Armenia

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I spent eight days in Armenia, visiting my sister who is in the Peace Corps. I took a lot of pictures, and instead of writing multiple posts (which I had planned to do), I decided to spend more quality time with my sister and her wonderful Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) friends. So, this is a long post.

Outline:

Food policy (no pictures)

Food Culture (a few pictures)

Other Culture (a few pictures)

Sustainability (or lack thereof)

My Timeline

(for all pictures, visit my google pics album Armenia Photos or my Facebook page!)

Food Policy

Armenia is a Republic, a government of elected officials including a President and a Prime Minister. There are also 18 ministries in the Armenian government, focusing on everything from Healthcare and Foreign Affairs to Diaspora (Armenians no longer living in Armenia, or Armenians living in Armenia but who were not born there).

The biggest health challenges Armenia faces are directly related to nutrition and smoking. 26% of Armenians live in poverty and are affected by food insecurity. Much like what’s happening in America, malnutrition is wielding it’s double edged sword of both under-nourished children with stunted growth, and overweight children. 5.3% of children under 5 are low in weight for age while 16.8% of children under 5 are overweight. Alarmingly, healthcare costs were approximately  $485 million USD in 2014, up from around $295 million in 2006.

The Armenian Comprehensive Food Security, Vulnerability, and Nutrition Analysis report was created jointly by the United Nations World Food Programme, UNICEF, and the National Statistical Service of the Republic of Armenia and released in April of this year. These groups came together in 2014 to begin development of a strategy to address the various public health issues plaguing Armenia. Highlights of this report, which you can find here, include:

  • Many Armenians suffer from non-communicable diseases (aka “chronic disease”), including cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes
    • These account for 92% of all deaths in Armenia
  • There is a 30% chance of dying between the ages of 30-70
  •  Smoking, excessive alcohol use, high blood pressure and obesity contribute to these chronic diseases
  • 55% of the population is overweight or obese: 32% overweight, 23% obese

From the report… “The report conveys several key messages for decision and policy-makers: 1) education is critical for improved  food security; 2) a dual burden of malnutrition exists across the country among children under 5, with large numbers of both stunted and overweight children; 3) volatility in global and regional economies impedes Armenia’s economic growth, and 4) the majority of the country‘s population is at risk of one or more natural hazards.

The report suggests that with joint efforts and with a greater coordination among all stakeholders, it is possible to develop and implement comprehensive national food security (in its three dimensions – availability, access and utilization) and nutrition policy along a life-cycle approach, which will help address the current food insecurity and malnutrition in the country.

A Strategic Plan on Promoting Healthy Lifestyle, approved in 2014, aims to develop and introduce legislative and structural mechanisms to promote healthy lifestyles and reduce [chronic diseases]. The plan sets out the goal of a 7 percent reduction in overweight and obesity by 2020. A related National Program on Combating Most Prevalent [chronic diseases] 2016–2020 addresses the main risk factors of smoking, alcohol, blood pressure and obesity.”

UNICEF and the United Nations World Food Programme are working with the government to combat these issues by increasing knowledge of the dangers of malnutrition, the importance of a well rounded diet and physical activity.

Also of issue: school food, or the lack thereof. Currently there is no school feeding program in place by the government and, from my survey of students in Nor Hachn (discussed below), many school aged kids go all day with out eating. The World Food Programme is advocating for a school feeding program, kind of like the National School Lunch Program in America, to address the issues of malnutrition via food insecurity by ensuring children are offered meals away from home. back to top

Food Culture

Nowadays, Armenians don’t eat breakfast and they think we’re weirdos when we ask for it… Breakfast might be coffee and cigarettes. This is even true for children! When I spent a day with my sister at her school in Nor Hachn (we visited grades 8 – 11), I asked the students if they eat breakfast, and if so what are they eating?

  • 1/3 replied that they do eat breakfast
    • Some said they simply drink tea, while others said they have toast with jam, fruit, or oatmeal
  • What I learned about students and school day lunches:
    • Students have 5 minutes between classes, but for lunch they have a whopping 10 minutes!
    • Most kids skip lunch and breakfast altogether, while ~1/3 of them bring lunch from home or purchase something at “The Bistro”
      • “The Bistro” is a corner store serving sweet pastries, hot dogs, and what we would consider snack/junk food in America (chips, candy, sweets, etc)
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    • Is it curious that some students have much better attention spans and memories than others?

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Dinner is the largest meal of the day for almost everyone, and can consist of:

  • Dolma – Grape or cabbage leaves stuffed with beans or meat/rice
    • Vegetarian dolma is served cold while meaty dolma is served warm
    • My sister says they’ve found every possible way to include butter in dolma. They cook the meat with butter, roll butter into the meat after cooking, and boil the grape/cabbage leaves in water mixed with oil and butter
    • img_3771
  • Khinkali – Traditionally Georgian food; dumplings either stuffed with cheese or meat and they can be steamed or fried. Tradition is to bite into the dumpling and suck the juices out with your first bite. It is common to not eat the very top of the dumpling, as it is considered food for the peasants.

khinkali

  • Lavash – Soft, thin, unleavened bread
  • Salad – Fattoush and tabbouleh are popular, as are summer salads made with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, spices and olive oil
  • Vegetable stews served with rice and/or potatoes
  • Pork, beef, chicken, lamb, fish, and eggs are the most consumed protein sources

Khinkali and Khachapuri (pictured below) are popular Georgian dishes… There are few traditional Armenian dishes served at restaurants, at least in Yerevan from what I saw. Much of the Mediterranean cultural foods have become enmeshed here. Fattoush, tabbouleh and hummus are also popular.

Other random food-related tid-bits 🙂

  • Nuts are often covered in a mixture of grape juice and flour, which solidifies and has the consistency of licorice, when added to a plate of dried fruit set out for entertaining guests
    • This is called “Churchkhela” and is also traditional to Georgia
    • churchkela
  • They use produce that is in season, but there is one area near in the plains that is capable of year round cultivation while other areas are covered in snow from late October to March
    • We saw many dishes using pumpkin, which is always fresh here and never canned… we had to send canned pumpkin to my sister from the US so she could make a pumpkin pie!
  • There is a lot of fried chicken: Caesar salads, chicken filet sandwiches, etc. KFC is popular here and there is even a grotto in the one on Moshtots Ave (the main street in Yerevan). Also popular: French fries. There is a kiosk on the sidewalk called “Fries to Go”
  • Apricots, persimmons, and pomegranates are popular national fruits
  • Khorovatz is Armenian bbq, traditionally served for celebrations, and traditionally pork. They cook the pig in the ground and serve it piled on a plate which is covered by lavash (unleavened bread) and also cover the meat with lavash. It is tradition that the bottom lavash, saturated with drippings from the meat by the end of the meal, is saved for the guest of honor or the elder men at the table

khorovatz

  • At restaurants, Khorovatz is often grilled and presented nicely, which limits the amount of drippings and authenticity. So it is best to get an authentic experience this at someone’s home
  • Jingalov Hats is lavash stuffed with herbs, traditionally saved as a spring time treat
  • As in the States, traditions and culture change depending on where you are
  • Many families eat turkey for Christmas
  • They eat A LOT of candy, sweets and pastries
  • Men drink lots of beer and don’t eat well, so they get beer bellies around the age of 30
  • Driving through the country and seeing the meat being slaughtered and dried on hooks near the dirt road reminded me of scenes I witnessed while volunteering in Mexico. No doubt, this is still common in a lot of the world, and really creeps some Americans out. However, I personally, nor my sister, have ever gotten sick eating meat in either of these countries. back to top

Other Things About Armenia Culture

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  • The colors of the flag represent:
    • Red – recalls the blood shed for liberty
    • Blue for the Armenian sky and the hope it promises
    • Orange – for the land and the courage of the workers who farm it
      • although my sister was told orange is for the apricots
  • Girls, unlike the Kardashians, do not start wearing makeup or high heels until they graduate from high school (it’s a sort of “right of passage”)
  • All Armenians take pride in their shoes and keep them “on point”
  • Although Armenia is a Christian country, many do not attend church on regularly
    • Instead, they go to light candles on a “as needed” basis
    • When exiting the church, Armenians walk backward out the door so as not to turn their backs to the cross
  • They value hospitality and will give anything to make their guests feel welcome
  • They claim Mount Ararat as their own although it geographically lies in Turkey
    • Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as it’s national religion, back in 602 AD… As Turkey is primarily Muslim, and Ararat use to be on land that belonged to Armenia, it’s easy to see why Armenians hold on to it
      • Mount Ararat is where the Ark landed, according to the Bible, for those of you who may be unfamiliar with that story
  • People live at home with their parents until they get married… so you know any man you’re talking to either lives with his parents or has a wife at home!
  • There are 3 million people in Armenia, 1.5 million of them live in Yerevan (the capitol)
  • There is not really the concept of romantic love here. People get married, they have kids. Men are often unfaithful to their wives. There is a place in the city for men to take mistress’ or prostitutes to watch porn and have sex, since they can’t do so at home (where their families are)
  • Although crime rates are very low in Armenia, and they are a people that pretty much never steal, the LGBT community is oppressed and domestic violence is a large, yet unspoken about, issue
  • They are crazy drivers! They run pedestrian right-of-way lights and are always threatening to hit you. They drive in the middle of the street. When it ices over in the mountains, it is particularly dangerous
  • We stumbled across a wedding beginning when leaving lunch on 11/12… Rachel told me what she remembered about Armenian traditions for weddings…  Something like the groom’s party shows up to the bride’s house, the bride sends her party out, they dance outside and make a scene while collecting gifts for the bride until she finally comes out. Rachel mentioned that the shoes the bride will wear are split up and the best man has to purchase the missing shoes from the maid of honor so that the groom can present the shoes to the bride, or something like that. I should probably google this… lol.  We saw three more weddings happening at the Monastary – Khor Virap!

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  • There is only one Mosque in all of Armenia, the “Blue Mosque” in Yerevan. Peace Corps Volunteers have been told they are not allowed  to go in there because they run the risk of getting labeled and targeted if mistaken for Muslims (related to tension between Armenia and Turkey after the Armenian genocide in the early 1900s)
  • At school, it is often the teachers who are late to class. Each class I attended with my sister, the instructor was always late except for once. In two instances, the instructor was in the teacher’s lounge having cake and wine (at 10am) in celebration of another teacher’s birthday
  • They are laid back about money and time frames…. My sister once forgot to pay her rent until the 10Th of the month, and when her landlord remembered to come collect it, brought her a bag of apples as a gift
  • They don’t exercise
    • But they have had Olympic athletes compete in boxing, gymnastics, and weightlifting. In the 2016 Rio games, an Armenian weightlifter dislocated his elbow during a clean and jerk. Caution: not for the faint of heart… ouch!
  • It is not acceptable for women to smoke cigarettes outside of Yerevan unless they are prostitutes… smoking in Yerevan is excessive. They allow bus drivers to smoke, bartenders to smoke, everyone is smoking. It’s gross.
  • They don’t like cats or dogs, especially in the rural areas. Animals get abused and there are many superstitions surrounding them (back to top)

Sustainability

  • Recycling does not exist, which is sad because almost everything comes in plastic, glass, or aluminum and is carried out of the store in plastic bags
  • They burn trash, which is more tolerable in the fall when they are also burning leaves
  • The hostel we stayed at tries to encourage guests to conserve water, but that is the only environmental step I saw them taking (back to top)

My Time Here

I spent a lot of time with awesome Peace Corps volunteers 🙂

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What I learned about the Peace Corps:

  • Not only do they teach English, they also work with NGO’s on other projects
  • Peace Corps was founded by US President John F Kennedy in 1971
  • Peace Corps Armenia will be celebrating 25 years of service next year, as they started in 1992 and will be sending out their 25th crew of volunteers in March 2017

11/5 – I arrived at 5am to the hostel in Yerevan after spending a 14 hour layover wandering around the streets of Vienna and sleeping in an unbelievably uncomfortable chair in the airport. There was a woman sweeping the sidewalk of leaves across the street from the hostel. I mentioned to my sister, “It seems like a strange time of day to be sweeping the sidewalk.” She replied, “They will spend so much time sweeping up leaves, leaves on the sidewalk are unacceptable. But when it snows? Nothing. The NEVER shovel.” Slept until about 11am, then went to lunch and the Vernissage Market.

  • Lunch at Zatar Pizza

Pizza here is just flat bread with spices, sometimes cheese, sometimes various vegetables. It is rolled up or folded in half, like a wrap or quesadilla. People with larger appetites would not be satisfied with just one…

  • Dinner at Kafka’s

Traditional Georgian/Armenian offerings and we dined on Khinkali, Khachapuri, hummus, tabbouleh, vegetarian dolma of cabbage leaves stuffed with beans and lentils, lots of lavash, and red wine.

11/6 – We enjoyed a lazy Sunday. After sleeping in, we met some friends for lunch then packed up and hung around the hostel. We had a beer at Dargett, a very American feeling brew pub that opened recently, before going back to Rachel’s apartment in Nor Hachn. The Marshrutka, a van used for public transportation, was never full in the roughly 30 minute ride. This was a nice surprise considering Rachel said she is often on the small bus with many other people, who stand squashed up against each other. We took a walk around Nor Hachn, then stopped at a “Bistro” to pick up something to take to Marie’s (another volunteer) as she was treating us to coffee. After a lovely time dining on cookies and strong Armenian coffee, we went to the produce market and picked up some things to make for dinner and lunch the next day. All of the produce and eggs pictured below cost less than $4 USD altogether!

  • Meals
    • Lunch at Wine Republic – We all had cheese burgers with french fries. I was a little nervous about this at first but everything was fine. There is definitely nothing like a burger at home though 🙂
    • Dinner at Rachel’s – I made a veggie scramble with eggs. Neither of us were that hungry and even the amount shown was too much for us!

11/7 – Oatmeal for breakfast at Rachel’s, then we went to school. Here, I learned much of what I wrote in the Food Culture section of this blog. It was a long 5 hour day, being interviewed by class after class and being “forced”to have cake and red wine at 10am. Haha. Before going back to Yerevan, we had lunch at Rachel’s. Once in Yerevan, we had dinner with some Peace Corps people and also ran into some Americans I had met on the plane!

  • Dinner at Eintep  – more traditional Georgian/Armenian food including flatbread with cheese and spices (kind of like Armenian pizza, in my opinion), fattoush salad, hummus, and spicy kebab.

11/8 – I woke up later than I have in a REALLY LONG TIME. I can’t even say how late. Okay okay… 2:30pm. I don’t think I’ve slept that late since… I can’t even remember. Definitely jetlag catching up to me. I then spent the day drinking coffee and walking around Yerevan taking pictures. I went by the opera house and the Cascades (pictures coming), which is a large staircase at the end of a park, all sprinkled with sculptures and artwork. I didn’t eat until dinner, when I made pasta with home-made meat sauce for my hostel friends.

  • Dinner  – I made pasta and salad for hostel friends… I once used a Mario Batali recipe for homemade tomato sauce and remember it fairly well. Canned whole tomatoes that you crush with your own hands, tomato paste, lots of herbs, salt and pepper, let it simmer and boil down. Then I added the meat and sauteed veggies. I may or may not have accidentally mixed up kg and lbs and ordered 2.2kg of meat… thus I also made chili, which we enjoyed throughout the week.

11/9 – I got up early, 6:30am, to watch election coverage. During this 5 hour period, I had some bread, a hard boiled egg and lots of coffee at the hostel. Many PCVs were upset with the election results, so it was kind of a sad day. I met them for lunch at Mr Gyro (exactly what it sounds like… I had a chicken pita). We had beers at Dargett when they were done with their obligations, then stopped at Pit Stop (a local chain for all things chicken) for a chicken sandwich on the way back to the hostel.

11/10 – We had chili for lunch, which I made with beef, kidney beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, cayenne, and red pepper seasoning.  After lunch, we took a nice long walk to the genocide museum… very sad. It’s kind of unbelievable that the whole world doesn’t really know about what happened there. We spent about three hours at the museum, then caught a cab back to the hostel. We had dinner with a few others at a Spanish Tapas restaurant called Come + Calle, where I’m almost positive the sangria we were served had no alcohol in it (and was rather expensive). After dinner, we went to a “on the down-low” LGBT party where men were free to wear make up and high heels and everyone had a great time dancing.

11/11 – Awoke in the morning, hung out the hostel until lunch time, when we had more chili. Rachel and I took another long walk then stopped for coffee on our way to the Peace Corps office. They have a tradition called “cookies”, where they serve cookies and thank the out-going volunteers for their service.  The celebrations continued into the evening back at the hostel, where Chef Lisa, another PCV, thanked her colleagues by making a huge dinner for about 25 people! We all, including me, went around the table and said something that we loved about Armenia and gave a compliment to the person on our right. To avoid after-dinner goodbyes and tears, Rachel, Daniel and I went to have some wine at Wine Time, which is much more adorable than it sounds and has a great wine selection.

11/12 – Rachel and I went to Khor Virap after having lunch at Schawarma. Khor Virap is a monastery built in 602 AD and usually has great views of Mount Ararat… It was a little hazy this day but in the pictures  you can see what it looked like when I was there versus some of the great shots Rachel has been lucky to capture.

After getting home and showering, we headed to dinner at Ararat National Restaurant for a taste of traditional Armenian food: lavash, summer salad, lamb dolma, and Khorovatz! back to top

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