bag. If there are two things, the second would be how to say goodbye.

 

Buddhist prayer flags. They have prayers written on them, and when they blow in the wind, that’s supposed to be the same as someone saying the prayer.

By the time I went to sleep Monday night, everything was ready. I don’t think I’ve ever been ready so far ahead of time. It helped that we had to leave at 7AM Tuesday morning. The only thing I hate more than packing is waking up early.

 

Now here I am, sitting in another airport (we have to stop meeting like this). Just wait until I tell you about my travel schedule to get home… I would do it now, but you’ll understand when you see it. It needs its own post.

Monastery #3!
I LOVE the painting on all of these buildings.

My teaching responsibilities here are officially finished! I won’t pretend that I’m terribly upset about that, but I am sad that my time here is coming to an end. I’ve made some great friends, and it will be hard to say goodbye to them.

The last days of extra classes with the class 9 kids were good. We made it through two dramas in their book, and I think that the kids understood the main ideas of both. With our foolproof story-teaching formula, how could they not understand? As long as you explain the story 5ish times, you’re set.

I’m glad that Jenrika and I are on the same page about the kids needing to be able to think for themselves. We’ve both been trying to work on that, and it makes me feel like everything I tried to teach them over the last couple months isn’t going to go completely to waste after I leave. I feel bad that she’s going to have to continue the efforts alone, but hopefully we’ve laid some sort of foundation… maybe?

My workstation… aka the desk in my bedroom

My afternoons have been spent working on the architecture plans for the addition at the Bible school. Okay, not all of the afternoons. I’ve also spent some time reading and swinging on the roof, but now I’m running out of time, and I really need to get those plans done. It takes SO long though. I don’t have the computer programs that are usually used to make plans, so I’m drawing them by hand. As if that didn’t already take forever, I also don’t have all of the tools that you would normally use for hand drafting. I have a pencil with those points that you take out and stick in the back of the pencil when they go dull, an eraser, and a ruler. That’s all. Fully equipped, I would have a drafting table with a slide rule, a ruler, multiple pencils of various hardness, a sharpener, a triangle, shape stencils, an architecture scale, and a thin eraser. At the very least. Since I don’t have all of those things, it’s taking me much longer than it otherwise would, and my drawings are definitely not going to be as precise as they should be.

I am enjoying working on them though. I have everything mostly figured out, so now all I have to do is draw lines… well, and covert dimensions so that the drawing is to scale, but that only requires a little thought. Even with that, it’s a relaxing task, and it will fun to see the finished product… assuming I ever manage to finish.

The crew!

Today, however, was an exception! To celebrate our last day of extra classes, I went to lunch with Jenrika, the other teacher who’s been teaching this week, and two other teachers from school. It was so much fun! I really did feel like a normal person, and even though they didn’t speak in English all the time, they at least TRIED to. If a conversation went on for too long in Nepali, someone translated to clue me in. It was really nice.

 

Me and Jenrika, the English literature dream team

We were going to go for a walk after lunch, but the wind started blowing dust around (I’m telling you, the dust is one of the worst things about being here… If you were here, you’d understand why people sometimes wear face masks. Breathing that stuff in is not good) and it looked like it was going to rain. We went back to Jenrika’s house instead and just hung out. I felt like I was back home hanging out with a bunch of my friends. It kind of stinks… I finally feel like things are really coming together for me here, and I’m leaving in a couple of days. Well, all I can do is enjoy the time I have left and celebrate the fact that I achieved my goals of making real friends and feeling like I belong.

 

We also played dress up, and who doesn’t love that? Jenrika is from Bhutan, so she has a bunch of traditional Bhutanese clothes. They dressed me up in a kira… and when I say, “they dressed me up”, I literally mean that I was like a doll. I don’t know how anyone dresses themselves in these outfits. First, I put on the wonju, a long-sleeve, sheer blouse (long sleeve like it went about a foot past my fingertips). Next was the kira. It’s just a big, rectangular piece of fabric that you wrap around you. They put a “half-kira” on me which means that it only went up to my waist instead of all the way to my shoulders. The toego goes on top of that. It’s like a jacket with sleeves that go about to your fingertips. The sleeves of the wonju and the toego are folded up together, the toego is secured with a brooch, your hair goes up in a bun, and you obviously also need to add a necklace.

Getting ready for my modeling career.
Bhutan and Tibet… and the USA and India… So many countries represented in one picture!

By the time they were done with me, I felt like a queen. I also felt like I was going to melt into a puddle because the kira was like a blanket and the toego was NOT lightweight. Jenrika also had a traditional Tibetan dress, so one of the other teachers put that on and it was like an international clothing party. It’s really cool visiting these places where the culture and traditions are so strong and SO different from home. What would the traditional dress of the United States be? Jorts (jean shorts, for those of you not down with the lingo) and t-shirt?

We’re supposed to hang out again today, so cross your fingers for good weather! (I know, how weird is it that I have actual PLANS! To hang out with friends! As if I’m a normal human!)

 

I have a new project to work on! Since we’re off school today, Pastor Daniel took me to the Bible college in the morning to check out the construction work they’re doing. There are four buildings on the campus, and they’re currently adding a second floor onto one of them. The first floor is a big assembly hall, and now the second floor is going to have a conference room and some classrooms.

Work in progress… the part I’m supposed to be designing would be on the top of this building.

My task is to make a plan for the third floor. One of the ways they’re considering using the space is by creating mini-apartments that can be rented out to people who are travelling to Bhutan. Since we’re right on the border, hotels and short-term housing are in high demand, and this could be an easy way to generate some revenue for the school and the ministry.

That means I get to play architect again! I’ll probably give some lighting recommendations too, but I’m sure they’ll do whatever they were going to do anyway. I think it’s funny that whenever I say I’m an architectural engineer, it’s like people get bored and stop listening after I say the “architect” part.

Me: I’m an architectural engineer.

Person: Oh, you’re an architect!

Me: Well… not really. I’m an engineer specializing in lighting and electrical systems in buildings.

Person: Oh, you’re an architect!

Me: Yes.

The construction site. Not quite what you’d see in the States, but this definitely isn’t the States so it’s about what I expected. Watch your step!

Luckily, we did take some architecture classes, so I usually know enough to be able to satisfy whatever thoughts they have about what I can do. Plus, I DO have a minor in Architecture which is basically the same thing as a bachelor’s, right? (By the way, the answer to that is no, not even close.) Anyway, usually I’m fine. This task, for example, is simple. It’s not like they’re asking me to design the structure or anything (which is something that everyone assumes an architect can do on the spot… but like, there are structural engineers for that). I don’t have to tell them how to build it. The local builders know, much better than I do, how to build things here. What they want from me is more like the solution to a puzzle or a logic problem than a true architectural question: fit as many comfortably sized rooms as possible in this predetermined space.

 

Roof with a view! These roofs are my blank canvas. Imagine the possibilities!

Once again, I’m comforted by knowing what the alternative to me doing this would be. Like in the school, the alternative to me being the English Lit teacher was no one being the English Lit teacher. Here, the alternative to me designing the layout is someone with literally zero training just making something up. I can at least do better than that.

 

*Note: I know the title is dumb, but I think it’s funny so that’s all that matters.