After I left Dolmabahce Palace, I still had a lot of things on my to do list for the day. I knew that I was going to get home feeling like I wanted to collapse, but I have this habit of punishing present Lara for the actions of past Lara. For example, if I eat a whole tub of ice cream one day, the next day at the gym I might make myself run an extra few miles (which is a significant task for me) as ‘punishment’ because past Lara has no self-control. This time, in ‘punishment’ for being a lazy bum my first couple of days, I didn’t allow myself to take things off of my sightseeing list for lack of time. No, no. Too much walking was not a valid excuse because if I hadn’t been lazy, I would have easily been able to see the same amount while enjoying slightly more leisurely sightseeing days.

This helpful sign on the funicular (and all public transit actually) tells riders that “manspreading”, as it has become known, is not allowed. Everyone knows what this means… you know those people who get onto the subway and act like they own the place and should be allowed to take up as much space as they want.

From the palace, I walked to the funicular that goes uphill to Taksim Square, one of the major public squares of the city. It’s a major venue for public events like parades and other celebrations, as well as for protests and demonstrations. Otherwise, there are a lot of restaurants, shops, and hotels nearby, but since I wasn’t interested in any of those, I wasn’t quite sure what I should do there. Does that ever happen to you? You know that you’re supposed to go see something, but once you get there it’s like, “Hm. Well, there it is. What now?” There’s a little park by the square, so I settled on getting myself another nutella bagel, sitting under a tree in the park, and watching the other people in the square who seemed to have a better idea of what to do there than I did.

(This was actually my second time in Taksim Square. The first was in transit to my hostel from the airport when it was raining, I had all of my bags with me, and I spent most of my walk through the square grumbling about the fact that it was so darn big and I couldn’t figure out where to go and I had to walk forever to get from the side where the bus dropped me to the side where I was getting on the funicular. Thankfully, I was less grumpy this time.)

They’re in the process of building a mosque right next to Taksim Square. Apparently it’s been a bit of a controversial project. Supporters say that there isn’t a mosque close enough to Taksim Square. The opposition says that it’s a move angling to reverse the legacy of the first president Ataturk who established Turkey as a secular republic. It was debated for DECADES, and now it’s set to be completed this year.
This monument in the square shows the first president of the Republic of Turkey, Ataturk, in two different scenarios. Here, he’s shown in his role as a statesman.
Here, Ataturk is shown as a military leader.

When I was thoroughly covered in crumbs and ran out of nutella to drip on myself, I left my tree behind and took a stroll down Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), a big pedestrian shopping street. Besides foot traffic, there’s an old trolley that runs along the route. It’s kind of cool, but if you’re going for speed, I think it would be way faster to just walk. With how long it takes for people to move out of the way of the trolley, it moves along at a snail’s pace.

Independence Avenue. If it looks very European to you, that was no accident. It burned down in 1870, and the rebuilding was somewhat modeled off of famous streets in Paris.

I had a few churches that I wanted to check out in the area. It does almost seem like there are more churches in that neighborhood than mosques. Maybe that’s not true though. It could be that just none of the famous mosques are around there, and that’s basically where all of the churches are.

Church of St. Anthony. See what I mean about “local flavor”?

The most well-known church (I just made that up) along the road is the Church of Saint Anthony, a huge Roman Catholic church. The first church was built on its site in 1725, but the building that stands today is from 1912. The modern-day church was rebuilt to replace the earlier church that was demolished to build a tramway. I really liked the outside because I felt like it had a little local flavor. So often, churches look the same no matter where they’re built, so I liked that this one seemed to fit. The inside was pretty typical (and kind of forgettable to be honest), but I’ll take what I can get.

Inside the church… sadly somewhat underwhelming
There was some nice stained glass though
I’m not a huge fan of the blue/purple lighting.
Greek Orthodox Church

I made two other church stops in the neighborhood. The first was Hagia Triada, a Greek Orthodox church that was built in 1880 and was the very first domed church allowed to be built in Istanbul. During the Istanbul pogrom in 1955, mob attacks were directed primarily at the Greek population, and rioters attempted to burn the church down. It was pillaged and damaged but remained standing, despite having kerosene poured on it. It was restored, and thank goodness because it’s beautiful. The ceilings, in particular, are pretty fabulous. I also have some good feelings towards the church because someone invited me to Easter services the next day (now you know how far behind I am with writing), and while I didn’t end up going there, their offer was what I needed to motivate me to find an English-speaking church to go to.

Greek Orthodox Church
Altar of the Greek Orthodox Church
Inside the dome

Second, I stopped in at Surp Hovhan Vosgeperan Armenian Catholic Church (quite the mouthful). It has a somewhat similar history to the Greek church… It was originally built in 1837, was destroyed and burned down, and was rebuilt in 1863. One thing that I noticed while visiting these churches was how much security they have (aka they have more than the zero security that most churches have), and now I understand. I guess that’s what happens after people burn and loot the church.

The Armenian Catholic Church
This used to be a little market, and now it’s filled with shops and restaurants that are definitely out of my price range.
Random mural I found in my backstreet wanderings

My last major destination of the day was Galata Tower. The first tower built on this spot was by the Byzantines in 507, it was made of wood, and they called it the Great Tower. In the 1300s, it was rebuilt in stone and was called the Tower of Christ. During the Ottoman years, it was used first as a dungeon and later as a fire tower. Now, it’s an incredibly claustrophobic tourist attraction. I’m not exaggerating.

First, you have to wait in a painfully long line to get in (I had to wait an hour, and I have a feeling that’s not even as bad as it gets). Then, you get whisked to the middle-ish of the tower in an elevator… and then you have to walk to the top up some narrow, spiraling stairs. At the top, there’s a restaurant where you can eat if you like to look at people’s backs (because there are windows, but there are so many people on the walkway outside that you’re not going to see any sort of pretty view while you’re eating).

Galata Tower
Stairs up the tower

There’s also a walkway around the tower that is just wide enough for one person to press their body against the rail and have enough space for someone else to pass behind them. You’re supposed to walk around it clockwise, but of course there are always those people who decide they should go against the grain and walk the other direction. And then there are the people who stop walking and block the entire walkway while doing so. I went around twice, and about halfway through the second time, I started regretting my decision because I was getting a little claustrophobic and about ready to start smacking people (don’t worry, I controlled myself). For reference, I don’t get claustrophobic easily. I think it was the combination of the frustration at not being able to walk and the people bumping into me and the fact that once I wanted to get out, I couldn’t.

On the positive side, the view really was spectacular. I was there as the sun started setting, so I got to see the city turn from daytime Istanbul to dusk Istanbul. I thought I might stay for the whole sunset, but once I made it to the end of my second round, I wanted nothing more than to be on the ground again.

Views from the tower

I was just enjoying the view from the top of the tower when this girl came up and said that she took a really good picture of me. She asked if I wanted it, and my thought was, “Well, if you’re going to have this picture of me, then yeah, I want it too.” So I said yes, and here it is. Then she asked me to take the same picture of her.
Funky street staircase

To get back to my hostel, I had to go back across the water to Old Town. I walked on Galata Bridge which is a pretty cool spot, especially at night. There are two levels to the bridge. The top has fishermen lining the railings at what seems like every hour of the day and night. The bottom is full of restaurants, and while it seems like a bit of a hazard to have a bunch of fishing lines flying over the walkway in front of the restaurants, no one asked me for my opinion. It would be funny if when you ordered a seafood dish from one of the restaurants, the fishermen above pulled it straight out of the water for you. Can’t get much fresher than that! Even though that doesn’t actually happen, you can buy fish sandwiches on and near the bridge that are made from super-fresh fish.

Fishermen still going, despite the fact that it’s getting dark
Nighttime river view
Looking towards the old town side of the river

Since I’m not a fish person, I didn’t do that. Instead, I wandered down this big food street near the hostel, I imagine looking something like a zombie. I walked all the way down the street without seeing anywhere I wanted to eat… and when I got to the end, I remembered that I was starving, and not finding a dinner spot was not an option. So, I turned around and walked back down the street, attracting the attention of one of the restaurant’s yell-at-you-as-you-walk-by people. He tried to get my attention the first time I walked by, and I successfully ignored him. This time, I didn’t have the energy. He told me that he would give me a chicken kebab platter for 15 lira instead of the 20 lira listed in the menu (20 lira was about $5 at the time). I knew 20 was high and figured 15 was reasonable. Plus, if I decided to eat there, I didn’t have to walk around hungry anymore. Okay, deal.

Maybe it’s just because I was starving, but I think that platter was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten (okay, it was definitely good, but I think the “best food I’ve ever eaten” statement comes from the fact that moments before that, my stomach was eating itself). I guess the guy took a liking to me during the course of the meal because when I asked for the bill, he told me not to worry about it. I couldn’t accept that though, so I insisted on paying SOMETHING at least, and he agreed to 10 lira. Imagine that, one second I’m bargaining for a lower price and the next I’m bargaining for a higher one. Interesting turn of events.

This isn’t the one I had that night (I was too busy scarfing it down to take a picture), but here’s another kebab platter that’s pretty similar to what I got… definitely not an insignificant amount of food. There was rice, salad, a basket of bread, and lots of kebab.

Anyway, my punishment was successful. By the time I got back to the hostel, I was ready to collapse. I had to pull myself together quickly, though, because the next day’s schedule was no less grueling!

Welcome to Istanbul!! I know, you were probably wondering if we were ever going to manage to leave Georgia, but we did it!

View over Istanbul

My flight landed in Istanbul after a solid 3 hours in the air… during which I was completely comatose, but it apparently didn’t make a difference because I was still exhausted when we landed. I hate feeling groggy while going through immigration and customs, but sometimes there’s only so much you can control. Before leaving the airport and attempting to navigate the long journey to my hostel, I tried to smack myself awake and pull it together the best I could (never underestimate the power of a quick face washing/tooth brushing in the airport bathroom).

From the airport, I had to take three modes of transportation. This trek was completely the result of my trying to spend as little money as possible. There are two airports in Istanbul, one on the Asia side of the city and one on the Europe side. I was staying on the Europe side, but I flew into Asia because it was way cheaper. Then, I could have gotten a pick up or a taxi from the airport, but I’m not made of money! And the less I spend, the longer I can take coming home… hehe just kidding (Mom, I’m just kidding. I promise!). Anyway, all of this led to three modes of transport: shuttle bus, funicular, and tram.

The shuttle was the longest leg of the journey, about 45 minutes, and I slept from the moment I sat down. That’s great, except then when we got to the end stop, I was completely disoriented and had no idea which way I needed to go. And it was raining, of course. I marched off confidently in some random direction until I could get oriented… at which point I turned around and marched off in the exact opposite direction. My approach to walking around strange cities: Always look like you know exactly where you’re going and what you’re doing, even if you haven’t a clue.

Long story short, I figured out where I needed to go, how to buy a transit card, etc. with my eyes at least 50% closed, and when I got to the hostel, they showed me where to drop my bags (since I was there about 6 hours before check-in) and told me to help myself to breakfast. Ah, those words were like music to my ears after spending the night eating crackers, gummies, and a variety of other travel snacks that I love but that will also lead to my slow death-by-vitamin-deficiency.

Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the details of my breakfast (but bread and chocolate spread were obviously involved because gotta get those essential vitamins!). Instead, here are my first impressions of Istanbul (admittedly collected in more than just the hour and a half journey from the airport):

  1. Mosques – There are SO many, and they’re everywhere. And they’re seemingly always under construction, but I’ll talk about that later. I’ve been to other countries with a lot of mosques, but the ones in Istanbul are generally very welcoming to visitors which was a huge difference from places like Dubai, for example.

    The Blue Mosque, one of many, many mosques in the city
  2. Public transportation – It’s so good! And there are more modes of public transit than anywhere I’ve been. There are trams and funiculars and ferries and metros and trains and buses and probably spaceships too if you know where to look. And they’re all nice and clean and on-schedule and easy to navigate.
  3. Food – This has to be one of my favorite places, food-wise. I think I said that about Lebanon too, though, so it’s definitely a Middle-Eastern-food thing. This is the most similar to the type of food I grew up with which made me feel at home. Kind of funny because I used to hate practically all of those foods, but hey, times change. I could eat kebab and lahmajoon for every meal for the rest of my life.
    Kebab platter

    Soft serve. Yummmm
  4. Dessert – Yes, this gets its own number, separate from food. If you don’t understand already, it’s not worth my trying to explain it. Three words. Baklava. Icecream. Turkishdelights. (Okay, I should have said five words.) I usually don’t like baklava but there were a few fantastic baklava moments that happened. It’s very hard to disappoint me with ice cream, so the fact that it even exists puts it on the list. Turkish delights aren’t my personal favorite to eat, but they’re high on the list of my favorite desserts to look at.
  5. Nuts – This deserves its own number too. So much love for nuts. They’re everywhere and in EVERYTHING. Chocolate, Turkish delights, every other dessert whose names I don’t know. It’s almost impressive how many different ways they manage to use the same ingredient.
  6. Flags – There. Are. Turkish. Flags. EVERYWHERE. Honestly, it’s a little weird. Someone tried to tell me that there are a lot of flags around in the States, but this is like the U.S. on Independence Day x 100000.

    Flags. Everywhere.
  7. Flowers – I’m sure this is partly just a spring thing, but also landscaping. I have never seen SO many flowers and so many impeccably landscaped parks. I was completely obsessed because what’s better than flowers and parks? But it definitely takes a huge amount of work and maintenance for them to look like that. It’s amazing!
    Check out this park…
    They’re winning the landscape game
    This just looks so magical

    Apple tea, my new true love. There’s even a cinnamon stick in the bottom of this one!
  8. Tea – In general, I hate tea. I think it tastes like something that could maybe be good if it wasn’t so watered-down. Also, most typical flavors are kind of eh. In Istanbul, tea is a big thing, and I LOVED it. This is a significant statement coming from me. Apple tea is like <3 <3 <3. There are no words. It’s like drinking warm apple juice but better. And there’s definitely a pile of sugar in it, so that doesn’t hurt. I had some delicious pomegranate tea too, and I don’t even like pomegranates! Summary: they know what they’re doing when it comes to tea.
  9. Water – There’s nothing better than a city with a nice river… except for a city with an estuary and a strait AND a sea. You can take ferries like buses!
    On the water! On a boat!

    The estuary is coming in from the right, the Bosphorus Strait is on the left, and the Sea of Marmara is out in the distance
  10. History – Istanbul is an old and complicated place, and you can see it. There are old churches that were turned into mosques, palaces, the ruins of Roman aqueducts and city walls… the city oozes history.

I also quickly noticed that my chameleon suit worked very well there (that’s how I’ve started to think of my somewhat ethnically ambiguous appearance… often, it’s like I’m a chameleon that can kind of blend in, or at the very least can keep from standing out). I got a lot of, “You’re Turkish, right?” Thank you, chameleon suit. Which brings us to #11…

I got some Turkish ice cream which is very similar to Arabic ice cream (which I had when I was in Lebanon). It uses mastic (a resin) which helps to keep it from melting.
Also note my fake engagement ring. Hehe.
  1. Men – Aside from Ghana, this is probably the place where men have been the most forward on the street. In Armenia, other people had issues with this, but I walked around ignoring everyone, so I was generally left alone. I tried to apply my ignore strategy in Istanbul, and that just led to follow up questions about why I was ignoring them and promises that they were of good character (claims which, I would argue, were negated by the fact that they were disregarding my clear disinterest in talking to them). UGH. After about two days of it, I got so annoyed that I went and bought a fake engagement ring to wear when walking around alone. I don’t know if it made a difference, but at least it gave me a very easy “out” if someone tried talking to me, “Oh sorry, I have to go. I’m on my way to meet my husband.” I HATE having to use the “other man” shield because it’s a lie and saying “leave me alone” should be enough, but for sanity’s sake, there are some battles not worth fighting.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Get yourself excited for some history because next time, we’re going to learn alllll about just how much history Istanbul has.

Happy New Year! Շնորհավոր նոր տարի (shnorhavor nor dari)! Wow! Can you believe it? 2018. I’m feeling good about this year based on nothing more than the fact that 8 is my lucky number. This has been my only New Year’s out of the USA, and it was definitely a different kind of experience!

Tree at the base of Cascade

I’m used to New Year’s being a sort of “friends’ holiday”. You spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with family, and on New Year’s, you spend time with your friends. Here, that is NOT the case. New Year’s is a massive family holiday, and it launches a celebration that lasts an entire week, until Armenian Christmas on January 6th.

Like everything else here, there’s a lot of history behind New Year’s. Throughout the years, it’s been celebrated on multiple different days. “Kaghand” new year was celebrated on March 21st, coinciding with the spring equinox and the awakening of nature. “Navasard” new year was celebrated on August 11th, the day that the Armenian patriarch Hayk defeated the Babylonian King Bel, a tyrant seeking to extend his power over the whole earth. That day, Hayk killed Bel in battle with a long arrow, guaranteeing the freedom of his people and establishing Armenia in the year 2492 BC. (Hayk apparently had a pretty busy life because he also helped to build the Tower of Babel. That’s the tower in the Bible that people were trying to build up to heaven, and God disrupted its construction by making the people speak different languages.)

Ridiculous light tree

Next, according to the Julian calendar, the new year falls on January 14th. This is now called “Old New Year” and is still celebrated, though to a lesser degree than “New New Year” on January 1st, recognized on that date after switching to the Gregorian calendar in the 18th century. Does your head hurt yet? Yeah, same. During the Soviet years, the new year was celebrated three times each year: at midnight the night of December 31st, at 1AM (midnight in Moscow), and again the night of January 13th.

New Year’s is when Dzmer Papik (Santa Claus/Grandfather Winter) comes and brings presents. Families gather and eat a big meal at midnight after spending the entire day cooking enough food for a week. No matter the economic status of the family, significant money and effort are put into the table for New Year’s. People do what they need to do to create a spectacular feast.

The rest of the week is national holidays, and they’re spent going from relative’s house to relative’s house, visiting and eating more. Apparently, there’s a proper order to do your visits in. You would visit your parents, for example, first and move through the relatives and close friends from there. The most important people should be visited in the first couple days. I don’t completely understand how you’re supposed to know if the people you’re visiting are home considering everyone is going around doing visits… who knows. But even if you’ve been visited at your home by someone, that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to go later and visit them at home too. Of course, each visit includes eating. It’s amazing that everyone in this country isn’t as big as a whale.

I didn’t know about these lights until last night! There are lights going allllll the way up Cascade, and they look awesome! There are some twinkle lights too.

More lights
High-quality picture of me with a light-up reindeer

I didn’t have any big plans for the night until my friend Liz invited me to come over and celebrate with her host family! I was excited to get an authentic Armenian New Year’s experience. The walk over to their apartment was super eerie. I have never seen the street so deserted! It was especially startling considering how crowded everything was over the last couple of days as everyone did their last-minute shopping. At that point, the shopping was finished, and everyone was inside getting ready to commence the eating! I got to the apartment around 11:30, and Liz’s host mom was just finishing up cooking. They live close to Republic Square, so when the clock struck midnight, we crowded around the windows to watch the fireworks.

My plan before getting invited to Liz’s was to check out the festivities in Republic Square. They had a concert and a countdown and, of course, fireworks. In hindsight, I would have been miserable there. As usual, they were setting the fireworks off terrifyingly close to the crowd. When I talked to my parents earlier in the day, my mom said, “You’re not scared of fireworks anymore, right? You used to hate them!” Welllll. I don’t know that I would use the word “scared”, but I certainly don’t prefer them. It’s much better when you’re inside, can’t hear them as well, and can still see them. Everything definitely worked out for the better.

Republic Square New Year’s concert

Besides having a great view of the official fireworks in Republic Square, we also had front row seats for the many backyard firework displays. They were everywhere. I saw some getting launched off the top of an apartment building earlier in the day, and I’m sure that’s not uncommon. Seems like a horrible idea. We saw a few flying out of Liz’s building, and it seriously looked like the people on the floor above were just launching them out of their window. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Tree at an intersection because why not

Being in Armenia has made me despise fireworks (previously I just had a strong aversion). At home, I only have to deal with them a couple times each year. Here, it’s practically every night. There isn’t like a 15-minute fireworks show, but there are at least a few because every celebration deserves some firepower. I think there’s something else going on right now too because some of the explosions sound more like little bombs than fireworks. They remind me of the firecrackers that the operations people would use back in university to scare the crows off campus. Is crow relocation a thing here too? I don’t know, but I’m not a fan. I’ll be happy when we’re back to the usual five fireworks per night and no terrifying firecrackers. (Side note: if you enjoy reading about crow relocation like it’s a man vs. bird war, check out THIS ARTICLE. Crow relocation was consistently one of my favorite wintertime amusements in university.)

These are fun

Anyway, after the official fireworks ended, we went to eat the incredible meal that Liz’s host mom and sister prepared. There was enough food for thirty people, and there were four of us. Of course, everything was also delicious. I ate so much that I thought I was going to burst, and then they told me that dessert was next. Uh oh. There’s always room for dessert, though.

It was nice to spend time with a family again, especially after living alone for the last four months. Both Liz’s host mom and sister speak English fantastically well, so I got to participate in the conversation and really feel like I was part of their family. It was a lot of fun! After dinner, Liz, her sister, and I watched a movie together until about 5:30AM. I have no idea how I stayed awake so late, but I more than made up for it today when I slept until 2PM and still had to drag myself out of bed.

Tomorrow, while all of the locals are doing their annual family visits, I’ll be doing a family visit all the way to Lebanon! Get ready for another trip!

This week has been… chaotic maybe? Today I was a little overwhelmed, and I’m starting to get the feeling that time is moving too quickly. It’s like there’s no time in my schedule for even taking a breath, and I need to take a step back to try to calm myself down.

Current state. While I was laying like this, one of the other volunteers helpfully stacked some rocks on my hands. Accurate.

I think the main thing that’s making me freak out is the class I’m teaching at GTC. It starts next week, and I don’t feel prepared at all. I was trying to convince myself that it will be fine, but I made the mistake of using the “probably not many people will sign up anyway” approach. That fell apart when I found out yesterday that 14 people have already signed up, and we haven’t reached the deadline yet.

This is the first class that I’m teaching where people are coming because they think that I’m going to have something interesting to say. Everywhere else, I had a captive audience, so it was less pressure. Now, not only are people choosing to be there, but I’m literally just making this class up as I go along.

Perashki! This is the same thing we made along with the ponchiks last week. This has potato and some herbs inside, and it cost me 80 dram which is about 17 cents US. Not bad for a whole lunch! (though if my host mom didn’t feed me so much in the morning, I would probably need two of these at lunchtime.. so that’s a whole 34 cents)

The class doesn’t start until Thursday, but I don’t have any more work hours to prepare. I literally had three days because we were forced to miss work today to go to community service at the school, and we’re travelling on Monday. I tried to get out of community service because I seriously felt like I needed to work, but my request was denied. That was a little annoying. So besides already being stressed because of the number of people in the class and the class in general, I lost an entire 6 hours of prep time. I definitely could have made good use of those hours.

I don’t want to keep complaining, but I promised I’d be honest about how I’m feeling. So here you go: today I’m feeling like I’m on the verge of a head explosion. I’ll be fine though. As soon as I make it through the first class, I’ll feel a million times better. On a positive note, I got connected with my translator for the class, and she seems really cool and determined to do a good job. That makes me feel slightly less anxious about the translation situation. Like I said though, I just need to survive class #1 and then it’ll be smooth(er) sailing!

On the home front, my host mom and I have been communicating slightly better. She still laughs at me on a regular basis and sometimes throws up her arms in exasperation when I can’t decode what she’s saying. I thought we were doing okay until today when I said that I liked dinner, and she thought I said that I am beautiful (see-room vs. see-roon). That didn’t get sorted out until she summoned her granddaughter who speaks some English.

Otherwise, I’ve been learning slowly… both the language and the ways of the world here. Just an FYI if you ever come here and are eating hot dogs, they’re always (as far as I now know) wrapped in a thin plastic skin. It’s not like at home where you’re supposed to eat the skin. Here, it’s plastic. I don’t know what kind of idiot would accidentally eat the plastic, but that’s just a random fun fact for you.

Dolma! They can be stuffed with different things, but these had ground beef, rice, onions I think, and some herbs. Then they’re wrapped in grape leaves and boiled. I thought I would be weirded out by the leaves, but I just reminded myself that eating spinach is eating leaves too.

Also, I’m making great strides in the whole “picky eater” thing. It’s mostly just because even if I ask my host mom what something is, I still don’t know after hearing the answer. I’ve been drinking mystery juice daily (it’s good, but I have no clue what’s in it), I had dolma for the first time yesterday (yes, I know it’s disgraceful that I’ve lived 26 years as an Armenian and haven’t eaten dolma before), and I’ve said yes to trying at least a tiny bit of everything I’ve been offered so far. That’s big for me. I can’t say that I’ve added too many new foods to my list of things I’ll keep eating when I leave Armenia, but at least I’m trying (dolma though… that stuff is good).

We leave tomorrow to go to Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh for the weekend. That’s the territory I talked about that’s technically (according to the international community) part of Azerbaijan still, is independent according to Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh, and is part of Armenia according to any Armenian you talk to here. Also, everyone has a different name for it. It’s enough to make your head hurt. So yeah, I don’t know what the internet situation will be there, but I’m going to guess that I’ll be off the grid. Brace yourself for some retroactive posting early next week.

Each week, there are other activities planned besides just going to work and language class. They’re supposed to expose us to different things and teach us about Armenian culture, history, etc. We had a couple of extra activities last week, and they were both awesome.

Inside some really old church. I obviously forget how old, but it’s somewhere in the single-digit centuries. No, the metal roofing is not original.

One day, we took a trip to the village where one of the Gyumri Birthright coordinators, Karen (pronounced KAH-ren, or Garen in Western Armenian), grew up, Sarnaghpyur. He took us to check out an NGO that he started and manages there, and it’s actually a really interesting idea.

The basic concept is that whatever kids are interested show up, and they teach each other different skills. The organization renovated three rooms in an abandoned building, and kids can go there whenever they want to meet. It’s the summer now, so there were about 16 kids. During the school year, they said they can get up to like 70 kids.

There’s a kid who’s good at painting, and he teaches a class on painting. Some of the girls teach English, dance, and singing. There are other kids who teach sports or chess. One girl went to a piano school outside of the village, and when she came back, she taught the other kids some of what she learned. It seems like such a “duh” kind of concept. Why shouldn’t the kids share their skills? It makes sense, but I don’t think I ever would have thought of it. All the organization has to do is provide a space to meet and the resources the kids need for their different classes. Karen’s also trying to get a grant to organize some leadership training with the kids. The whole thing is kind of awesome.

The famous spring.

He said that the idea started with a group of his friends when he was in high school. When it got to the point where it needed to become an official thing or else be left to die out, the NGO was started and he secured funding to renovate the building so that they could have their own space. Before that, the group was meeting in one of the community buildings, and they didn’t have as much flexibility because they could only access the space at certain times.

After that, we went around and saw some of the sights in the village. Of course, we had a few churches to visit, and there’s also a “cold spring” (that’s what the name of the village means) that supposedly has some special powers. I don’t know about that, but it was definitely cold! On top of the cave with the spring, you can get an awesome view over the village. We stayed there for a bit and then went to the “forest” (aka maybe like 25 trees) to eat snacks and hang out. I somehow got wrapped up in making flower crowns for a couple of the guys (no, I had never made a flower crown before, but I figured it couldn’t be that hard) and then we had the weirdest photo shoot. It’s good that there are some people here that are just as weird as I am, and I’ve already managed to find them. What a relief!

The cave in all of its cluttered, eclectic glory.
The overlook
Have I mentioned how much I love wildflowers?
The lake
I made the flower crowns of the two guys. This is just one in a series of odd fruit pictures.
Some monastery we visited on the way back from town. It looks like literally every other monastery.
Kneading the dough.

A couple of nights later, we had a baking night at one of the host houses and made ponchiks (I’m sure that is the wrong way to pluralize that word, but we’re going to go with it) and peroshki. They. Were. So. Good. Omg. There are no words to fully convey how incredible they were. They both use the same dough, and ponchiks are fried and filled with either like a condensed milk filling or a whipped cream-ish filling. Peroshki (peroshkis?) have mashed potatoes mixed with some herbs inside and are also fried. And delicious. And both of those names are definitely Russian, in case you were thinking that they don’t sound very Armenian.

I ate WAY more than I should have and felt a little bit like I was going to throw up, but my brain was still telling me that I should eat another one. And another one. And another one. I do have SOME self-control, luckily, because while my brain was saying yes, my stomach was screaming, “NO!!!!”

I wouldn’t exactly say that I learned how to make them, but honestly, that’s probably for the best. I’m not trying to gain 600 pounds. Only 300. Kidding.

Peroshki in progress.
PONCHIKS! The cream ones are on the left and the other ones are on the right.

I don’t know that I’m really cut out to be a teacher. The last three days have proven to me that I like kids a lot more when I’m not spending all day in a classroom with them. Maybe that sounds horrible, but some people are “kid people”, and some are not. More and more, I’m convinced of my place in the latter category. For any of you who have never taught before, you can just trust me on this… Preschool and elementary school teachers are cut from a very special mold.

While the fabulous teachers here have been getting back into the swing of the after-school program, I’ve been holed up in the office with Debbie… hence the lack of pictures again today. Maybe tomorrow I’ll take a picture of my desk so that you can see where I’ve been spending my days. Exciting, right?

Actually though, it has been exciting. This might be super nerdy (okay it’s definitely super nerdy), but I spent yesterday doing research to help me understand the electrical system here. I had some awesome “ah-ha!” moments where things I’ve learned a hundred times finally clicked, and I think I made some real progress with making a plan of action. Even if I can’t come up with any great recommendations that can fix all of the electrical problems here, I can at least pull together some documents that show the existing system. The current documentation is lacking a bit because the ‘design’ was mostly just done in the field by the electrician and documented later. I think it would be helpful for them to have some drawings that are up-to-date and accurate.

Today was even more fun! Debbie let me play architect a bit, and we talked over some ideas for how to update the master plan for the property. It was last done fully in 2014, and the ministry and vision for the future have changed a lot since then! We got to walk around the property, measuring things and sharing thoughts, and then spent some time sketching up our ideas.

Dinner tonight was the dreaded chicken soup… usually, chicken soup is a Tuesday night event, and Debbie and I thought we had outsmarted the system by making our own dinner last night. Instead, I guess the system outsmarted us.

When I use the word “dreaded”, that makes it sound like no one likes it, but that’s not the case. Really, just Debbie and I don’t like it. I’m not a huge soup fan anyway, but this soup has all of the parts of the chickens that don’t make the cut for lunch. That includes feet, livers, necks, etc. Yum. The rest of the soup is actually not bad… tonight there were noodles, potatoes, carrots, corn, and a few other things I’m sure. But I’m not interested in stumbling upon a chicken foot in my soup bowl. Thankfully, I think Delia knew that and didn’t give me any chicken parts. Potential crisis averted.

In summary: brainstorming + research + sketching – chicken feet = a good day!

I’ve been loving our little weekend adventures! For the last few Saturdays, we’ve been sleeping in, taking some free time in the morning, and then going somewhere and doing something together in the afternoon/evening. It’s the perfect combination of relaxation and adventure so you don’t feel like the whole day was wasted.

Yesterday morning was especially good for me because I finally put my foot down and forced myself to finish the planning for my trip to Machu Picchu. I had been mulling over the train times and other options for days at that point and just needed to decide. My biggest choice was whether I wanted to do an organized trek with a company or just go on my own, and I ultimately decided that it would be better on my own because I’ll be able to go at my pace and do all of the things I want without worrying about a group. After I decided that, I had to pick train times, and that’s complicated because you have to get to the train station in a town that’s about an hour away from Cuzco. I was originally thinking that I would hike Machu Picchu and take a train back that same night, but then I was worried about having to figure out transport back to Cuzco in the dark and by myself. All that worrying finally led me to the conclusion that I should just stay over two nights in the town by Machu Picchu because if the thought of doing it in a day was stressing me out that much, it probably wasn’t right.

In summary, I got my train tickets and Machu Picchu tickets and hostel booking all finished, and I feel a million times more relaxed as a result. Why didn’t I just do it earlier? That’s always the question after you procrastinate something, and somehow, I still haven’t learned my lesson. The answer is, yeah, I probably should have. Now it’s finished though, so we can put that behind us!

See the streetlights? See the street?

Our afternoon adventure was a trip to Pucusana, the same fishing village that we went to when the team was here. The car was being used, so we took public transportation there instead. There is a very similar system here to what they have in Ghana with tro tros. Here they’re called combis (cohm-bee) and the fare collector is a cobrador, rather than a “mate” like in Ghana. Conceptually though, they’re completely the same. Super packed and super cheap. We got a ride to Pucusana for 1 sol (1 USD = about 3.25 soles). It’s usually maybe a 10-15 minute ride, but we hit some traffic because there was a “huaico” (mudslide) last week, and the street is still underwater.

Yeah, there’s a street somewhere under there…

This is the second time in the last few weeks that there’s been a huaico there, and we learned that the problem started because of some bad decisions. There’s a river bed that had been dry “for a while” (I know no specifics), so recently, the land there was developed. Good idea, right? Except there’s been more rain than usual in the highlands this year, and all of that water needs to go somewhere. Instead of just flowing down the river as it would have in the past, it’s been flooding the new developments and overflowing because there’s no path for it to follow anymore. Who knows what is going to be done about it, but it seems clear that something has to change. It’s all politics though, so it could take forever.

Looking towards Pucusana from the top of the hill

Anyway, we eventually made it into town and hiked up a hill to watch the sunset over the ocean. I love the mountains here… the sunset made the sky glow orange in all directions, and the mountains behind Pucusana looked like something from another planet. It was surreal.


Mars mountains

We stuck around for dinner and got a pizza at an Italian restaurant nearby. Weekends are a wonderful break from the rice, rice, and rice that we eat every day during the week. Out of the nine meals that we have prepared for us each week, I’d say at least 7-8 involve rice. I love carbs, and that’s a lot even for me. So yeah, the pizza was a nice change of pace! For dessert, we got picarones (pee-cah-ROH-nays), Peruvian doughnuts made from sweet potato and squash and coated in a syrup that Debbie and Julie said was made with figs (figs are a big deal around here), but who knows. I was definitely a fan of the picarones (it was like eating fried air… yes, I know that doesn’t make sense), but I could have done without the sauce. Maple syrup probably would have been really good on them, or just a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Either way, I would do it again.

My picarones

It was a short adventure but more than worth the trip. We took a combi back to the highway and then went the rest of the way on a moto. The motos are like if you chopped the back wheel off of a motorcycle, connected the front part to a carriage, and stuck a tarp over it. You end up with three-wheeled “taxis” with space for a driver on the motorcycle part and about three full-sized passengers on the bench seat behind them (though three is just the maximum number for a comfortable ride… it seems like ‘as many as you can cram inside’ is the maximum number allowed).

This isn’t a great picture, but you can see some motos on the street

Today was the usual church, grocery shopping, cleaning, and working on my to-do list. Big changes are ahead tomorrow! School starts and with it come the afterschool and overnight programs. Goodbye quiet, kid-less nights. See you next weekend.

The more I think about it, the more I realize how much the team week threw me off. I’m currently feeling a little stressed and overwhelmed, and I was trying to understand what is different about this week that has me feeling that way more than usual. I think that it’s partly because I didn’t accomplish much of anything last week since we were so busy, and now I have an extra week’s worth of things on my to do list. The other part of it is that I’m in the planning stages of a few different things (including my trip to Machu Picchu before I leave Peru, some stuff for my time in Armenia, and some randoms), and that always gives me a feeling of unrest until the planning is finished or at least underway. No need to worry about me though… I’ve done a re-write of my to do list, and that’s making me feel a bit better. Now I need to get to crossing some things off!

Robot construction in progress! Debbie has been making the kids wear safety goggles even when they’re not doing anything that even remotely requires them. It makes them look like they know what they’re doing though, doesn’t it?

Otherwise, things are going well! We had our second robot class with the oldest kids this morning, and the excitement of making robots hasn’t worn off yet (thank goodness!). The half of the class we worked with today hadn’t even started their robots yet. We got them through the entire assembly process, and they had time to get started on cutting and stripping the wires to prepare them for soldering. They all did a great job with that, and I was excited because I want the kids to do as much for themselves as possible. The older class is definitely capable of doing most of the work with just a little guidance. Soldering will happen next class, and hopefully we can figure out a way to get them involved in that as well without having any safety issues. I think they can handle it, especially if they keep behaving as well as they have been. They’re taking this project really seriously.

Spaghetti, chicken, yuca, and carapulcra.

Lunch today was spaghetti, yuca (which is apparently the same as or similar to cassava… which I spent all of my time in Ghana not knowing what it was – even though we had it at the farm and I planted some – and too lazy to look it up), chicken, and carapulcra. Carapulcra is a Peruvian stew that probably varies dramatically depending on who makes it and where you are. From what I could gather while eating it, Delia’s carapulcra consists of potatoes, sauce that I couldn’t identify even if I tried, pieces of chicken (watch out for stray bones), garlic, and I have no clue what else. I know, that description couldn’t possibly be more unhelpful. All I can say is, I’m no food connoisseur, so that’s the best I can do. In summary, it was pretty good, even though I was sure I was going to choke on a hidden chicken bone.

Julie’s class loading their boats with bears.

Tuesdays are little kid engineering afternoons, so Julie and I teamed up to make aluminum foil boats with the two youngest classes. It’s questionable how much the kids actually did in her class (the 2-4 year olds) vs. how much we did for them, but it kept them interested for close to an hour, so that’s all that really matters in my book. Each kid got a piece of foil and as much tape as they needed, and after they finished, they put their boats into a tub of water and loaded them with these little plastic bears we found in the supply closet. Julie even fit in some teaching about how the bigger boats with higher walls held more bears and got the kids to compare the numbers of bears that each boat held to see which boat worked the best.

In the slightly older class (4-6 year olds), there was a bit more chaos, but the kids actually built their own boats (some with a little help from us). They had way too much fun splashing around in the water, but somehow we survived and the kids possibly enjoyed it and learned something? We’ll just say they did. None of you were there, so I can make things up like that. Let the records show that class today went perfectly according to plan and the kids were totally under control and engaged and they built fabulous aluminum foil boats and now they all want to be engineers. Wow! We did a great job, huh?

Nico working while I, obviously, am not.

With only one week until Nico leaves, we realized that we need to kick our hole digging efforts into hyperdrive (we’re making a hole for the pig poop on the farm to be converted into fertilizer). Until now, we’ve been doing all hole-related activities in the afternoon and have been doing the normal farm work in the mornings. Today, we decided to work on the hole in the morning as well. I always feel like we’re making no progress because with the clayey dirt and the horrible shovels, nothing moves quickly.
After breakfast, Nico and I went back to the EP computer lab to keep working on the computers. We’re up to a total of 5 of them that are mostly working now! By mostly working, I mean that they at least turn on, sometimes with error messages. It would be great if we could just wipe the computers and reinstall everything, but they obviously don’t have any of the installation disks to make that possible. Hopefully we can get a few more into at least usable condition.

Hole progress shot

I passed out again after lunch, so there’s not much else to report about today. I realized recently that I haven’t talked much about the food here. Below there are some pictures and descriptions of some of the food we have here. We have a weekly menu schedule that repeats, and for the most part, I like the food. There’s just a different concept of what would be considered “spicy” here, especially compared to my opinion. I have NO tolerance for spicy foods, and I’ve just had to suck it up (we’ve even asked Agnes to tone down the spiciness, and I think she thinks she has). Pretty sure I’m losing taste buds daily. Anyway, here we go:
Also, disclaimer that I have almost no clue how to make any of these things, so take my descriptions for what they are (aka total guesses).

Peanut soup – my favorite! There’s a piece of chicken, a rice ball, and peanut sauce. My favorite part is the rice ball because come on, how funny is that? It’s rice, squished into a ball! Genius! Like a snowball but even better.
Fried rice with chicken
Waakye with cooked egg – hard boiled egg, rice mixed with beans, and a red sauce.
Jollof rice with chicken – I know this looks similar to the fried rice, but it’s definitely different. I think that the rice has tomato paste or something mixed in because it’s stickier and redder than the fried rice.
Spaghetti with egg sauce – pretty self explanatory… Angel hair spaghetti with a red sauce mixed with egg.
Rice with vegetable sauce – don’t ask me what vegetables are in the sauce. I’m pretty sure that in normal life, I don’t eat most of them, but here I don’t ask questions.
Rice with bean sauce – okay yeah, this looks identical to the last picture, but they really are two different dishes. This sauce just has beans in it rather than a mystery assortment of vegetables.

You might be thinking that all of these things are really basically the exact same. My response to you is yes. Somehow I manage to fool myself into thinking they’re all such different meals, but it’s basically: rice with red sauce, spaghetti with red sauce, rice and beans with red sauce, rice with beans and red sauce, rice with a different sauce, rice with vegetable sauce, rice with vegetables mixed in. There are a couple things I don’t have pictures of, including ramen noodles (aka indomie) with vegetables and egg mixed in. So yeah, variety! But I’m not complaining, trust me. You’re looking at a girl who ate the same thing for lunch for two years. Carbs on carbs on carbs for every meal? This is like a dream come true!