Down to Business

Does anyone have brain re-forming tips? Because my brain has turned into a pile of mush and I kind of need it to be functional instead of mushy. Last week was my first full week here, and that meant finally getting down to business and figuring out what needs to get done for this building project. Part of me wishes that I was still in a state of blissful ignorance, but that ship has sailed. This project is going to be A LOT of work, and in order to do my part, I’m going to need to learn very quickly.

To give you a mini-rundown of the project, it’s a relatively small 3-story building. On the first (ground) floor, there’s a bathroom that’s existing, and we’re adding two classrooms, one on either side. On the second floor, there will be three classrooms, and on the top “floor” (it’s being called a “half floor” because it won’t have full-height walls), there will be a multipurpose space and a kitchen.

Here’s the general plan of the ground floor. The two red boxes are classrooms, the blue is the existing bathroom, and the green is the stairs. On the second floor, there’s no big bathroom, and there are 3 classrooms instead.
This is one of the renderings from the EA informational booklet about the project, showing what the finished building will look like (kind of). The building to the right is existing, plus the bathroom which is in the middle of the ground floor in the building straight ahead. The rest will be all new!

Thankfully, I don’t need to worry about any large equipment or electrical panels. That infrastructure already exists, so we’ll be able to simply connect the new into the existing system. The major “uh oh” factor is coming from the realization that even though I did have a relevant job for a couple of years, the things I did were only a small portion of what’s needed for a full design. And, to make things even worse, I don’t know anything about what products are available here or Peruvian design rules-of-thumb. Debbie lent me her code book which is great… but of course, it’s in Spanish. I can understand it well enough, but it’s just one more thing on the list of tasks that are going to take a liiiiittle bit longer than they would at home. Add all of the “littles” together, and I have a lot of work to do.

Volleyball game on the “soccer court” at recess. The new building will be straight ahead (the bathroom is behind those little white tents).

Most of last week was spent on the world’s most tedious task… formatting. You don’t have to know anything about architecture or engineering to know that formatting documents is the worst. In this case, it’s the necessary prep work that will make the actual work go smoothly, but I feel like I accomplished next to nothing because there’s no physical result from my work. It’s also relatively mind-numbing. By the end of the day on Friday, I felt like my brain was made of mush (and it felt like it was functioning about that well, too). The one positive is that I mostly finished, so this week I can get on with doing actual work!

Here’s an awkward panoramic view of the office. We have 5 people sharing the space which is an adventure! My desk is the wooden one straight ahead. This is where the magic and hair-ripping happen.

Instead of having a restful weekend, Debbie decided that we should go on an outing on Saturday. To an architecture seminar. On urban acoustics. In Spanish. She wanted me to meet her architect friends, and I’ll admit, I’m happy that we went. It was fun and the people were cool, but I would absolutely not describe it as a restful day. The morning involved about four hours of attempting to follow acoustics-related Spanish (which thankfully isn’t terribly different from acoustics-related English) and straining to remember the things I learned seven years ago (eek!) in my university acoustics class. Ha.

The topic was interesting though. The presenter just returned from a year studying in Spain, and he presented foundational acoustics information, plus his thesis topic. Side note, I was the only engineer in a room of architects, and that interaction is apparently the same no matter what country you’re in. Any time math was involved, I was basically called out with a, “but you already know this, don’t you?” I mean, no, not necessarily, but I do know how to use a calculator so I can figure it out..? Ugh. Architects. (I’m kidding, I’m kidding.) ANYWAY, his thesis looked at different road geometries (like raised roadways vs. sunken roadways vs. roads with walls, etc.) and analyzed how well the various configurations controlled the noise from the traffic. There was also a practical portion in the afternoon where we took sound measurements at various locations along a nearby street. It was fun! It reminded me of university because architecture/engineering students are always doing weird things in public for their classes. Buses kept stopping and trying to give us a ride because it absolutely looked like we were waiting for something.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted, and my brain was even more like mush than the day before. So yeah, probably not the best strategy for a brain revival, but good nonetheless.

Aside from work and my mushy brain, I’ve just been trying to keep myself sane. I’ve been attempting to work out on weekday mornings… I feel like I should at least do SOMETHING to offset the fact that I spend the rest of the day hunched over my computer screen, slowly pulling my hair out.

View of the mountains from outside of the office.

On one final note, if you’re wondering why you have yet to hear about Patagonia, it’s because of the internet. And also me. And mostly the interaction between me and the internet. Long story short (and vague), I decided I needed to change some big things about how my blog is set up to better suit the complicated disaster that it’s grown into… which meant that I needed to learn things about how the internet works. Which is something that my brain refuses to understand. BUT we survived (both me and my brain), and I think I kind of maybe sort of figured out the things that I needed to figure. I know, I’m oozing with confidence. In conclusion, ignore anything that doesn’t look quite right about my blog page because it’s a big ‘ole work in progress (but if you find something that doesn’t work, please tell me and then ignore it), and fear not. Soon enough, I’ll be confusing the heck out of you by talking about Peru and Patagonia at the same time.

Welcome Back to Peru!

Hooray! Welcome to Peru (again)!

I’ve been here for about a week now, and I’m already feeling settled in which is good. It is a little strange to think about the fact that I’m going to be here for the rest of the year. I haven’t spent this much time in one place in three years! Let’s see how long it takes for me to get stir crazy. In reality, though, I don’t think I’m going to have time to start feeling that way. Once things get moving on the building project, whew! It’s going to be hectic.

So far, I’ve mostly been getting my bearings again. Last week was the final prep week before the programs started up again, and we had an incredibly long staff meeting on Friday to get everyone on the same page about how things are going to work this year. That was perfect for me because now I feel like I know exactly what’s going on!

With my parents as they dropped me off at the airport

Today was the first day for Esperanza School and Casa Esperanza. Esperanza School is mostly an after-school program, but this year they’ve added an English preschool pilot program. There are 8 kids here all day, doing whatever kids do in preschool and also hopefully learning English! Cool, right? The rest of the kids go to school in the neighborhood and come afterward for lunch, homework time, and supplemental lessons.

After Esperanza School lets out, some of the kids stay overnight as well (during the week). They eat dinner and have other planned activities until bedtime.

My workdays generally go like this:
8AM – 2:30PM – staff worship time, workday, trying not to starve because lunch isn’t until the kids get out of school at…
2:30PM – 3:30PM – lunch and recess with the Esperanza School kids
3:30PM – 6PM – work
7PM – 7:30PM – dinner with the Casa Esperanza kids

I’m attempting to exercise in the mornings and relax a bit in the evenings… I’ll keep you posted on how that’s going, but I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic. Debbie (one of the full-time missionary staff/architect) and I met today to get on the same page about the building project, and well… we have a lot of work to do! We’re hitting the ground running this week with the designs and will hopefully start construction next month. Craziness!

Most of the US staff… me, Paul, Julie, Debbie, and Jocelyn. We went to a nearby beach town, Pucusana, for lunch over the weekend.

Life Update

Hi friends!

If you’re thinking it’s been a while since you last heard from me… yes, it has. It’s been a crazy time for me! As you know (though from my much-delayed blog posts, you’d never guess), I’ve been home for about 6 months now, trying to discern my next step. Much has happened over the last few weeks. My brother Mike and I went on a somewhat spur-of-the-moment trip to Patagonia (more on that later)… and even more excitingly, my plans for the rest of the year came together!

What are these exciting plans?” you ask. (Or maybe you didn’t ask, but I’m going to answer anyway.)

I’ll be spending the next 10 months in Peru, returning to Esperanza de Ana, the Christian ministry where I volunteered two years ago (January – March 2017). Esperanza de Ana is dedicated to family preservation and restoration, partnering with families in crisis in order to create stronger, safer, and more stable home environments.

Looking out over the Esperanza de Ana campus

Last time I was there, I co-taught a summer school class called Mini-Engineers with the goal of exposing the kids to new ideas and career paths. We taught a unit on urban planning, and the students built their own “kid cities”, complete with stop signs and traffic lights! Then, we changed gears and built robots! (That pun was 100% intended.) It was fun to see the kids get so excited about the things they created.

Me with one of the completed “kid cities”, holding a robot.

One of the kids made a little playground, complete with puff-ball people!

I spent the rest of my time in Peru focused on the campus’s lighting and electrical systems. There was no accurate documentation of the existing conditions, so I surveyed the buildings, created updated documents, and recommended changes for a more effective system.

Now, Esperanza de Ana is in the middle of an expansion project. Their after-school programs have outgrown the current classroom space, and they’re planning to construct a new building with five additional classrooms and a multipurpose space. I’ll be joining the team to design the lighting and electrical systems and help manage the construction! Whoa.

Playing games at a summer school birthday party

“That’s so cool,” you say. “How can I be involved?

I’m thrilled you asked! First, if you know my mother, you can assure her that I will be careful not to fall off any cliffs, that airplanes DO travel to Peru and she is allowed to travel on one of them (long shot, I know), and that I am not lost to her forever.

Second, you can pray, specifically for my adjustment to life in Peru; for safety throughout my time abroad; for the project planning and execution to go smoothly; for Esperanza de Ana, the work they’re doing, the staff and the families; and for my fundraising efforts.

Debbie (my architect teammate in this expansion project adventure), me, and Julie (one of the other full-time missionaries at EA).

Third, if you’d like to help make this project and my involvement possible, you can support us financially. Since this isn’t a paid position, I am fundraising for the 10 months that I will be in Peru to cover room and board, flights, and other expenses. If you would like to join my support team, contributions for room and board can be sent to Armenian Martyrs’ Congregational Church (tax-deductible) by check (memo: “Lara Kaiserian mission”, 100 N. Edmonds Ave, Havertown, PA 19083) or electronically via PayPal (amccpa.org/give/, “Make Other Donation”, type “Lara Kaiserian mission” in ‘ special instructions’), and those for flights and other expenses can be sent to me directly (via mailed check or electronically, message me for info).

Also, fundraising for the expansion project is still in progress, and you can donate to that through Esperanza de Ana’s website HERE (that’s also a good place to see more information about the project).

Finally, fourth, you can keep reading my blog to stay updated on all the happenings in Peru.

On that note, what does this mean for the blog?

I’ve thought a lot about this, and I don’t want to abandon my last adventure. I visited some amazing places with some amazing history (increasingly becoming my favorite thing to learn about), and I still want to share it all with you.

That being said, get ready for your head to spin. I’m going to keep you updated on what’s happening in Peru (probably about once per week) while also continuing our jaunt across Europe. BUT, just to confuse even more and to get you in the South American spirit, we’re going to hit PAUSE on Europe and explore Patagonia together first! Mostly because I’m so excited about Mike and my trip, and if I wait to talk about it chronologically, we’ll be lucky to get there by 2020.

In summary: Peru posts will be ongoing, Patagonia posts coming soon, and we’ll head back to Europe after that! (Pretend that’s not confusing at all.)

Okay, that’s all for now! Thanks for bearing with me, for encouraging me during my six months of uncertainty, and for being my faithful travel companions. Pack your bags for another adventure!

❤ Lara

Sunset view… I don’t mind getting to see sunsets like this again!

Goodbye, Armenia

After my cousins left, my time in Armenia quickly wrapped up. I planned to leave the country two days later, and between the goodbyes and the packing, those days flew by. From the second their cab pulled away, I was running. I said goodbye to the Birthright staff and had a final dinner with work friends before going back to my friend Zoe’s apartment to start pulling my life together.

When I stayed at Olivia’s, we made our own khachapuri! Isn’t it beautiful?

I want to take a second to shout out to Zoe and Olivia for taking me in during my days of homelessness in Yerevan. They’re the best. Not only because of that, but yeah, they’re the best.

Zoe let me store my extra stuff at her place during the two weeks between my apartment move-out and my Armenia departure, and finally I couldn’t put off sorting through it any longer. Every time I move, I wonder the same thing… how on earth do I accumulate stuff so quickly?? I went to Armenia with a school backpack and a 55-liter backpack. I sent the school backpack home with my cousins, jam-packed with my Armenian notebooks and books and pairs of shoes (three! HOW??) and who even knows what else. That left me with one bag to hold the rest of my stuff, and the only options for each object were fit it or leave it.

I have this packing anxiety problem where I look at the pile of things to be packed, look at the bag, get stressed out, and decide that maybe it would be better to just ignore them both. As you can imagine, that’s maybe not the best approach to take because no part of it leads to me being ready to leave. I fought through it, and I don’t know how, but when I was finished, everything essential was inside my bag. It must be laced with a little bit of magic.

Me and Olivia, saying goodbye for now

My last night in Armenia was spent with Zoe and Olivia. We went to church together and then out to dinner, and I had that feeling again. You know, the one where you feel like everything is right. Like perfect contentment. There are a lot of reasons why I think I was meant to stay in Armenia as long as I did, and those friends are two of the major ones. If I had left when I planned to, I never would have met them, and trust me, that would have been a terrible shame. God definitely did a little divine plotting to bring us together, and I can literally pinpoint His reasons in each relationship. It’s cool to feel like I have such a solid confirmation that I took the right path.

The next morning, I took a cab to the marshrutka station to catch a marshrutka to Tbilisi, Georgia. Before I go home, I’m doing some travelling around because why not? I’ve been saying that I’m taking the long way home… the VERY long way. The plan for Georgia was to stay for about a week, spend some time recovering emotionally from leaving Armenia, and then move on to my next destination.

This is random but I’ve been meaning to take this picture for so long. These gas stations are everywhere, and they always make me laugh. They’re called “Flash” when you see it written in English, but the way it’s written in Armenian letters is “F-L-E-SH”… flesh. Something about that just cracks me up.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about leaving Armenia. On one hand, I think I was ready. I was ready for a change of pace and some different scenery. On the other, everything was starting to fall into place for me there. I had some great friends, I could communicate fairly well, and I felt comfortable. Maybe that’s part of the reason it was time to move on… time to be uncomfortable again, time for the next challenge, time to stretch myself in a different way. I guess we’ll see what happens in this next chapter.

To be honest, I don’t think it even registered that I was leaving for real this time. I had gone and come back so many times that my brain felt like this was a temporary trip again. Maybe I will go back to Armenia someday, but it’ll never be the same. I’m probably not going to have a life there again, and that makes me sad… but the fact that I’m sad makes me happy because that means I had a great experience. Leaving happy things behind is always sad.

Taking a marshrutka out was a weird way to leave. When you fly, you’re in the country and the next second, you’re gone. In a marshrutka, the leaving is gradual. After we pulled away from the station, I still had four hours of Armenia ahead of me.

Here are some through-the-car-window shots from the drive to Tbilisi!

I’m not going to say that I cried during the ride or anything. I’m also not going to say that I didn’t cry. I will say that I spent the ride looking out the window, admiring the Armenian countryside and having some feelings about what was happening. You can’t really let yourself cry in marshrutka though. How embarrassing. And it’s not like in the US where everyone would pretend that you weren’t crying and ignore you. No, someone would absolutely ask what was wrong and that would make everything even worse.

Pretty, green Armenia

The ride to Tbilisi from Yerevan is five hours, and it felt like nothing. I would have been fine with sitting in that car for another five hours, but I think part of that is the fact that I always have a little anxiety about transitions. When you’re in the process of something, you know what to expect and you know you’re on some track (whether it’s the right or the wrong track is a different question that we’ll leave for another time). The transitions are scary because they’re unpredictable. And when you’re travelling, the transitions are also when you have to lug all of your stuff around, and that’s no fun either.

Right at the end of the drive, you go through these awesome mountains. Like come on, Armenia, Are you TRYING to make me change my mind and stay?

When we got to Tbilisi, the driver didn’t let us off near a metro station like I expected. Instead, we were at this bus station that’s totally not close to anything. Okay, keep your cool and use your brain, Lara (my mantra in every situation where my instincts say to panic, shut down, and cry in a ball on the ground). I realized that while the marshrutka driver was still there, I should ask him for help. I told him where I needed to go in Armenian, he asked this Georgian guy next to him in Russian, and the Georgian guy gave me two bus numbers and pointed me in the direction of the bus stop. And that was the last moment when my Armenian knowledge was of any use. Bummer, right? It’s always sad to realize that it doesn’t matter if you speak two or three or fifty languages as soon as you go to a country that doesn’t speak any of them.

I made it to the bus stop no problem and checked out the arrival board to see when the next bus was coming. Thank goodness numbers are the same in practically every language because even if you can’t read the name of the bus route, you can at least see the numbers. After finding the right bus, the next step was figuring out how to pay. I got on, sat down (no small feat while also wrangling all of my stuff), and watched what other people did. Everyone got onto the bus, swiped their metro cards at this little terminal, and got a receipt. When I felt sure about the procedure, I left my stuff in the seats, went up to get my receipt while acting like I totally had things under control, and whacked my head on a bar as I walked back to my seat. So much for that.

At the end of the bus line, I decided to just walk the rest of the way to the hostel because it was only six blocks… which is nothing until you’re wearing your life on your back and it’s a good 10 degrees C (20 degrees F) hotter than it was when you got dressed. So anyway, that’s how I started off my post-Armenia life: walking the streets of Tbilisi, wearing a huge backpack that got heavier with each step, and trying to pretend that I wasn’t sweating but definitely was. Off to a great start!

Lots of Lasts

I’ll be honest, I kind of felt like I was going to be here forever. Once I decided to extend for four months, I stopped worrying about what it would be like when I finally had to leave. That was something that could be left for later, something that could be easily ignored. Somehow, here we are in March, and “later” is now. Last week, all of the things that have become constants in my life here changed.

Me, Inga, and Zadig. The language class dream team.

Language class. Language class became one of the highlights of my week. I finally ended up in a class that was perfect for me. It was just me and one other guy, Zadig, plus our teacher, Inga. Zadig is hilarious and a super-fast learner. He’s been here far shorter than I have, but his vocabulary and speaking confidence are waaay beyond mine. Inga is the coolest. She’s the teacher I was assigned to when I first moved to Yerevan, and the more time I spent in her class, the more I realized how good she is at altering her teaching style to suit the people in the class. With Zadig and me, she gave us fun homework writing prompts, she made us speak ALL the time in class, and she came with different games and activities to help us grow our vocabularies and learn to speak about a wide range of topics.

Every class made me laugh, every class made me feel like I was learning, and every class made me want to stay even longer so that I wouldn’t have to leave Zadig and Inga and could keep practicing. During our last class, Inga had us debate on if all of the cars in Armenia should be required to be yellow. I, of course, got assigned the “yes” stance, and I was impressed with how many words I knew and how quickly I managed to plan out and write my arguments in Armenian. I certainly still have a long way to go (and Zadig’s Armenian is about 200 steps beyond mine already), but I’m really proud of what I managed to learn and how confident I’ve become (which is still not as confident as I probably should be, but it’s better than the mute I was before).

At the end of my last class on Thursday, I gave Inga a card I made for her and then sprinted out of there before I could start crying. I’ve become quite the emotional mess over the last couple of years. No matter how many times you go through it though, it never gets easier to leave behind something that feels perfect and that you know will never be the same again.

We did a “girls’ dinner” the one Friday night with all of the women from work. It was a lot of fun to spend time with everyone in a different context! From left to right it’s Laura, Yelena, me, Olivia, and Hayasa

Work. My job at Aleppo-NGO was ever-changing, but that’s one of the things I loved the most about it. I’ve always been someone who has a lot of different interests, and I’m always looking for ways to engage all of them. This job did it. Sure, there were plenty of times that were frustrating and tiring, but I felt like I was being pushed to learn new things and think outside the box. I felt like ALL of my different skill areas were being used. My last project was helping to redesign/update the website, and that involved rewriting EVERYTHING, making graphics for the different programs and projects, and coming up with ways to tweak the existing design to make it look better. I got to write, design, be creative, and use my brain. It was awesome!! Though don’t look at the website right now and think that it’s the work I did… they’re still putting everything together, and my stuff isn’t on there yet.

Besides the actual work I did there, my relationships with my coworkers really took off during my last couple months. I hung out with them outside of work, we had more fun at work, and I generally I just felt more comfortable being there and talking to them and like I was accepted as part of the team.

I don’t know why the quality of this picture is so terrible, but this is from a farewell dinner the people from work had for me. From left to right it’s Hayasa, Olivia, me, Yelena, and Hagop. Not pictured: Sarkis and Laura

Living situation. I moved out of my apartment at the end of February. Currently, my stuff is stored at my friend Zoe’s and I’m wandering like a nomad. I had my share of apartment struggles, including not being able to communicate with the property manager guy and him constantly judging me for “not knowing Armenian” (though really he just terrified me because I knew that he was judging me), I had a constant place where I could be alone, organize my stuff, and unwind.

St. Vartan Mamigonian statue in Yerevan. I took this during one of my “feeling nostalgic” moments. I also realized that I had no pictures of it because I lived so close, and if you walk by something every day, why would you take a picture of it?

My last week was filled with various walks around the city, listening to sad, overly dramatic music (because what better to do when you’re on the constant verge of tears?), and reminiscing about my time in Armenia. On my last day of work, Mount Ararat was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. You could see Masis and Sis (the tall and shorter peaks), plus the rest of the mountain range. I’ve literally never seen the range before because usually, the entire base of the mountain is clouded, and you can just see this mystical peak coming up above the clouds. It was incredibly cool, and I kind of felt like God was giving me a little present for my last day. It certainly made things a little less bitter and more sweet in the whole “bittersweet” equation.

Mount Ararat on my last day of work!

For the rest of my time in Armenia, I’m doing fun thing after fun thing. It’s hard to be sad when there’s so much cool stuff ahead (though trust me, I’m still managing). This week, I’m spending some time travelling around the southern part of Armenia. I haven’t spent much time in that part of the country, and there are a few things that I’d definitely like to see before I leave… plus, why not? Next week, my cousins are coming, and we’re going to have another Armenia adventure + tour guide Lara experience. After that, I’m going on a end-date-TBD wander around Europe and places (get excited for some cool new countries and cities in the future!… also, now accepting suggestions if you have any places I should definitely visit!) before going home and having a big “WHAT IS MY LIFE?” existential questioning (I don’t want to use the word “crisis” because that makes it sound negative when it’s actually a very exciting positive).

So… things are changing, whether I’m ready or not. The future is fun and exciting, and don’t ask me what’s next because at this point, your guess is as good as mine. Stay tuned for adventures from the south.

Life Back in Armenia

It’s been a long journey, but welcome back to Armenia! It took me so long to write about everything that I did in Lebanon and Dubai that I’ve actually been back for a few weeks now. It’s amazing how much can happen in the city when you’re only gone for a week or so!

After I went home for Thanksgiving, I came back to a bunch of lights and light sculptures all over the city. When I came back from Lebanon, they were starting to take things down, and within a day or two after Old New Year (January 13th), it was like the holidays never happened.

I have a proposal. How about we stop calling them “Christmas lights” (note: this is not a religious or political statement. This is a “Lara likes lights” statement) and start calling them “winter lights”? Here’s my reasoning: “Christmas lights” implies that the lights are decorations for a holiday, and once the holiday is over, the lights should go away. I don’t like that. Lights are one of the things that make the winter less sad and dreary and more like a winter dreamland. Why do we take them down when we’re not even halfway through winter? I could use some winter dreamland encouragement to keep me from winter sadness whether it’s December or February! If we start to call them “winter lights” instead, maybe people will think that it’s okay to leave them up until the end of winter, and then I… I mean “we”… can enjoy the twinkly lights for a couple more months.

Spring flowers!

Speaking of rushing things, before the Christmas lights were even taken down, people seemed to just decide that it was springtime aka flower time. All around the city, there are people selling little bundles of yellow flowers for 100 drams each. I asked my coworkers about them, and they said, “Oh, they’re selling them because it’s spring!” I was like, “Uhh… it’s January…”

To be fair, this has been an incredibly mild winter. Throughout the fall, anytime I told someone that I was planning to stay until March, they took it upon themselves to prepare me for the horrible winter ahead. They said that last year, the temperatures were frigid, and it snowed a TON. I was ready for some sort of snowpocalypse, and I was even a little excited because I haven’t had a good, snowy winter in a while.

All of that mental preparation ended up being completely unnecessary. I think that Yerevan and the U.S. east coast traded winters because while it’s been horribly cold and record-breakingly snowy there, here it’s been amazingly pleasant. The temperature has barely dropped below freezing, and we only had snow stick once… and it was about a centimeter of snow that melted by the end of the day. Now, in mid-February, it really is starting to feel like spring. The temperatures are usually slightly above freezing in the morning, but by midday, it’s around 8-10 degrees C (about 50 degrees F). I’m not going to complain because if we’re being completely honest, I would have been miserable in a real winter. I haven’t experienced an actual winter since 2015-2016 because I was in Peru at this time last year, and it was summer there!

It’s looking like springtime! You can kind of see Ararat in the distance.

Shiny kitchen!

Life has been hectic since I got back. Work has been seemingly nonstop with me running from one thing to the next. I honestly can’t even remember what I’ve done since I’ve been back because I’ve been here and there doing this and that, and my head is spinning. The most recent big and exciting thing happening is that the kitchen project I’ve been helping with since September is close to becoming a reality! They held a few events with various donors last week, and the construction work should be finished soon! I think I’ll be around to see the finished product, though it won’t actually open until after I’m gone. They’ve done some training sessions and stuff to prepare, but there is still a little logistical work to finish before it can open for real. Here’s an article that appeared in the Armenian Weekly about the project!

Besides helping with the planning and the construction drawings for the kitchen, I’ve most recently been asked to help with the logo. That’s been a whole adventure in itself because I’ve done graphic design-type things before, but I’ve never made a logo. I had to learn a new computer program, and it’s been pushing me to be creative in a new way. I finally came up with something that I think is brilliant, but I’m not sure that they’re going to use it which is kind of a bummer… oh, well. Such is life. I can still put it in my portfolio though because I’m proud of it.

Check out my name on the presentation slide! It’s second to last 😀 it was nice of them to give me a shout out.

For the rest of my time here, I’m mostly going to keep working on developing new content and an updated layout for the website. Oh, and I’ve also been assigned the task of social media manager for the twitter and Instagram accounts which is another new adventure for me. I’m a woman of many hats… the twitter hat and the photographer hat are probably my two least favorite at the moment, but I’m still wearing them anyway. While I’m here, I’ll do whatever I can to help.

One of my ongoing sources of joy is the ridiculous English things they have here. This is on a school notebook… like what??

A bright spot in the chaos has been language class. Remember how, back around Thanksgiving, I finally felt like I was making breakthroughs with my Armenian teacher, Inga? Then, there weren’t enough people in my class, and Inga got switched to a beginner-level group. I was assigned to a different teacher, I started feeling like I wasn’t learning anything, not because my new teacher wasn’t doing a good job but because I needed to focus on different things than what she was covering.

Then, a couple weeks ago, one of the girls in my old teacher’s class told me that she thought I might be okay moving back if I wanted. Only she and one other guy were left in the class, and she said that they were mostly just working on speaking which is exactly what I need. I talked to Inga about it, she said she had been thinking the same thing, and I changed back!

Since then, class has been great!! It’s just me and the guy, and we’re both good at different things. I know more grammar than he does, but his vocabulary is MUCH better than mine, and he’s one of those people who will just speak with no fear of making mistakes. I know that’s how you should be when learning a language, but it’s something I always struggle to do. Inga is focusing on making us speak, and she doesn’t let me just sit there silently. That’s exactly what I need. I feel like I’m making big strides of improvement again which is exciting. She also gives us interesting but challenging homework, and I don’t even mind spending a lot of time on it because it’s fun to come up with funny ideas and practice writing. For example, for next class, our assignment is to write a biography of our grown-up lives if we had become the people our younger selves had dreamed of becoming. Little Lara was a riot, so I’m looking forward to working on that.

My neighbors are doing construction out in the elevator lobby, and it keeps on surprising me when I come home. This day, I took the elevator up to our floor and was greeted with this tape barricade. I had to go down a floor, walk up, and then shuffle along the one un-concreted strip along the wall to get to my door.

Another time, they were plastering the walls. The guy stands on this to get the upper part of the wall… but I was walking up the stairs and was less than thrilled to find this barrier in my way (then, of course, I refused to go and use the elevator, so I climbed up and over it to get home).

In general, I’m starting to get that feeling of time moving too quickly. Language class is great, and I don’t want it to end. I have some really cool friends here, and I don’t want to leave them just yet. At the same time though, I’m mostly okay with leaving. I feel like I’ve done what I came to do. I have some closure. I’m ready to embark on a new adventure.

Despite that emotional readiness, I’m still getting stressed/anxious about everything I need to get done before I leave. I’m trying to fight it because worrying is the quickest way to ruin an experience, but I’ll be honest, it’s not going incredibly well. I know it’s mostly irrational, but that doesn’t help to make it go away. I’m stressed and anxious about moving out of my apartment, the things I need to finish at work, the things I haven’t seen/done yet, the logistics for the mini-southern Armenia trip I want to do before I go, the plans for the week that my cousins are coming, and the plans for the little Euro-trip I want to take before coming home. I’m looking at that list and shaking my head at myself because they’re all good things that I should just be excited about, but anxiety is a cruel thing. I just keep praying for a sense of calmness and peace because there’s no way I’m going to get over it on my own.

Me and my coworkers! I’m getting close to them which is going to make leaving a little harder. From left to right we have Laura, Yelena, me, Olivia, and Hayasa. We went out to dinner together, and it was a lot of fun!

This was on the holiday of Trndez, another one of those pagan-turned-Christian holidays. It used to be a sun/fire worship ritual meant to help strengthen the sun at the beginning of spring. Young women would jump over the fire so that they would bear “strong and intelligent male children”… classic. Now, they say that the fire symbolizes God’s light and warmth. Newlyweds especially will jump over the fire symbolizing their joy and happiness (and not due to superstition/to chase away evil because that would be non-Christian).

Websites and LIGHTS

My resume at the end of this year is going to be a total hodgepodge. In Ghana, I was a farmer, math and English teacher, tutor, computer repairwoman, carpenter, mason, and hole digger. In Peru, I was an engineering teacher, lighting consultant, and electrical surveyor. In India, I was an architect, dance choreographer, Bible storyteller, and English literature teacher. Here, I’ve been an AutoCAD teacher, archaeology laborer (aka bucket carrier), architect, kitchen designer, and content editor… and now, you can add amateur graphic designer and marketing consultant to that list.

Winter wonderland!

With the construction underway on the project at work, I’ve been dabbling in some other tasks. One of the other volunteers and I are determined to broaden the reach of the organization so that they can get more donations. They’re doing awesome work, but it’s not well publicized. If you want people to donate to support your work, you need to show what exactly it is that you’re doing. You need to promote your activities so that more people hear about your organization and are motivated to help. You also need to have a way for people to donate… ideally one that’s functional.

Disclaimer: I’m not a marketing expert. I didn’t study business. I don’t have experience specifically in this field. However, I do have experience with selling things… it started with Girl Scout cookies and led me to every merchandise committee in existence in university. Selling merchandise is all about making products that people will want and then alerting people to their existence. This isn’t so different. We already have products that people want (aka an organization that’s doing good, effective work). Now, we just need to spread the word. Maybe it sounds stupid to equate selling t-shirts with fundraising for an NGO, but seriously, there’s plenty of overlap in skills and thought processes.

Isn’t it just the perfect amount?

Our first project is the website. There’s a lot of information there already, but some things about the way it’s organized are confusing. We’re going to try to reorganize a bit, plus add more information that will hopefully answer some of the questions a potential donor would have about the logistics of the different programs. Anyway, I’ll let you know when it’s finished so that you can critique our work and offer suggestions (because what could be better than crowd-feedbacking? It’s like crowdfunding for ideas).

I also got placed in charge of designing the Christmas card that they send out to all the donors, so that resulted in a full day of me squinting at my computer screen and trying to come up with an idea that wouldn’t be too stupid. I don’t know, I think it turned out okay. I also didn’t have all of the graphic design resources that I would ideally have for a project like this, so I had to get creative with powerpoint and free editing software. It was a fun adventure… and by fun I mean that if I could afford photoshop, I could have finished the whole thing with about 10% of the effort.

The card…. Shh! It still hasn’t been sent out yet, so feel honored to be one of the first crew to see it.

In other exciting news, it snowed here!! It was about a week and a half ago, and it was the best kind of snow… it happened overnight, there was only about an inch, and it was all melted by the time I was walking home from work. You get all the beauty of snow with none of the annoyance! If only the whole winter could go like this… I know that’s not going to happen, though. It’s okay. I’ll enjoy the mild weather while it lasts!

Everything is so pretty under a layer of snow

Just enough to hide the litter on the ground and make the world look clean

I was on my way to work when I took this, but if I hadn’t been, I think I would have insisted on taking a quick frolic through the snow.

The city is getting even more out of control with the lights. I’m sure you’re probably sick of hearing my rants about the insanity of this city, but you’re going to have to put up with them a bit longer, sorry. They are STILL putting up new decorations. They started when I was home for Thanksgiving, and every time I think they must be out of places to put more lights, I’m proven wrong. There are lights everywhere. Everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Do you understand yet? No. You couldn’t possibly.

2018! Almost!

There are at least two ginormous Christmas trees, one in Republic Square and the other in front of Opera. Northern Avenue has lights strung up over the entire street like a light canopy. There are light sculptures in every fountain. There’s a Christmas Village on Northern. There’s a light tunnel in Republic Square. There are these massive light arches there too. In front of Opera, besides the huge tree, they have a giant light ornament that you can walk inside, plus big, light-up castles. There are light shapes hanging from the trees, and lights and lights and lights to the point where you think that if they ever turn them all on, all of the villages in the rest of the country are going to have to have their power cut in order to accommodate them (that’s a depressing joke, but it’s also one of those things that unfortunately wouldn’t be surprising).

Using a bucket truck to string the lights over Northern Ave

Northern Avenue with only some of the lights turned on… It’s going to be crazy once they get the overhead lights going.

Random concert on Northern!

More decorations

I still can’t figure out when all of the lights will get turned on, but I am the MOST excited. It’s another one of those situations (like Yerevan’s birthday party) where I think the whole thing is completely ridiculous and beyond crazy, but it’s happening no matter what I think, so why not enjoy it? I have some pictures, but I promise that as soon as more things get turned on, I’ll take so many that your eyes will be permanently damaged from all of the lights shining in them. Okay, maybe not your eyes but DEFINITELY mine. Even with the limited number operating so far, I think I’m permanently seeing spots.

Christmas Village on Northern

Lights lights lights!

Work and Life and Work

I haven’t given a work/general life update in a while, so let me try to catch you up! After my family left, it was a bit of chaos. I spent the first two weeks back at work running around like a lunatic. The plans needed to be finalized for the project and ASAP. In the week that I was gone, things just piled up, and when I got back, it was a combination of catching up on what I missed and trying to cross tasks off the list.

Festive stairwell decorations at work.

There were also meetings. A lot of meetings. Also, a lot of meetings that I had little to no notice of. For example:

“Hey, Lara. The people from the electrical utility company are going to visit the property to see where we want them to bring the electrical service.”

“Okay, no problem. When are they coming?”

“They’re already there. Can you go meet them now?”

I feel like I’ve mentioned this before, but how the heck did they put up these clotheslines??? They are NOT close to the ground, and some of them aren’t even close to a window on the opposite building. I don’t get it.

I mean, luckily there hasn’t been anything yet that I couldn’t handle. I knew what I needed to tell the electrical guy, and when the same thing happened later with the structural/seismic engineer, I knew what I needed to talk to him about too. He was another person who I was immediately impressed by and respected. He was nice, remarked that I look like his brother’s granddaughter, and told me that my Armenian is good. (True or not, I’ll take the compliment. I think that my accent is decent, so people always assume that I can speak a lot more than I actually can. At least that’s one less thing I need to work on.) Besides just being a nice guy, I could tell that he knew what he was talking about. He helped to design the original building, so I felt pretty confident that if he told us it wasn’t going to fall down if we cut a door out of one of the walls, he was right.

Besides the many surprise meetings, in classic building design fashion, everything changed about 100 times. Here’s the general summary of the last three weeks:

  1. Have a meeting.
  2. Make decisions.
  3. Lara makes a design based on the decisions.
  4. Everyone accepts the design.
  5. Something changes. Or someone changes their mind.
  6. Repeat infinitely.

It rained a couple of days, and this is the exit from my building. You couldn’t get anywhere without walking through like 3 inches of water. I got downstairs in my sneakers, opened the door, and turned right around to go and change into waterproof shoes.

If you think that sounds exhausting, you’re right. If you think that sounds frustrating, it probably should be, but I’ve decided I’m just going to go with the flow. Otherwise, I would have lost my mind by now. As if things couldn’t get any more ridiculous, I got back from Thanksgiving to learn that the construction deadline has been moved up from the end of the year… to December 4th. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. That. Is. Crazy. They started working on the walls and the ceiling last week, but how on earth are they supposed to be ready for the equipment in 5 days?!? That’s a whopping two weeks total for construction, and that’s ridiculous. I mean, I guess technically almost anything is possible, but only if either money or quality compromises are made. I don’t know. I’m just going to do my best because that’s all I can control.

Me with Nareg and Rachel, my work friends who left me 🙁

Aside from work, life has been good! I mean, life is good even with work, but everything else is good too. I feel like I’m making progress again in language class, and that’s a huge relief after feeling like I was stuck in place or even regressing. The week before I flew home for Thanksgiving, I was the only student in my language class, and it was awesome! My teacher and I went over a bunch of things I wanted to learn and did a lot of speaking practice. I still am far from good, but my vocabulary is improving and I’m feeling more comfortable. It’s exciting! I also feel like I’m getting to know my teacher better, and that makes class more fun in general.

Practicing our funny faces. This kid has an evil eye like nothing you’ve ever seen.

Now, I’m back after spending Thanksgiving at home. It was kind of a whirlwind week. The goals were to see some friends and spend as much time with family as possible, and I’d say I achieved both of those. It was another one of those “not exactly what I would call restful” vacations, but a good emotional recharge nonetheless.

The best thing to come out of the week (besides a lot of baby smiles) was the scheduling of another family vacation to Armenia! This time, three of my cousins are coming in March! The whole thing went from a semi-joking, “Hey maybe I’ll visit you haha,” from one of them into a, “Hey our vacations match up! The three of us should actually go,” in about 5 minutes, and two days later, the plane tickets were purchased. Talk about major spur-of-the-moment decisions! If you’re thinking, “I thought you were leaving at the end of February,” well… make that March.

In the time that I was away, the temperature dropped about 15 degrees (F), all of the fountains in the city got embellished with fancy lighted sculpture things (they already drained them a few weeks ago), and two of my co-volunteers at Aleppo went home. Lots of changes, but I’m still here! It’s cool getting to see how the city changes throughout the year. Can you believe that December is the beginning of my 6th month in Armenia?? Me. Neither.

One of the fountain sculpture things. It’s not lit up, but maybe there’s some fountain lighting day that hasn’t happened yet (or it was just too early in the night).

Life Update

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!

Pop-Up Art Exhibition

There was this temporary art exhibition thing going on for a couple of weeks, and I checked it out with my friend Arin. It’s organized by HAYP Pop Up, and they set up a few exhibitions each year. They usually are held at places that are a bit off the beaten path, and this one was at the Byurakan Observatory. Artists from Armenia and abroad are invited to participate and a different theme is selected for each one.

Grounded UFO with knives in it, apparently thrown by human defenses

This time, the theme was aliens. Well, not exactly. I think that the artists had to imagine what it would be like to make contact with extraterrestrials. Or something. I don’t know. (HERE‘s the webpage about it.) I love art, but modern art frequently baffles me, so combining modern art with a spacey (literally) topic like aliens can only possible result in complete stupefaction.

The telescope

There was one exhibit in a different location, so we went there first. It’s apparently a radio-optic telescope but just looked like some weird pendulum thing in the middle of a giant bowl. The exhibit was a sound exhibit where the artist put three speakers around the rim of the bowl and three microphones inside of it. I think he did some mixing of the sounds, but the speakers partly played what the microphones were picking up, resulting in some weird echoey feedback sounds. The speakers were playing what the microphones were picking up, and the microphones were picking up what the speakers were playing. Weird, right? And if you made a sound loud enough, you could make it into the playback too. I don’t know. There was some deep meaning or something to it, but mostly it was just eerie.

The best part of it was the view. It was next to a gorge, and there was another weird, abandoned thing in the distance that Arin and I decided to check out. Things that I often think in Armenia: “I wonder if we’re trespassing by being here.” Immediate next thought: “T.I.A. Is trespassing even a thing here?” I don’t have any clue what this thing was, but there were stairs so we obviously climbed it. And then there was a ladder so I obviously climbed that too. It all seemed sturdy enough… don’t worry, I have health insurance!

Gorge-ous! Yes, I’m going to use the same bad pun EVERY time I take a picture of a gorge.

See the weird mirror thing in the corner? Yeah, that’s what we climbed.

Climbed that tower!

Looking down from the top of the tower. I’m not afraid of heights, but it was a little windy and was blowing in the breeze a bit, so I can’t say I loved that.

Climbed those yellow supports in the back!

Control room

 

Don’t ask. I don’t know.

I think that my favorite part of the whole exhibit was everything we did that wasn’t part of the exhibit. After the sound thing, we went to the observatory property to see the rest of the art. It was all confusing. We started out trying to read the descriptions and understand what was happening and quickly gave up in favor of just walking around the grounds. Here’s a made-up example in an attempt to express how I usually feel at modern art exhibits:

 

Description: “This weird art-like thing you see in front of you imagines the moment of successful contact with extraterrestrials. Elation quickly turns to horror as the humans realize that these are not friendly beings. An immediate war breaks out between human-kind on Earth and the hostile alien forces. Within seconds, the humans can see that the alien weapons are far superior and that they have no hope for survival. This complicated emotional journey from elation to terror to defeat is captured by the piece you see in front of you.”

The art: A cardboard box with a one-eyed frowny face drawn in black sharpie on the side and an LED light inside.

The other people there: “Ah yes, I see it!” “Magnificent!” “So many emotions!” “Completely brilliant!” “The artist is a genius!” “The Michelangelo of the 21st century!” “I’m so artsy and sophisticated!” “My life will never be the same!”

 

This was probably my favorite exhibit haha. Don’t ask me what it’s supposed to mean because I don’t know. I just know it looks cool.

Me: “Hey did someone forget their cardboard box? I hate it when people just leave their trash lying around. Where’s the exhibit? Maybe they unpacked it from this box, put it somewhere else, and forgot to take the description sign with them. Oh well, on to the next one!”

 

I would describe myself as a person who likes art, but sometimes… yeah. I think that I am more an admirer of impressive things, so I appreciate the skill that goes into creating art. If it’s something that I think would be difficult to create, I like it. If it’s something that seems thrown together with some abstract description, it just reminds me of the people in high school English who got good grades from reading sparknotes and BSing their papers. Aka I’m not impressed.

Anyway, it was an interesting experience. Apparently, modern art is the same confusing adventure no matter what country you’re in. Good to know.

One of the many observatories on the grounds