Yerevan or Bus(t)

“You are on the first bus” said the woman with the stiff curls, and marked my ticket with a 1.

I left the marshutni office and walked over to the only bus, where passengers were milling around the open hatch, fretting about the vodka, green beans, bedspreads and other breakable, perishable and bulky items they wished to transport from Goris to Yerevan.

The driver, fag drooping from his lower lip, checked I was going all the way into the city- sometimes I ask to be dropped off at a gas station close to Ararat, the better to visit Elsa and family. Satisfied, he bunged my bag into the back of his vehicle, sandwiching it between a sack of tired footwear and what might have been a very large sheet cake. He did not ask to see my ticket.

I took my seat over the wheel arch at the back of the minibus and played a little online Scrabble as the bus filled up. The second bus eventually arrived and filled up too. We both set off together.

“Good” I thought “an empty seat beside me all the way to Yerevan”.

It was not to be.

We wheezed up the steep hill out of Goris- I was already fearing for the sheet cake– and stopped at a gas station where two young men were waiting.

Two young men. Tickets 14 and 15. Only seat 15 was free. I was in number 14, but apparently on the wrong bus. Uproar ensued.

How, the bus driver wanted to know, could I have been so stupid as to get on the wrong bus?

The following retorts came to mind. A philosophical question :  “what makes the first bus the first bus?” ;  a declaration of inclusivity “I see no difference between the first and second buses”; and a practical suggestion “why don’t you get a bloody sign?”

Instead I rather meekly suggested that the second driver (mine) phone the first driver and arrange a handover of misplaced passenger 14 at the Tatev turnoff.

The driver was firm that this was not an option, but he did take the opportunity to call Mrs Stiff Curls and yell, even though it was nothing to do with her. By now other passengers were tutting and men were indicating that if this was to go on much longer, they would need to get off for a smoke

In the interests of peace and progress, the two bony boys folded themselves into the seat beside me and we set off. They were remarkably sanguine I thought for passengers forced each to sit on one thinly-fleshed hip for 250 kilometers.

In fact in turned out that they were only making a short hop to Sisian. I spread out on seats 14 and 15 and felt mollified.

One of the other backrow passengers decided to soften towards me.

“Amerikatzi es” he said sympathetically.

“Yes” I replied in Armenian–the only language used throughout — “But I live in Goris”

His eyebrows indicated that I should then be rather more competent in transport identification. That was the end of the conversation.

When we stopped for a coffee break the driver made an ostentatious point of checking I was on back on board before he set off. “The Amerikatsi might be on the marshutni for Martuni…” I imagined him muttering to the passengers up front.

I know the Armenian words for first and second, although I am certain that no-one uttered them to me or around me, except for Stiff Curls who sold me the ticket. My question remains: how was everyone else so entirely clear about which bus was which? And why, one year in, am I still oblivious, and the only one in all Armenia in a constant state of surprise and bewilderment?  I fear I shall never know.

           The Glorious View of the Mountains, including Baby Ararat from Seat 14

Posted in Armenia, travel | 1 Comment

Our happy, homogenous town

gorisConversation One.

“This is our American volunteer– her name is Liz”

“Come in Come in (hugs). Pleased to meet you. What will you have to eat?”

“We ate”

“But you’ll have something? Chai? Coffee?”

“Tea would be nice but don’t go to any trouble — we ate already”

Interlude to prepare blackberries, peaches, watermelon, hon, homemade halva, and tea served black in ornate glass cups with frilled edges and sapphire beading– exquisite.

My Aunt has a beautiful voice. She sings at the Culture House. People love her”

“Will you sing something now?

She does. Keeping time by tapping her thumb and the side of her fist on the coffee table. She does indeed have a beautiful voice.

This is a beautiful home”

” My uncle did it. He is a master designer. Come outside and see what he did”

We walk across a huge, covered deck and sit at the back of the house overlooking a large garden full of fruit and vegetables and with a fabulous view of the forest and mountains.

“When I was a child I was as welcome here as at my own home”

“Did you hear about Shurnukh?”

We all nod

We do not like those type of people here”

“It wasn’t good. People should live in peace and respect each other”

“Things are different in America…Do you have more LBGT there?”

“Not more. The same amount. It is just that people there are free to be themselves. Whoever they are. They do not have to hide from their family and neighbors. It is not right to threaten and fight”

“But the way they act. The life they choose”

“It is how they are. How they were born. Like left or right handed”

“Do you have a law?”

“Yes we have a law that says everyone is equal. Religion, race, sexuality, eye color, left or right handed we all deserve the same treatment”

“It is not good. God made a man and a woman”.

“God made all creatures. Every species has homosexuals. It is not bad it is just different.”

“Not right”

“But men and men getting married… Women and women getting married… No children”

“Some people adopt children”

“Two men bringing up a child…”

We do not like that here. We wish there were not these people here. We do not want your law here”

“People are the same all over the world”

Uncle appears from the back of the garden and hands me a small tomato.



“You should have some more”

“No, no– we ate”

Aunt goes to the kitchen and returns with a handful of tomatoes and baby cucumbers. She washes them under the garden tap. We eat them.

Your Aunt has beautiful eyes. Very unusual to see green eyes here”

“My brother has them too”

“This is a beautiful place. The mountain and the rocks are lovely”

” You are welcome in my house any time. Come back again. Come back and eat”

We walk to the front of the balcony to admire the view over the city

“It is so different there. All types of people. Here if we saw a Turk we would kill him. There –all types of people in one country”

“Here we have only Armenians and tourists. We are the only people here. It is good I think. The same kind of people. We are all the same in our country”

“You can keep an eye on everything from here. Know what everyone is doing”


“We should go. I will call a taxi.”

“Let me give you some candy–to take to the office”

“No. No”

Aunt goes into the house and returns with two handfuls of wrapped sweets she stuffs into my friend’s purse. 

“Thank you. We don’t need it. But thank you”

“Thank you Thank you. You are very kind. I am pleased to meet you”


Come back. Come back anytime. You are always welcome here. Careful on the stairs. Goodbye. Good luck. Goodbye”

Conversation Two

” I have no problem with gays. I know gay people– Europeans. Americans. But he just wants to provoke trouble. He is so…. disrespectful”

“I don’t know him but I believe that’s true. But a mob going to someone’s house. Fighting. People in hospital…”

“You know some of the mob were women?”

“Shame on them whoever they were. Hounding people out of their own home. Hurting them. That is no way to behave”

“He asks for trouble… people say you know that he only got like this after he met a Peace Corps Volunteer”

“A man?”

“A woman. They were friends. And then he started to make trouble. It is ok to be gay but he makes everyone have to know it. Since they were friends. I wonder: did she make him gay?”

“People are born gay. You can’t make anyone gay–or straight. Maybe she gave him the confidence to be truly himself”

“But the way he chooses to live his life. He does it to provoke trouble”

“Maybe. But ignore him. No need to hurt him”.

“No one should get hurt. But disrespectful…”

Conversation Three

“They told me when I went to the States I would have a culture shock but I had no problem. But Sweden. I had a culture shock. I try to accept everyone, respect everyone but some of it was hard to understand…”

” I think I might have culture shock in Sweden too. But the more people we meet the more we learn I suppose”

” My professor in the States was lesbian. I got to know her. I respect her. So intelligent. I know lesbians here. After Shurnukh I put a message on my website. Said we have to respect everyone. Human rights. Honestly I was surprised at some of the messages I got. One from a Doctor saying it is unnatural. Wrong. Says it is in the Bible. I don’t read the Bible much. Do you know what it says?”

“No idea. I think we are all good at reading it the way we want to. And it was written a long time ago. We change the way we see things all the time. We learn. ”

” I don’t want to go against God”

“Love one another. Respect. Do the right thing. The brave thing. I admire the way you think. I really do”.



96% of people in Armenia report that they do not approve of homosexuality. In the last couple of weeks, this led to an attack on a house party of men in a village close to where I live. You can read a report of the incident here.

You can find more data in these recent reports. (from page 41)



Posted in Armenia, Bullying, Christianity, Cross-cultural understanding, equality, family, friendship, gay rights, Human rights, identity, Learning, Safety, Syunik Marz, Village life, welcome | Leave a comment

Tayto take Armenia

I was posting a present for my sister when the lady in the post office said she had parcels for me. Not one parcel, but two.  I was surprised. Sure, my birthday is tomorrow but I had not anticipated any deliveries this week.

  1. So much mail  goes missing here that I have advised people not to risk dispatch
  2. 58 is not really a red letter birthday
  3.  I have asked my friends and family not to give me anything but to make me happy by supporting a young woman I know. Emilia has been offered a place to study veterinary medicine at Cambridge this fall, and needs to close a $10,000 gap in her tuition funds. You can help her with $10 here.

The boxes were light–but sizeable. Hard to see over the top of them. I got a taxi home.

tayto1The first box contained 30 packs of a world-leading crisp–Tayto Cheese N Onion, made in Tandragee, Northern Ireland. The sell-by date was March 2018– this was the box ordered by my sister for Christmas delivery last year. I ate a packet–slightly soft, but nonetheless delicious. I began to divine the contest of the second box–30 more packets of tasty Tayto. The sell-by date–May 2018–indicated this was the second shipment dispatched by Tayto when my sister complained about the non-arrival of the first. I ate a packet–oh sublime flavor and crunch.

We gave up hope of box number one about Easter last year, and wept at the loss of box two as spring came and went. What luck they should arrive intact this week–happy birthday to me.

tayto2At time of writing I have 29 packets of stale crisps, and 29 packets in peak condition. I’ll perk up the contents of box number one in a medium oven for 3-5 minutes –a little moisture won’t stand between me and my Tayto.

I would ask you round for a crisp sandwich–but I’m not sure I have quite enough to go round.

Thanks to the good people of Tayto Castle, Tandragee, Co. Armagh for their product which was invented a year or two before I was born. (Yes, I am old enough to remember when the Salt N Vinegar packs contained little, blue, wax paper screws of salt, and when all Tayto products were fried in lard). Thanks to them too for shipping to Armenia–and replacing the first box that went astray. Thanks to my sister for organizing the first care package. I fear my parcel belatedly dispatched to her today can’t compare with the starch-laden bounty she gifted to me. I am less alone in the Caucasus when surrounded by Ireland’s favorite crisp. Thanks to you too for supporting Emilia’s fundraiser–she has brains, she has opportunity, she has a great career ahead of her. But she doesn’t have Tayto. She needs all the help she can get.





Posted in Armenia, Blessings, Emilia Simonian, family, Food, food safety, Fundraising, gratitude, joy, Local delicacies, Northern Ireland, Serendipity, Tandragee, Tayto, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, welcome | 2 Comments

Call me Old Fashioned

“Eat something” said the Doctor “and relax. Walk around a bit and then come back in an hour so I can take your blood pressure”.

I left Peace Corps’ building in Yerevan and wondered where the nearest food could be found. The weather was hot and sticky. Walking downhill seemed the best of two unattractive options. Were those soft chairs and cafe umbrellas I could see a couple of hundred yards away? The Voodoo Hookah Lounge. The name and decor didn’t exactly scream “old lady lunch” but the interior looked as though it might be dark and cool. I stumbled up the steep steps and through the heavy glass doors.

Inside voodoo icons merged with wall mounted record players, shelves of books and all the paraphernalia that says hip-urban-sybaritic-leisure. There was lots of upholstery and small groups of dimly lit young men sharing shisha. But there was air conditioning. It somehow felt more like owl’s house in Winnie the Pooh than a fuggy den of iniquity. But without a doubt I was not a typical customer: fat, flustered, female, sweating in office clothes,, tottering on rickety knees.

“Do you have food?” I asked the young man who walked towards me smiling in the gloom. “Sure” he said, and steered me towards a comfy seat. I asked for pasta with mushrooms and some water with ice. A young woman in a t-shirt and jeans turned up with a plate of fruit.

“I ordered pasta” I said.

“This is a gift” she replied. “Welcome”.

There were cherries, a sliced peach and plum, a couple of strawberries and a small apple cut in quarters and served on a piece of slate. The plate was white. The cutlery was heavy. When the pasta came it was delicious. I seemed to be the only person eating. All the young men drank coffee and smoked their Hubble pipes.

I drank my water and looked longingly at the cocktail advertised in chalk on a large vertical blackboard.: an Old Fashioned. Hmmm. Tempting. But really not a good idea before going back to see the doctor. I paid the $5 bill — this is the center of Yerevan– and thanked the young man who followed me to the door. “Was everything good? he asked. It was. I told him I’d be back.

My blood pressure passed muster and I walked back to work. The Old Fashioned played on my mind. A sugar cube. Two splashes of bitters. Still water. Ice and bourbon. I hadn’t tasted Bourbon in more than a year. Orange peel. A whiskey glass. A whiskey glass? I would almost feel the crystal in my hand…

At 6pm I left work and set out to walk home– doctor’s orders. Wind presaged a storm. Could I gimp back to my hostel before the weather broke? A sugar cube. Two splashes of bitters. Still water. Ice. Well the doctor had said to stay hydrated… Orange Peel. Bourbon.

I turned for the Voodoo Hookah Lounge. The lunchtime staff beamed as I again lurched through the plate glass doors unsteady with the effort of climbing the stairs. I was ushered to a cool corner of the lounge, away from the all-male shisha fans. The Old Fashioned– and its heavy glass– was all I could have dreamed of. I thought of my friend Tom, a bourbon drinker far away in Washington DC and wished he was there. I ordered a classic omelette with fries and a glass of wine. It might have been France, but with fresh dill on the omelette. There was a black pepper mill on the table. I had to ask for salt. This was enchanted UnArmenia.

The omelette over, I savored my wine. The waitress appeared with three or four cheeses and a tiny white bowl of honey on a plate of ringed wood.

“A gift” she said and smiled. By then they knew I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The rain stopped. 7:30 and time for me to go. (They are open until 2am). Again the young man walked me to the door. “Come back soon” he said.

Thank you Voodoo Hookah Lounge. You were good for the heart.

Posted in Armenia, cocktails, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, eating out, Food, gratitude, Happiness, Peace Corps Armenia, Social niceties, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, welcome | 5 Comments

Green Armenia

Following my recent post about wild flowers spotted in Syunik marz, I am delighted to have been introduced to a great, downloadable, illustrated guide to the wild flowers and trees of Armenia. You can get your copy of Green Armenia here.


Grossheim IRris, native to Southern Armenia. I spotted this one at Karahunj-Armenia’s Stone Henge

Posted in Armenia, Green Armenia, Karahunj, Things that gladden the heart, travel, wild flowers Armenia | 2 Comments

Frump? Harrumph!

I donated some of my everyday clothes to a dressing up box we used at Creative English camp. The game prompts students to layer up in random attire and then name the clothing and the body parts it drapes. Obviously it is most fun when there are lots of layers and the finished fashion effect is comical. It is not a game for those who like what they wear to match and coordinate.

It turns out my wardrobe is ideal for this. A Jamaican shirt. A beflowered hat. A lime green puffa. Some outsize pants.

I had asked other camp leaders to contribute an item or two. Could they muster a boa? A chef’s hat? Even an apron? It seems they could not…

“I don’t really have eccentric items in my wardrobe” said a Peace Corps Volunteer. Presumably the others don’t either– or else they just forgot.

Narek liked the activity. He’s 12 and was the camp comedian. He singled out the dressing up box for particular praise in his camp evaluation: ” I looked like a crazy old lady from the ’70s” he said.

In the face of such feedback more sensitive shoppers might decide to overhaul their wardrobe. Not me. My ensembles will remain eclectic. I wear my jumble with pride.

Satine models the stripey dress I wore to meet Armenia’s First Lady

Posted in Armenia, clothes, Emigration, errors of judgement, fashion, identity, Party Games, Summer camp | 1 Comment

The Cambridge grads, pet people and STEM lovers–where are they?

emilia2It is easy to see why Cambridge want her. Emilia combines a ferocious intellect with a passion for animal welfare, and a desire to contribute to the future of her country. She is an all-round amazing young woman-fit, modest, kind and endlessly interested in everything.  Emilia was a student at our Creative English camp last week. She combines excellence in science subjects with a love of writing, art and poetry.

Emilia has been awarded a 65% scholarship to study veterinary medicine at the world’s oldest university. It is a remarkable achievement and she should begin her studies in England this autumn.

emilia3There is only one snag. Emilia cannot take up her place unless she can prove she has the other  funding in place for all six years of her program. This is a fortune for any family in Armenia and would be a stretch for anyone in any part of the world. She’s has already won a couple of other grants, but she is about $10,000 per year short of her goal.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am not allowed to solicit funds which is a pity because it would mean  so much to Emilia–and to the future of animal care in Armenia (there is no good vet school here) if every Cambridge alum I know were to give a couple of pounds, Euros or dollars to support her study fund. Or if every animal lover I know were to make her a pet project. Or if every woman who aspires to see more girls in STEM education  were to back her bid for brilliance. If all those people knew about Emilia and her dream to revolutionize small and large animal care here in the South Caucasus, I am sure they would be part of the push to propel her into class in Cambridge. If only I had a way to share Emilia’s story

Posted in Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, Emilia Simonian, Fundraising, Peace Corps, Peace Corps Armenia, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, Women, work, young women, Youth | 3 Comments