Story Behind The Picture #2: Sarahart, Armenia

September 2004 (Sarahart, Armenia): This is one of our favorite photos from our time in the Peace Corps. The location is high up in the mountains above Sarahart (Alaverdi), located in northern Armenia. The view of the photo is looking northeast along the Debed River valley toward Azerbaijan.

During this time in our Peace Corps service, we were living with our first host family in Sarahart. The apartment was small, but generally offered enough room for all five of us. On rainy days when it was difficult for anyone to spend quality time outside and our host father would decide to smoke inside the house rather than near a window, the apartment became unbareable and we needed to get out. This was one of those days.

Our host parents were taken back as they saw us putting on rain gear and loading our pack with food. They asked us, “Where are you going in this weather?” To their astonishment we stated that we were going for a hike in the mountains. They reminded us that it was raining and cold, but having done plenty of hiking in the cold and rain back in the states, we headed out.

alaverdi, armenia, peace corps, hikingWe followed a worn rutted road outside of town for a couple miles. Along the way we passed a home along the hillside with a ferocious dog. We cautiously approached the house with stones in hand in case we needed to throw them at the dog. The dog maintained his distance and stayed in the yard. We continued on and passed a tractor and truck with five men in the back heading back down the mountain. It was loaded with wood for the winter. The looks on their faces were of amazement, either at seeing us hiking, seeing us hiking in the weather, or seeing Laura out in the mountains. A little while later we peaked out on a beautfiul ridge that provide the view seen in this photo. The rain had stopped by now and the clouds lifted to provide a beautiful view down the valley. We ate our hatz (bread) and paneer (cheese), drank mango juice and water, and headed back home as the rain turned into hail.

Alaverdi, Armenia mountainsThe views of the debed river valley  provided us a reminder of the beauty found in the natural landscape of Armenia, sometimes not often seen when our daily views were that of deforestation, pollution, and erosion. From up on top of this ridge, everything seemed alright!

View the location of our photo spot in Sarahart, Armenia

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Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Celebrate Vardavar

Vodka and homemade Baklava

Last weekend, we hosted a Vardavar celebration at our home with fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Armenia. Our gathering included Laura and myself along with our future Peace Corps volunteers Ethan and Autumn, and RPCVs David and Eloise Barshes, and Dominic and Sarah Monley. While we didn’t all serve at the same time, we do have common ground in our love for the Armenian culture.

If you are not familiar with Vardavar, head on over to Wikipedia to learn more. In practice, Vardavar is “water day” where children and teens pour water on adults. When we lived in Armenia, we had to be especially careful because most people in our city lived in an apartment building and could easily target us from high above on Vardavar. While we didn’t pour water on each other’s head last Saturday, it was another wonderful rainy day in Seattle that left us plenty wet.

Backgammon! Game on!

For the occasion, all of us created a wonderful Armenian meal of horovatz (BBQ meat), salads, dolma, cucumber, pickles, tomatoes, fried potatoes, cheese, couscous, “lavash”, baklava, Grand Candy chocolate bars, vodka, and Russian beer. Toast after toast and bite after bite left no one with an empty stomach. Laura and I hadn’t had horovatz since we left Armenia. It tasted as good as ever.

The rest of the evening was filled with stories from Armenia and experiences in Seattle, sharing of photos, and playing Nardi (Backgammon).

We want to thank David for pulling this together because it allows Laura and me an opportunity to continue to share our Peace Corps experience with those who would understand it the most.

Laura prepared the baklava. Every bite was delicious and left me craving more. If you’re interested in making it yourself, here is the recipe she followed. It was actually easy, but took some time.

Bakalava by Nina Tashchian, Nina’s Bakery (Fresno, CA)

  • Cooking spray
  • 1 3/4 cups, pus 2 tablespoons, sugar, divided
  • 1 1/4 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon rose water (optional)
  • 1 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts
  • 1 pound phyllo dough (about 2 40 9×14-inch sheets)
  • 3/4 cup clarified butter


  1. Preheat over to 350F. Lightly coat a large rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray.
  2. Dissolve 1 3/4 cups sugar in the water in a medium saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add lemon juice and bring to boil again. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. Add rose water if using.
  3. Combine walnuts and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.
  4. Open phyllo dough and spread it out. Place 2 sheets of dough on baking sheet. Cover remaining phyllo with a damp cloth to keep from drying. Liberally brush the top of the two sheets with butter. Place 2 more sheets on top; brush with butter. Repeat until half the dough is used. Spread walnut mixture over dough.
  5. Place 2 sheets of dough over walnut mixture. Brush top with butter. Repeat until remaining dough sheets are used. Be sure to brush the top layer with butter. Cut baklava into 4 strips (2 1/4 inches wide x 14 inches long), dipping the knife into water between cuts. cut each strip into 4 rectangles (2 1/4 inches wide x 3 1/2 inches long). Cut each rectangle into halves diagonally.
  6. Bake 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. Cool 10 minutes. Drizzle sugar syrup over baklava and serve. Makes 32 pieces.

[Click on any photo for a better viewing experience]

Ethan, Into the Wild, Juno, Armenia, and PMF

This past week has found my MP3 player continuously playing the soundtracks to the movies Juno and Into The Wild. I have seen the movie Juno, but only read the book Into the Wild when it first hit the bookshelves in the 90’s. I highly recommend owning both soundtracks. The Juno soundtrack is very catchy and upbeat with some unknown artists such as Kimya Dawson and Antsy Pants. “All I Want Is You” and “Loose Lips” are a couple of my favorites. I also recommend checking out more songs by Kimya Dawson. Into The Wild features music by Eddie Vedder, though the official music score for the movie has many more artists such as Kaki King. The music is relaxing and a bit eerie, though inspiring. If you know the book, then you’ll feel that the music represents it well. “Hard Sun” is a stand out on this album.

In other news, Ethan is now 6 months and weighing in at a rolling left to right, back to front 19 pounds. He is a little smile bug and learning to grab everything within reach. We can no longer hold him in one arm and carry food in the other without him reaching for a taste. He is eating one meal a day of solid foods. He has eaten rice cereal, oatmeal, and, as of tonight, sweet potatoes. He loves the sweet potatoes, but mommy’s milk is still his favorite. He is sleeping 9-11 hours continuously as of this week. Laura finally decided no more nighttime feedings and it’s worked well. He has two bottom teeth showing now. Of course, this causes some discomfort so we let him suck on a cold, wet towel to take some of the pain away. Tomorrow, he visits his doctor for 6 month shots. It could be a long day and night tomorrow after those shots.

We spoke to our friend Gohar last night. She lives in Armenia, but we have not phoned her in a loooong time. Since our last phone call with her in December 2005, we have only communicated through letters. Letters allow us time to express ourselves a lot better in the Armenian language. It was her birthday yesterday and Nellie, an Armenian friend living in the US, helped us call her via Skype. It was great to speak to her and Zhana, her daughter. Through the conversation, we realize that we really can’t speak Armenian, though we did try. As usual, Laura could understand better than I, though I was able to speak better. Typical marriage. Wife listens, husband talks.

The three of us, along with two graduate students in my planning program, head north to Seattle on Sunday to take an early Monday test for the Presidential Management Fellowship. Each of us, as well as three other graduate students in my department, were nominated for the Fellowship. We now take the test and, if we pass, make it to the applicant pool to compete for coveted jobs working with the Federal Government in mid-manager positions (GS-9 and above) for two years, with hopes of landing permanent positions. The test by no means is easy so we’ll see how this goes. The test will assess our critical thinking skills, life experience, and writing fundamentals.

Increase Peace Corps and International Volunteers!

Lately, I’ve been reading articles and policy briefs arguing the need to increase the number of American volunteers abroad. The argument is basically that volunteers serve a more important role in establishing peace and stability, as well as promoting a positive image of Americans, than the military does with weapons. Additional benefits to volunteering include increased volunteer connections and participation in the community, knowledge of local community challenges and personal growth through strengthened habits of citizenship and service. I am in complete agreement with the authors of these documents because, from my experience, the Peace Corps was a great tool to allow Armenians to understand the altruistic side of Americans, and for me to understand the humanitarian and hospitable side of the Armenians. I am more aware of the community I live in and, when graduate school allows, offer my services to community causes.

Today, we continue with human suffering based on intolerance and misunderstandings. We see images on television or internet displaying the worst acts of human aggression because we choose to remain ignorant, and steadfast in our irrational ideologies rather than listening and trying to understand the differences that make each of us unique. Volunteering your time abroad, even if for a short period, can make a difference in your life and the lives of the host nationals in which you encounter. I would encourage you to read the following articles that offer policy recommendations for Congress to support funding that will expand the number of Peace Corps volunteers, and develop a Global Service Fellowships Program that supports a wide array of non-government organizations, faith-based entities, corporations, and universities seeking to put more American volunteers abroad in the name of global peace and stability.

Young and old, we all have something to contribute to a more stable and peaceful world! Contact your congressman today and ask them to support increased funding for international volunteer programs.

Great power and great wealth do not necessarily produce greater respect or greater security… [An] effective foreign policy in the age of global politics must combine power and cooperation.

–Daalder and Lindsay in Agenda for the Nation

Putnam privileges primary interpersonal ties above all other forms of social and political activity, because he believes such interactions uniquely foster trust and cooperation. The more face-to-face group interaction a nation has, the healthier its people and the more efficient its government and economy will be.

–Skocpol in Diminished Democracy