Monday, April 30, 2007

Free days

The boys and I have been spending a lot of time outdoors now that the weather is nice. We went mushroom hunting on Saturday (a lifelong dream of mine) and hiking in the mountains for four hours yesterday. Here are the pictures.

Look at mine...barely visible...then look at the boy's. It took me two hours to find that puny mushroom and it took Samvel about 10 minutes to find that monster. I must need some hunting practice.
Let the sunburns begin...
That's our village in the background in the center. To the top left are the lakes where people are raising fish. The lakes are what attract our beautiful village storks...and the summer mosquitoes.
This greenery was what we walked towards for about two hours. It was disappointing when we arrived though because it was like a small marsh in between two mountains...not perfect for picnicking.

Country Image

There’s got to be a genius behind the public relations campaign in China, and right now I wish I had his job. In a recent Newsweek article (Beijing’s Big Push) Joshua Kurlantzick wrote: “China is growing more popular than ever; a major public opinion poll last year found that most ordinary Russians now think China has ‘a positive impact on the world’ and that the United States has a negative one.”

He goes on to explain that, “Over the last five years, while anti-Americanism has surged around the glove, Beijing has worked hard to ingratiate itself in Asia, Latin America and Africa. The name of this game is soft power: making China and its culture as attractive as possible to foreign publics, not just their leaders. For years, Washington has dominated the field. But Beijing’s new outreach-through foreign aid, investment, deft diplomacy, tourism and education- is starting to best American efforts. Ordinary people across the planet now view China more warmly than they do the United States. Polls taken by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and the BBC show that majority of people in most countries today consider China to be a more positive influence and less of a threat to international peace than the United States is. Such sentiments are particularly strong in the developing world.” So, I took my own informal survey in this developing country. I asked my host family which country was better, America or China, and, true to Mr. Kurlantzick’s, article, the majority answered China. Although I don’t take my research seriously (two family members said they liked America more because it’s bigger), it was interesting to read about the advance of China’s image over America’s.

To validate the public relations profession even more, Kurlantzick continues, “Beijing is already reaping the benefit of this attitudinal change in traditional, hard-power terms…All this would have been impossible a decade ago, when China seemed to have no idea how to manage its image.”

Bigger than corporate events or television spots, effective public relations of entire countries has the potential to improve the world. “The improving image of the People’s Republic is making cooperation possible in new ways and places,” Kurlantzick writes. “Of course, China’s soft-power campaign could still run off the rails…For now, however, Beijing seems to be enjoying the fruit of its impressive rebranding campaign.”

Genocide Memorial Day

Tuesday April 24 was Genocide Memorial Day. Although not everyone recognizes the Armenian tragedy as genocide there is no doubt in my mind that it occurred and that the international relations between Armenia and its neighbors only prolong the suffering in this country.

I met Alla by the metro stop and we made the long, very cold, walk to the memorial. Despite the wintry mix falling from the sky, the vast procession of those paying their respects was seemingly never ending. We bought red tulips and brought them to the center of the memorial. The mound of flowers that people had placed throughout the day was nearly as tall as me. There were funeral bouquets from countries all over the world and it was remarkable to hear people speaking in English.

We decided to go to the underground museum before walking back. As we stared at pictures of starving, naked and displaced Armenians all I could think of were the images I’ve seen of the prisoners of the WWII concentration camps. The haunting images only added to the pain of recognizing that this small country was once a powerful nation, spreading all the way to the Black Sea. Today, landlocked and struggling to survive with closed boarders and racial hatred, Armenia only wants recognition of the acts that were committed.

In the museum there is a case of proclamations memorializing the genocide made by governors and state politicians in America. I am not certain, but I’ve been told that 48 states have recognized the genocide. I understand that America is in a difficult position to stand up for Armenia, but I couldn’t help but take a picture of a sign on the side of the memorial that calls our nation to honesty.

It was cold cold cold (hence the bright red nose to match my jacket).

Monday, April 23, 2007

National & Global Youth Service Day

April 21-22 was National and Global Youth Service Day. Saturday we celebrated by cleaning up the field and planting trees where we hope to one day prepare a village playground/outdoor recreation center. Some pictures below help illustrate the event.

There is a class that the kids take called 'work'. The boys learn how to build and repair things and the girls learn how to cook and make crafts. I recruited some of the sixth form boys and later the fourth form wanted to help. When the bell rang they asked if they could come back after school and help some more. They showed up at 2 p.m. with gloves, bags, water and a flower for me.
It was an enthusiastic group.

When it was time to plant the trees this neighbor came down and showed us the right way to do things. Talk about community investment.
YCAP group 9th form students helped dig while we gathered buckets of water and measured out the field. Our friend stayed around to monitor the work for a few trees until the boys got the hang of it.
One of my favorite students (above right) took charge of the younger students (who he fondly referred to as his kindergartners). Here he is instructing the kids to gather rocks to make a ring around the baby trees. I'll admit, it was a nice touch.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Happy Easter

I made the orange one

This is the "Easter lawn" I was describing in my last entry. The eggs aren't in it yet but you get the idea. The YCAP group had an Easter presentation at school and invited me to talk about our customs in America. I started with the Biblical significance of the holiday and moved into a description of the Easter bunny and egg hunting. We have some nice deviled egg dishes in our family but I must admit that the green is a lovely display for colored eggs. All it takes is a few weeks of watering.

I wanted to include more photographs of the Easter events last week but I've been lending my camera to one of the 10th graders (they're fascinated with digital) and he deleted the pictures from Easter dinner and egg hitting. I'll try to describe the traditions in detail until I can figure out if he created a CD of the pictures that I can use.

On Saturday night at 5 p.m. the Easter celebration started in the village. They told me that Easter is celebrated from 5p.m. Saturday until 5 p.m. Sunday and when I asked about the women going to the empty tomb on Easter morning they told me that that's just when they found the tomb, Jesus had actually already risen the night before. So we had a party at home with just the family. We ate: fish, potatoes, fried greens and egg, fried lavash with rice and dried fruit, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, cheese and cabbage salad. The highlight for the kids was the hitting eggs game where you hold your hard boiled egg in your hand and tap the top of the opponents egg. Whoever holds the broken egg loses. I lost at both ends and on two sides (Sargis had a particularly sturdy egg).

On Sunday I made the trip to Khor Virap and had Easter dinner with a family in a nearby village. The bus stopped outside of the village and together we walked for about an hour to the church. It was a nice walk and it was exciting to see everyone making their way towards the church. When we arrived it was packed and women were selling packets of candles on the side of the road. Traditionally you're not allowed to burn candles that you buy outside the church in the church, but it was Easter so maybe they didn't notice. There was a tightrope walker, lots of people walking around with live chickens and a small band playing music. This is the regular spectical though, as I remember the same entertainment being there the last time we visited the church for a wedding.

We entered the church and listened to part of the service. They insisted I cover my head with a children's baseball cap and we tried to stand patiently as people came and went, talked and took photos. We lit candles and then left after communion. After church we went back to the family's house and had the same meal plus BBQ. It was nice to spend the day with the family.

April 21-22 is Earth day and National & Global Youth Service Day ( I'm going to try to mobilize the YCAP group to clean up the field and plant trees where we hope to build the community playground. It's hard to believe that today marks nine months at site. Time flies when you're having fun...

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Beauty, Motherhood and a little faith

On Palm Sunday I stopped at this church on my way through Yerevan to buy some fresh daffodils, these crowns and some of the branches they were selling (below). The crowns symbolize the one they put on Jesus before they crucified him. Apparently we are to keep it for 12 months (one month for every one of Jesus' disciples) and then in a year we should burn it.

The daffodils didn't symbolize anything-- just reminded me of home and brightened my bedroom.

Me delivering my poem. Do I look like I know what I'm saying? All I know is that it was about love.

Although yesterday was Good Friday, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to reflect on the day. This year Holy week coincides with the final week of women’s month. Today, April 7, is the conclusion of the festivities.

A little background: After the collapse of the Soviet Union celebrations of international women’s day were abandoned in Armenia. Instead, April 7 was introduced as state holiday of ‘Beauty and Motherhood.’ The new holiday immediately got popular among Armenians, as it commemorates one of the main holidays of Armenian Church, Annunciation. Today, people continue to celebrate women’s day on March 8 as well, so public discussion held on the topic of two Women’s Days in Armenia resulted in the recognition of Women’s Month (the time between March 8 and April 7).

To celebrate in the village, our event planner organized a community pagent. I was invited to attend and sing, but I refused to subject everyone to another episode of me singing on stage. We settled on reciting a poem in Armenian. While memorization and recitation is a common practice in the school and for Armenians in general, it did not come easy to me. I’ve been practicing my poem for a month now and was still scared of messing up (which I did). Fortunately, I made up for it by dancing all night and participating in one of the games. I like Armenian dancing better than American, and all I had to do to win the game was pair up with our gym teacher and eat an apple blindfolded. Sometimes the Armenians are very easy to please.

Towards the end of the night it was time for us to go around the room and provide a toast to the women and the holiday. Each table sent a representative to the front of the room to say a few words. By the time they reached our table (number 10) all of the common toasts had already been made (for health, blue skies, green paths, long life, everything good and kind, etc…). I leaned over to my friend and told her she should offer hope as our wish for the future of the women in the room. To me, it seemed like a good connection between the popular women’s holiday and rememberance of the risen Lord.

I colored eggs with 9a on Thursday and this morning they invited me to their women’s day party at school tonight. The Armenian’s are familiar with the egg coloring process, but they color hundreds and traditionally they’re only red (to symbolize Christ’s blood). A couple of weeks ago people started ‘planting’ lentils and other beans on wet cotton on platters and now they have small green yards for presenting the eggs. Tonight at our house we are going to prepare the traditional food: rice and raisins, fish and greens and then tomorrow I will pass out a little American plastic eggs and peeps to the kids. I’ve been using my lenten discipline (no sweets…except jam) to illustrate my faith and everyone is very excited about the prospect of indulging in ice cream and chocolate all day tomorrow. I understand the commercial Easter in Armenia, I hope to attend a traditional service tomorrow and see how the occasion is celebrated in the church.

Happy Easter all. He is Risen!