Armenia in Style

November 17, 2010

I recently did a several day excursion down to Armenia.  It is just South of Georgia. It takes about an hour to get to the Armenian border, with about another 4.5 hours to get to Yerevan, the capital, once in Armenia.

I stayed in Yerevan, but I did several day trips outside of the city.  Yerevan is an ok city.  It is surprisingly more Western and trendy with shops like Victoria’s Secret, Armani, Dolce and Gabana, etc.  Though Tbilisi is nice and comfortable, it felt good to get back to an even more modern city like Yerevan.  I think the money is coming from the large Armenian diaspora community abroad.  In fact, I even saw some neighborhoods on the city limits that looked exactly like Schererville, Indiana type neighborhoods.

If you make 'Mad Max' reference, you need the photo.

Even if Yerevan has the stuff I described, the majority of the country is straight out of 1960; Very Soviet, many abandoned factories, and extremely poor towns.  The very dry and dusty climate also adds to the depressing state of the towns.  “Mad Max” could have been filmed here without any Hollywood Props.

Yerevan is also very smoggy from terrible pollution and hot weather, and everyone…EVERYONE smokes.  Armenia dethrones all other countries I have been to for people who light up.  I went out Friday night, and I felt like I burnt my throat after breathing so much smoke in hole in the wall clubs without vents.

If I was to just visit Yerevan, I would have really hated Armenia.  Luckily, I went to see a lot of the surrounding monasteries and churches in the countryside.  Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity and has many very old and beautiful monasteries.  They were some of the best I have ever seen…

Echmiadzin. This town is the seat of the Armenian Christian Church.  It is the holiest church in Armenia and very beautiful inside.  They also have the spear head that supposedly pierced Christ during the Crucifixion.  (I have also seen this claimed spear in a few other countries)

Gerghard Monastery.  This monastery is straight out of Indiana Jones with most of it built into caves in the mountainside.  Very cool inside, though the photos did not come out.


Those columns are solid stone carved out of the mountain. Hollowing out a monastery inside the Mountain must have taken forever.

Lake Sevan. This lake is the main source of water in Armenia.  They  have several monasteries based around the lake.  This one wasn’t the best, but it had a really cool view.

Taxi Drivers. Taxi Driving is how I got around for the most part.  I would take mini-bus public transportation to towns, but most of the monasteries were in the middle of nowhere.  The man below was my driver for the day.  He was fun and spoke enough English for me to understand him.  I took him to this one monastery that he had not been to for 20 years.  He was telling me about this ‘dangerous’ photo he took by climbing down the rocks near the monastery.  There were fences this time, but we hopped over them and re-enacted his photo.  He was having a blast.  Unfortunately, we later got in a car accident in Yerevan.  I was fine, but a lot of damage was done to his car, so he wasn’t smiling at the end of the day 😦

Natural Gas Car???? All of the taxis and most of the minibuses actually run on Natural Gas in Armenia.  I never thought this actually existed in the world.  I have obviously heard of it, but this was the first time I pulled into a ‘Natural Gas’ Gas station.  They are a little more cautious with these gas stations.  We needed to exit the car and stand about 20 yards away while they filled up the tank in the back.  Apparently this is much cheaper than petrol, and most cabs started doing it in 1995.  When we got back in the car, it smelled so bad of the natural gas.  I am fairly certain if I lighted a match, we would have exploded.  He assured me we were fine though.  This was the same car we later got in an accident with, so I was a little paranoid still about leaks!

Well, there is quite a lot more I would have liked to have seen in Armenia, but costs add up getting a taxi driver.  And some Armenian sites are not even in Armenia.  If I wanted to see Armenia’s most famous landmark, Mt. Ararat (where Armenians say Noah crashed his Ark) it sits about 50 miles away from Yerevan now in Turkish Territory.

The fact that Mt. Ararat is in Turkish territory annoys many Armenians.  My time in the Caucasus has taught me that I really did not know much about this area before coming here.   Almost every country has border disputes of some type over here.  Armenia has had problems for centuries with its neighbors.   The Turkish border is closed as Armenia still demands recognition of the Armenian Genocide of WWI, and Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan is closed as Armenia occupies about 1/3 of Azerbaijan territory after a 1990-1994 war.  This occupied region, Nagorno Karabakh, is basically a de facto independent country with its own visa.   This region is only recognized by one other country as independent, though.  Transnistria! (Which was the break-away republic of Moldova).  I think I will make another trip to Armenia later in life, so there will still be some things to see.

The 'NKR' is the occupied region. You can see how Azerbaijan also has a little sliver (AZ.) west of Armenia. That area is completely cut off for the most part. Caucasus=Crazy Borders

Overall, I really enjoyed my time in Armenia.  It is such an interesting country with a very long history.  If you are ever in the neighborhood…drop by!



October 19, 2010

Oh…Sweet Georgia.

I have been living here for about 3 weeks already!  And I haven’t even blogged about the country!?!?  Well, time to stop slacking and talk about this place.

I must start by saying I found the better Georgia in the world.  This wasn’t very hard, given how bad the State of Georgia is.  Or perhaps it was just visiting my brother down there and hanging out in the Wal-Mart in Pooler, Georgia that has left bad memories of that Georgia.  Anyways, this Georgia, the country…well, I really like it so far.  It is completely unexpected in a lot of ways.  It feels really European in Tbilisi.  It is a comfortable place to live abroad in and has some beautiful landscapes surrounding it.  Mountains, Desert, The Black Sea on the West Coast, Wine country…what’s not to like in Georgia?

I plan to be doing a few articles on Kiva’s website talking about the country in greater detail, so I won’t do an educational lesson on it quite yet.  But I can share some cool photos of some things I have done the last few weeks…

Like exploring around Tbilisi.  This is one of my favorite churches here as it has a good location.

The Old Town of Tbilisi is small, but quite pretty.  The President has made ‘tourism’ one of his top priorities for Georgia.  Everything is being remodeled here to get ready for the onslaught of tourists who will be coming more and more to this country after word spreads about it.

I have also done a lot of walking…to some interesting places.  Just 1239 more kilometers at this point.  I am just glad they have the English under the Kartuli language.  You take a wrong turn and I may miss Tehran for a place like Baku in Azerbaijan.   Then I would really be in trouble.

And I have learned where Russia is…literally, just over that hill. (Of the photos I had, this was the only one with my index finger pointing, even if I look like a gigantic dork.  The other fingers aren’t appropriate I shall say…)

There have been some long mountain hikes too…I didn’t bring a winter jacket here.  I layered up, but I still got a bit of a fever/cold the last few days trying to recover from this hike.  This picture also needs to be big just to show how awesome this place was.  Click on it!

But I have always made it to where I was going.  This was a long hike up here, but it was really worth it.   This church is about 6 miles from the Russian border.  It was strange going up to the Russian border.  On the map, across the border are South Ossetia and Chechnya.  Places you always here of in the news, but to be that close to them feels weird.

And I have been lucky to get rich along the way by finally…FINALLY finding the end of the rainbow.  The leprechaun was actually completely surprised to find me there as he thought nobody would be on those hills.  I think he was a bit inebriated too from just having watched Notre Dame Football play, so taking his pot of gold was much easier than expected.

And I found one more country I can dominate in….I would have destroyed this kid in pop a shot!

Soccer is also big here…but not as big as pork!  I went to this festival this past weekend and watched this game.  It took me a few moments to actually look down and see what I was standing over.  Apparently, he was the prize for the victors!

I have also met some old friends here…I think he missed me in Moldova.

Ah…well, I will leave with one more photo.  Me in Tbilisi the first day I got here….really happy to get in!  There are a couple things to take from the photo. I need to get back on the EY diet of eating out every night instead of kebab,,,and it was so warm here.  Like 80 degrees that first day, when it was really cold coming from Kiev.

Well, the one comment I always get back on the blog are more photos, so I hope you all enjoyed some of the places I have seen 🙂

Moldova, Microfinance, and Happiness

October 6, 2010

Note: This blog was done for the Kiva Program and can be found on Kiva’s Website

Upon receiving news of my placement in Chisinau, a friend of mine recommended I read ‘The Geography of Bliss’ by Eric Weiner.  This New York Times bestseller detailed Weiner’s journey throughout the world to find what made countries happy.  To truly know ‘happiness’, Weiner decided he needed to go to a very unhappy country: Moldova, which ranks near the bottom in most national happiness studies.  After reading his depressingly pessimistic account of the country, I can say my enthusiasm for the Fellowship dropped slightly, but I was still interested in seeing it for myself.

So, what have I learned about Moldova in the time I have spent here during my Kiva Fellowship? Certainly a lot more than I knew before I came.

Chisinau Central Park. It's a happy place!

Moldova is a complex country in spite of its small size.  It is caught in a gray area between the EU and Russia, with a mix of both Russian and Romanian speaking populations having different political orientations.  Its breakaway region, Transnistria, has Russian ‘peacekeepers’ that just never left after the Cold War.  Many Moldovans act as de facto Romanian citizens carrying passports and voting in Romanian elections thanks to heritage laws.  There is a lack of a common, shared understanding on what a ‘Moldovan’ is.  This was apparent in the 2009 ‘Twitter Revolution’, in which many Moldovan flags were ripped down and replaced with Romanian national flags following disputed election results.  The Communist Party had supposedly won 50% of the national vote, and the younger, more western oriented voters were not happy with the results.  Recently, people have started to vote more with their feet than with ballots, as studies indicate approximately 25% of Moldovans now live abroad trying to earn a living.

Source: World Bank

This is the challenging political environment in which microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Moldova operate; however, a challenging environment does not mean there is a lack of MFIs willing to lend.  There are 17 MFIs in Moldova competing over an ever decreasing borrower base.  This fierce competition has led to an over indebtedness by many individuals who take out multiple loans from all too willing MFIs looking for customers.

Going into my first borrower interviews, I was questioning the role of microfinance in ‘alleviating poverty’ in Moldova. The boon in microfinance loans and accompanying interest rates seemed to have caused many problems during the recent economic slowdown.  I frequently asked myself “How effective is microfinance in this country?”

My first borrower Maria answered that question in a short few moments.  Maria sells clothes in a local market that she buys in neighboring Ukraine.  A few times a year, she is able to buy merchandise in bulk thanks to her loan.  When asked directly about how this loan has benefited her, I was surprised by her genuine happiness.  She has been a client for 6 years, taking many new loans for her basic working capital needs.  Admittedly, she has not moved up the socio-economic ladder very much, but her microfinance loans have given her the ability to provide for herself.  This self-empowerment brought out a genuine happiness that I witnessed in talking to her.

Microfinance is not a panacea for all of the issues facing this country.  I still hold some doubts about its role here, and how to improve the industry going forward.  I do believe people like Maria can be the best testimony to microfinance’s benefits in making Moldova a happier place to be.

The Never Ending Story Part III

October 4, 2010

Well, I have certainly blown by my goal of an update every 10 days or so.  It has been a busy few weeks, and not necessarily related to my job.  I wrapped up in Moldova and took some time to travel to a few cities.  Now, please cue the Indiana Jones music while I highlight my journey in blue! (Wish I could do red like Indy)

Basically, I left Moldova, went to Romania, and then to THE UKRAINE (UKRAINE must always be capitalized I feel and have the word THE)

Well, thanks to google maps for setting up where I was…but what did I see!?!? (You can click on the pics to get them larger 🙂 )

Moldova: Saying goodbye to a place is always sad…even more so when you have to leave the adopted hostel dog Chapeeta who I cooked for frequently 😦

Brasov, Romania: But Chapeeta can not compete with the beauty of Transylvania.  This was a wonderful former German town in the middle of Romania near Bran’s Dracula castle.  Very touristy, but did some awesome hiking in a quite treacherous gorge.  I also did not see any vampires if Adam asks.  (Or maybe Uncle Kevin did if Adam has been acting up at all????)

Suceava, Romania: This was one of the most boring places I have ever seen.  I needed to come here and spend the night to cross over the border to Ukraine.  I hitched a ride across the border with a Romanian family in the morning.  They spoke no English, I spoke no Ukrainian or Romanian.  Kinda brutal 2 hours.  And of all places, I found this car below with Michigan plates.  I really thought my former client from Detroit was tracking me down in the middle of nowhere Romania!

Chernovtsy, Ukraine: Nice little town in Ukraine.  I spent the day here after getting dropped off by the family.  Had some difficult first experiences trying to get around as I can’t read the Cyrillic alphabet.  So I drew out what I was looking for 🙂

Seriously...I drew this out. I found a Ukrainian guy who said in English..."Say it in Spanish". Then I said "El Tren"...Still took him awhile...And why Spanish, Mr. Ukraine?!?!

Lviv, Ukraine: Cool town.  Interesting history as it has passed hands so many times between all these countries.  As it is charming, I will consider it Polish though even if they were all kicked out after WWII.  I will also consider it Polish because they have a Gloria Jeans here!  I can’t tell you how many times I went there with Mom as a kid.

Kiev, Ukraine: And finally! Chicken Kiev.  I wasn’t a big fan of Kiev.  It definitely has some beautiful churches as seen below, and some good nightlife.  The churches are at least worth a visit here, but I just spent a couple days here.  It’s just a little too ‘Soviet’ feeling for me walking around.

As I said, beautiful churches…

…Of whatever religion you may be…

Well, this was just a high level overview of things seen and done.  I will post pics on Facebook one of these days.  It was a good little trip, and I am now waiting in the Kiev airport to get over to Tbilisi.  This airport is fairly awful and strangely reminds me of the Akron, Ohio airport…that is never a good comparison for an international airport.  And I don’t have ‘status’ on Ukrainian Air.  Till next time, and I promise these will get more entertaining!

Back in the USSR!

September 16, 2010

I think it will always be a bit of a struggle to make blog articles interesting.  So I am half debating whether to make stuff up…but for now, I will try to spin another compelling true story on par with the ‘Rooster’!  (I was notified by the Pulitzer committee that I am in the running!)

I realized a few days ago that I am, for the first time in my life, in former USSR territory.  Out of all the random places I have been, I am in Moldova.  And I honestly believe that I will be the only friend or family member who ever comes here.  Therefore, I have a few lessons in store for everyone.

First, I will answer everyone’s number 1 question.  Where the #*@(*# is Moldova?

That’s an easy one….BAM!!

So what else have I learned besides that Moldova is not (NOT!) in Africa?  A bunch!  In fact, here are 9 (yes 9!) random things I have learned about Moldova

9. The people here are really nice to me.  This is one of the nicest countries I have come across when they realize I speak English.  For instance, I met two Moldovan girls who toured me around the city last week.  They then told me to go check out a movie which was supposed to have English subtitles (unfortunately it didn’t).  I got lost on the way, though, but I eventually found it thanks to another two great girls who spoke English and put me on the right bus.  I couldn’t read the movie titles when I arrived at the cinema, so I asked a young girl who luckily spoke English.  She invited me to sit with her and her friends throughout the movie, so I didn’t look like one of those weird dudes who goes to movies by themselves.  Talk about hospitality!

8.  Almost all young girls here speak English.  It is fantastic!

7.  The girls here are quite pretty 🙂

6.   On a sad note, almost everyone wants to leave Moldova.  So many conversations that I have with people are around emigrating to another country.  Most of the borrowers are living abroad right now in Russia/Ukraine/Italy or other Western European countries.  (Things have to be bad when you want to emigrate to Russia)  Even my translator told me this week that he may not be able to work with me in two weeks because he is expecting his Canadian Visa this week and will not be returning.  Some random stats on this matter:

  • A recent poll indicated that 50% of Moldovans want to move abroad (50%?!?!?!)
  • As of 2008, roughly 36% of Moldova’s GDP was from remittances by Moldovans abroad.  This puts them in the top 10 of remittance countries worldwide.
  • Roughly 25% of the approximately 4 million Moldovans have left Moldova.
  • Western Union is dominating this town like Dunkin Donuts in Milwaukee

5.  They have knock off Tigger outfits…..This guy is actually really funny.  He was walking around the park trying to get little kids to take a picture with him.  This one very little girl did and was all happy to have him.  Then the dad paid the man.  Unfortunately, Tigger did not have change, so he took off his head, and screamed over to his Tigger Pimp for change.  I think he destroyed the little girls world 😦

4.  Living in a hostel is actually a bit depressing.  As many of you know, I did seriously want to make a go at running one.  I ultimately decided against it for money reasons, but I think I can safely say I would not do it for sanity reasons now.  It is cool at first to meet a lot of random people from all over, but then, it becomes a bit like Ground Hog day.  Its like f**ing Ned Ryerson is trying to sell me life insurance every day.  I have almost the exact same conversations each night with a new person.   I am just becoming slightly jaded and have started acting more like a smart ass with my answers.  (“What are you in Moldova for?  “Arms dealing of course…”…and walk away)

3. They have an Arc de Triomphe here too.  I was actually in Paris before coming on over to Moldova.  The Paris one is obviously bigger, but can you rent a ride on a pony in front of it! (look closely on the left)  The French are too snooty for ponies.

2. The people in this country do not have one, single common language.  A vast majority of people speak both Russian and Romanian.  Many families are actually split.  For instance, the dad will speak Russian, and the mom will speak both Romanian and Russian.  The child will have to speak both to communicate with each parent.  Then the kids have different groups of friends.  With one group, they will speak just Russian (even if they know both), and another group they will speak Romanian.  Imagine growing up with this from an early age.  This is why Europeans know more languages than Americans.

1.  They are simply hilarious sometimes…This is the new, sleek shopping mall in Mol-dova.  How can’t you like that name?

Chisinau…my first blog!

September 5, 2010

Hmm…I suppose I shall start my first blog.  This concept seems a little weird to me, but I will try to stick with it.

Things have been going ok so far.  Though being abroad is strange, things quickly become routine in a way.  I have my grocery store…my work, my places I walk to, the books I read.  Really, I am doing very similar things that I did in the States every day.  Heck, I even have similar feelings about Chisinau as I did in my last project in Detroit.

But then there are the little things that remind you that you somehow landed on the edge of Europe.  One of those things is my new friend/enemy I call ‘Harold’.  I wake up every morning to this new friend and hate him so much.  As I go along my day, though, the hilarity that is ‘Harold’ builds to the point that I am actually excited to have the little SOB wake me up in the morning.  You see, Harold, is a rooster that can “Cock a doodle doo” probably better than 99% of roosters on Earth.   Harold is also an eager ‘go getter’ type who starts to croon even before the first hints of daylight.  He will wake me up at 4:15, and it really is hard to go back to bed.  Oh yes, I am mad at him in the morning, but then the afternoon kicks in and I start to laugh about it.  Really, how does a rooster in a ‘capital city’ of Europe wake me up each day?  Welcome to Chisinau, Kevin!

Things like Harold make the day entertaining and will be one of my vivid memories when I look back on the randomness of living in Moldova for a month.  I have attached a small video of Harold.  At the end, you will hear me, clearly getting panicky, about the “stray dogs” coming to bark at me.  There are things I miss about America, and somewhere in that Top 5 after peanut butter is: Animal Control.  The strays are fine, but just don’t infringe on their territory, or try to take footage of Harold without getting a Kiva Media waiver signed.