Thursday, July 31, 2008

PG&E in the village

Today was Frank's 3rd birthday, and we didn't have power for about 8
hours. Jonelle was left with one cake ready, one in the oven uncooked
and one not yet prepared. We served small pieces to about 30
neighbors, adults and kids and it worked out okay. As night
approached my very American wife came to me and said, "what will we do
about our food in the refrigerator, we still don't have power." I
began to ask around and I heard from one neighbor that our transformer
(1/3 of the village) burned up, and that we wouldn't have power for
So that neighbor and I worked out a plan to run power from his house
where they did have power, but before we executed, we thought maybe we
should ask the town electrician or the equivalent of the electrical
side of PG&E. The younger brother came to our aid and said that I was
the first to complain after 8 hours (that is almost 100 families who
didn't say anything!) So we went up to check the transformer and
after smelling something burnt, flipping a few switches and nothing
happening we gave up and headed back down. We were met by the older
brother who (usually collects our power money when ever he needs
money, there is no real schedule), and he was carrying a pair of
pliers and some thin wire in his back pocket. He suggested we grab a
pair of rubber gloves and a flashlight, so we did and up again we went.
On the 10,000 volt side, of the transformer, (the dangerous side,
that they are not supposed to work on) we found two of the two three
phases were burt out, and by burned out I mean a wire not much thicker
than a strand of hair that stretched about 2 feet was missing. I
found it very hard to believe that the power for a third of the
village ran through such a thin wire, which acted as fuse. Looking
closely I saw that this was not the first time this had happened as
there were about twenty old wires still tangled about, as the older
brother was yelling at the younger brother who was cleaning it up, to
leave the mess and hurry up. A couple of switches were thrown and the
lights brightened in the houses around us. I left the gloves as a
thank you, and said that next time if we don't have power for five
minutes I'm coming to your house to tell you.
To continue my description of the other half of PG&E, we recently had
gas run to the house, by some "independent contractors" from the
village. I use the term loosely because we are still not sure really
how much they over charged us. Although according to the official
paper work they showed us, we along with our neighbors bargained the
price down about 20% over coffee on our balcony, yet other neighbors
said we paid too much, and others said they are waiting until it is
free (which may never be). One mayor of a neighboring village,
refused to let anyone of his villagers pay to have gas run, insisting
to the authorities that it should be run with out payment, they still
don't have gas. What ever the case, these guys hooked us up, we still
haven't done any paperwork and we have gas, which Jonelle is enjoying
very much, by the way as her fingernails have returned to their normal
soot free color.
The exciting part of the gas experience was hooking up to the main
low pressure line, which runs along the street parallel to the high
pressure line. The welder was using an oxygen/astatine type torch
although the astatine I think was some other gas he produce from
dropping a manufactured "rock," that they call carbide, into a
pressure tank filled with water. Once he had all the welding done he
came back to the main low pressure line, welded a short piece of pipe
to the line that would fit into the larger line we ran to the house.
Then with a metal punch and hammer he proceeded to create a hole
inside of that fitting, and gas began to spew forth. Once the hole
was large enough he fitted the larger pipe over, gas still hissing
out, and lit his torch. Needless to say a ball of fire flamed in the
very area he had to weld, and for about 10 minutes he welded in the
flames. Just as he was finishing and people were congratulating us on
having gas and wishing us well, one of the oldest men in the village
silently walked by with a giant wrench in his hand, and everyone was
yelling around him that the water was going to be cut off.
So poetic justice in Armenia, just as we got gas, our water was cut
off, only to be rationed for a few hours each day, this was to go on
for the next two months while the water was diverted for watering
potatoes. Thinking I could beat the system, a few days later I
installed a water storage tank in the basement to accumulate water,
and a pump to create the pressure to lift the water and fire the gas
powered hot water heater. Then as you read above the power went out
and we didn't have any water either! So this is our life here in
Armenia in the village. But, just when we tried to complain about the
conditions, we were told that they lived without power, gas and
minimal water for over five years after independence in 1991, and that
they are all use to things not being. So we are grateful for what we
do have, and trying to make the best of PG&E in the village.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Harvest time

Things are happening in the village, its grass harvesting time.
Everyone is talking about it making plans, working out schedules,
watching the weather, and harvesting their weeds. There are pretty
much three things here, animals (cows in particular), potatoes
(harvested in September), and grass (straw, weeds, flowers, what ever
you want to call it). Most people that have animals have grass, and
the ratio is about a hectare (2 acres or 2 football fields) for 5
cows. This year the grass is tall about 2 feet almost three, there
are combines that cut the straw and there are bailing machines, but
there is an exceptional amount of harvesting that is done the old
fashion way with a sickle, rake and pitch fork.
In the morning men go out walking a couple of kilometers (little over
a mile) to their fields with long sickles slung over their shoulders,
a small cellophane bag of food, and a small bench in their hand. At
first I thought the bench was to sit on for lunch or a rest, and I
have seen this, but a closer look and an explanation revealed that
there is actually a small anvil attached to the bench. The cutting
edge of the sickle is hammered out to remove dents from rocks and to
be made thiner for easy sharpening with the stone they carry in their
pockets. If you are going to swing a sickle around all day it better
be sharp to be most effective. Then there is the raking with over
sized wooden tooth rakes (usually women help out with this) and then
their is the pitch forking on to trucks or carts pulled by tractors,
horses, donkeys, or even people. All day long trucks bring bails
back to the village, to be stored with this loose straw for the
animals to eat for the winter.
There is so much work gathering straw that there are hardly any
interruptions to our work, and I have taken the time to finish up some
of the lingering projects on the house we are living in. Wether there
or one of the other houses, the work days are long and like the guys
cutting straw all day I look forward to a good nights rest at the end
of a long day.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


So to continue my description of village life let me talk about our
neighbors for just a little while. We live along what used to be the
main road of the village 15 years ago just down from the school two
houses before the river which bisects the village in the opposite
direction thus marking the center of the old village.
Lets start at this cross, on our side of the road, working to the
school, we have Anoosh (which is really a girls name but short for his
real name), he, his wife and daughter tend the "neighborhood store."
They have two cars, and about 15 cows, he employs a handful of his
friends and neighbors in construction projects in neighboring
villages. They are one of the "richest" families in the village.
Next we have Satenik, who is a widow only after a few years of
marriage and she is 82 years old, her only sibling, died serving in
WWII and she lives in a metal shipping container next to us. She
really doesn't have any relatives and the weeds in the yard that she
just harvested plus a Social Security type payment, are her only
sources of income. The other neighbors really help her out as much as
they can, from what I can tell.
Special note, below Satenik off of the main road lives Vaho and Rita,
and their two sons (who are in Russia working, Edgar is one of them).
They truly are the most genuine family, and we really enjoy their
company. I can go on and on about how great they are but I would
rather complain about the next couple of neighbors a little more.
Next to us is Ashot and Zoghe, they have two daughters married with
children one living in the village and the other in a different
village outside of Gyumri, their only son is serving in the Army for
one more year, Ashots mother, Araks Tat, also lives with them. If our
house was "house 1" to be remodeled theirs is "house 2", and with no
one else really around I am over a lot helping Ashot. He works as a
railway tunnel guard, 24 hour shifts about every 4th day, he and about
20 others from the village are employed to make sure no one blows up
the train tunnel, not a real exciting job. Ashot was a "rich kid"
growing up when the earthquake destroyed all that his father had left
him he like many others fell apart and turned to drinking, and has not
stopped since. Ashot is a drunk and is drunk most of the time. In
Armenia you aren't really considered a drunk unless you are drinking
alone, so as long as all of his drunk buddies are drinking with him it
is okay to consume over a liter of Vodka every day. When Ashot is
craving a drink and no one else is around he will try to stop what
ever I am doing and say lets eat. It didn't take long to realize that
eating equals drinking every time, a person really doesn't say come on
lets have a drink. Ashot is really pretty incapable initiating any
project on the house, he can bring tools and buckets of water and mix
concrete, and carry rocks, that is about it. Zoghe works as hard if
not harder than most other village women, cooking, cleaning, and
tending the animals and potato fields. Today Zoghe and Araxs Tat,
both washed up, and changed their clothes. This was the first time in
over a month that we have been here that Arax tat changed her clothes.
"House 3" is next and it is Ishkan and Aysa, and their three sons
( Jirar, Hamayak, and Hapersoom), two of whom are married, and they
have two grandsons, David and Garen. Ishkan lost is right arm working
on the trains, Jirar was born with something that makes him a little
slower and awkward, but still very sharp, and Hamayak lost his left
leg below the knee during the earthquake 17 years ago. If Ishkan
isn't over my shoulder talking and giving advice, or his grandkids
aren't stealing tools and constantly on top of me, I wonder where they
are. Really, David would be on a double dose of Riddalin if he were
in the states. The three women are constantly busy working around of
the house, occasionally we'll see them chasing after the kids, who
don't come when they are called and are often shooed away like dogs by
other adults. Jirar takes the families 11 cows out with the other
cows 11 days a month, Hmayak works construction 8 hours out side of
the village in Karaghbagh, and Hamparsoom, works repairing the rail
line. These guys are very capable of working and are doing a great
job on the house. They are very conservative Christians who don't
drink, smoke, dance or listen to music, (except Hamayak who rebels
against everything).
House 4, and 5 are further away, but I do have an honorable mention,
Sas is about 10 years old but functions more like a 5 year old, he is
over every day all day, he is very obedient but forgets very quickly,
so we find ourselves repeating things over and over for Sas, and David
and Garen (for them because they just don't listen). There are lots
of other neighbor kids that come over, but these three play in our
yard more than our own kids do.
So there you have it, I feel better knowing that you know. Please
pray for patients for us as seek to serve God and be his witness here
in this village.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Dirty Fingernails

In the village we have 24 hour high pressure water (this is big
considering that many parts of Yerevan only have water a couple of
hours per day). The other thing is that we have electricity most of
the time, it usually only goes out for a hour each day. Gas was
brought to the village this winter via above ground pipes along the
main roads (standard for Armenia), the responsibility of running the
smaller pipes to each house is left to individual homeowners and their
own finances. We are just now learning about the process and are soon
to pay for the line to be run to our house and from there our
neighbors will pay to run it to their houses. For the last month we
have been using a 20 kg (44 lb.) butane tank (about three times the
size of US BBQ tanks), for cooking, washing dishes, showering, and
heating the house. Needless to say we empty the tank about once a
week, and I take it to get refilled in either Gyumri or Spitak both
about 20 minutes away. All but one refilling station causes a black
soot to form on the bottom of our pans. This black soot is the
transfered to other dishes in the sink while washing, and then to our
towels when drying. Jonelle's rubber gloves are back from the soot
and after one month of living like this her fingernails seem to have a
permanent reverse French manicure with black tips instead of white.
Believe it or not this one thing drives home the magnitude of what we
have done, in bringing an American city girl to an Armenian Village.
As far as these two lives are worlds apart, my wife has embraced her
role, and serves our family with out grumbling or complaining. With
dirty fingernails, she loves our family, she loves and serves our
neighbors, she teaches our children and our children's friends. It is
a pleasure to live and serve here with Jonelle and I thank God for her.

Monday, July 7, 2008

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Life in the Village

I have been reflecting on what we thought village life would be like
vs what it really is like, and thought this might be a good topic to
explore in a blog since we have had so few lately.

The first is the weather, we were told it could get up to -35 (F & C
are the same at that temperature) in the winter, we experiences some
of that freezing weather on a trip there in February, and have heard
plenty of stories about the harsh 6+ month winters. This was part of
our decision to winter in the US starting in October. Generally in
Armenia the winters are dry and summers are wet, like the East Coast
in the US. In the village this translates into frequent thunder
storms, which were every day for about 10 days when we moved in during
June. General humidity causes condensation on everything in the
house, the walls are drying VERY slowly from all of the plaster and
concrete work that had been done during the remodeling process and
every two or so days we are wiping MOLD off the walls. At night
sometimes our "dry" sheets feel like they just came out of the wash.
The one good thing is that the summer high doesn't get above 80 F and
the air is clear. while people are sweating and choking in Yerevan we
are enjoying a very temperate summer in the village.

The next thing is the cows, we knew this was the livelihood of most
people in the village but to experience that on a daily basis is
something else. At sunrise (about 7 AM) the cows get milked and are
herded out to the hills by shepherds, then before sunset (about 8 PM)
the cows are brought back to be milked again. If a family does not
participate in the shepherd rotation they pay about $5 per cow per
month for the service. There are about 50 cows that go out with about
5 shepherds. Sheep are a different industry, they are kept in large
buildings above the village, by just a few families, and one shepherd
can handle about 100 sheep, so the monthly pay for this job is only
about $1 per sheep per month. Back to the cows, the morning milk is
usually used by the family to drink, to make yogurt, or cheese, if
there is surplus it is sold. In the morning and the evening about the
same time each day a vehicle slowly makes its way down the village
main roads where women stand with their buckets full of milk, the
going rate is about $0.30/Liter or $1.15 gallon. The women usually
stand together as neighbors and I have seen them waiting into the dark
of night usually about an hour sometimes as much as two. The cows use
the roads (dirt and rock) more than cars do and they generally have
the right away, which goes something like this: cows, sheep, cars,
people, dogs, chickens. Then there is the dung, the indoor pens have
to be cleaned everyday, the dung is spread in flat pile to dry in the
sun. Often it is rolled and compressed each day. This time of year
the dry dung is cut up into squares and stacked to create round towers
to dry further, to be used in as heating fuel in the winter. Cutting
and stacking dung is a job usually done by older women in the family
(80 year old grandmothers that look like they are 100). So with all
this dung you can understand the village has a general smell of poop!

After cows comes potatoes, everyone grows them and everyone eats them,
every day and in every form possible! They plant, then hoe their
fields, water and wait, then they harvest, enough for the whole year.

Then fresh bread is made once a week, in family teams as one rolls out
the dough, the other is sitting over a clay lined hole in the ground
with a fire burning in the bottom. They are making lavash, Armenian
flat bread. We reap fresh bread milk and cheese sometimes, but mostly
we are still buying most of our food from the cities half an hour a
way in either direction.

One more thing is the weeds which grow wild everywhere, the worst of
these is the stinging nettle which sends the kids in running for anti
itch cream. Some crazy locals eat the stuff and even rub it on their
skin to make them immune or tougher, who knows. The flowers this time
of year are very beautiful (bright yellow, white, orange, and purple
flowers. They have already started cutting the fields to be bailed
and stored up for the winter, and they are doing this by hand with
giant sickles, talk about 50 years ago!

I will leave village hospitality and neighbor relations for part two
of this series, until then...