Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Talin Time

Two times the past three weeks I have been up in Talin.  It is a new region for Homeland Handicrafts, in Aragatsotn marz.  Talin is the place you whiz past on your way up to Gyumri.  Everybody has heard of it(Isn't that the capitol of Estonia?), but nobody goes there.  In my going on 12 years in Armenia, I had never been in Talin, charging past it like everybody else.  It is literally a two minute drive off that main Yerevan-Gyumri.  It is in a flat, barren stony region of the country, almost desert-like.

Yet in this town are two amazing people.  One of them is a piano-playing Peace Corps volunteer by the name of Brian Bokhart from Indianapolis, Indiana.  The other is a young woman named Gayane Kachatryan who wants to make a difference in her community.  Brian contacted me and suggested I come and take a look.  I did during the second week of January this year. 

Talin is in many ways typical of many Armenian towns and villages.  High unemployment rates.  High emigration rates.  Not a lot of hope for the future.  While waiting for Brian to meet me in the main square on my first visit, an older man started talking to me.  I asked him about Talin and its future.  He said 'It is not good.  Two of my three children are in Russia.  They send a little money, but it is difficult.  During the Soviet times we had lots of apple orchards, but now the irrigation system is not working, so there is nothing.  Not one single new government building has been built since the Soviet times'.  A hard first message to receive in a town during the first five minutes, it was.  Still, Talin is neater, tidier than many Armenian towns I have been in.

Now, I like challenges, so already we are planning on developing a series of hand crocheted dolls in traditional Armenian clothing.  One for Isfahan, one for Artvin, one for Moush etc etc.  Several wonderful women have already said they want to participate- Ani, Margarit, Sahakanoush(lovely name!), and two women from the village of Verin Sasunashen a few kilometers away.  But I want it to be right.  I have never liked those carpet dolls that are sold in the market in Yerevan.  Too ratty, too rough if you ask me.  I was up there yesterday again, and they had made eight samples.  None were good enough, so I explained what changes need to be made, and am looking forward to the new samples to be finished in a few days.  No pictures will be posted until it is just right!

Big thanks go to Gayane and Brian for inviting me along on another adventure with Homeland Handicrafts!

It's Talin time!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Simply Amazing

Those of you following my profile or the Homeland Handicrafts page on Facebook(what exactly is the difference between those two things?) know that I have started 2012 with exciting trips to two opposite sides of Armenia:  Vardenis in the east on January 3rd, and Talin in the west on January 6th.

These were two vastly different experiences in this tiny country.  Vardenis is cold, windy and icy.  Talin is sunny with not a lot of snow on the ground.  Vardenis has mountains on one side, and Lake Sevan on the other, Talin is on a flat plain.  Vardenis is an established organization, Talin has an individual woman who wants to help the women in the villages.  Vardenis is two and a half hours away from Yerevan, while Talin is about 50 minutes.  I pushed them in two distinctly different directions, in an attempt to give each group something distinctly theirs, as I always do.  In Vardenis we will do sewing, quilting and applique, while in Talin we will focus on crocheting a series of new, innovative items(which I am very excited about!)

In Vardenis, the need for a new sewing machine was crystal clear.  I remember my Mom sewing on an old Singer like they have up there when I was a kid in the 60s, and even then that was a clunker.  So I posted a photo and told the story on Facebook- and it took off.  The Norwegian Armenian community circled around the idea of raising money for a new machine first, giving first USD 200, and then another USD 100.  Then a  U.S. diaspora kicked in with another 500.  Within about 6 hours of me posting the request, I had enough to buy them a good, solid machine.  Is that not simply amazing?

Yesterday I met with Laura Maas, the U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Vardenis, and we discussed how to set this up.  She will tell the ladies in Vardenis that there is money to buy a new machine.  They will come to Yerevan to help choose the machine(take mental ownership).  A rotating fund will be set up in Vardenis, where a percentage of all sales of products goes into the fund(teaching administrative and planning skills).  The money accumulated in the fund can be used by the organization to purchase what they need later, with the agreement of Laura and myself(organizational development through collective decision-making).  My instinct says save towards more attachments to the first machine(piping attachment, for example), or buy a new machine that does embroidery.  We shall see, learn together how best to do this.

Through this USD 800 in seed capital, we have the opportunity to create the basics of a sustainable production unit in Vardenis.  It won't be easy.  There will be bumps in the road(goodness knows there are plenty of big icy bumps in the roads of  winter Vardenis already!).  Still, this is what Homeland Handicrafts does- we start with a little something and we work hard to make it bigger and better, for the benefit of women in the villages of Armenia.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the support of the diaspora, both morally and financially.  It would not be possible without wonderful women in Vardenis who want to work.  It would not be possible without Laura Maas!  Thanks so very much to each of you who are making this possible.

That was Vardenis.  The first samples are due to be finished by January 15th.  Can't wait!

Now, on to Talin....

I love my life.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Zorro in Vardenis

The new year started with a blast of cold air as I got into the car with Peace Corps volunteer Laura Maas, her friend Cal from the U.S., and Arshak from Yerevan.  We headed up to Lake Sevan and swung right to Vardenis, rather than my normal left to Berd.  Laura has been in Vardenis since August, and has encouraged me to bring Homeland Handicrafts there.  'It's needed' she said.  Little did I know.  We stopped off at Noradus on the way up, and it took us only about five minutes among the beautiful, snow dusted khachkars there before we lost the feeling in our fingers and toes.  Cold!

Back in the car, we head out to Vardenis, which lies out beyond the very end of Lake Sevan, a good two hour and ten minute drive from Yerevan in a fast car.  Vardenis is a lot farther away from Yerevan than I thought...and a lot windier and colder.   We wait at the roundabout in the middle of town to meet up with Melanya the head of Astghavank, and I film a 360 degree clip from the middle of it.  Cold, bitter wind, and not a lot happening in Vardenis an early January day.  But Zorro smiles nicely from a mobile phone ad.

Astghavank is an organization working with the parents of disabled kids, and have experience with sewing clothing.  It is difficult, surprisingly enough, to find good sewing skills in Armenia.  Maybe here in Vardenis we can do something.  With a set of designs for potholders and table mats in hand, we visit the Astghavank center, an old kindergarten building that the mayor of Vardenis has given them the right to use for the next 50 years.  Because of the freezing temperatures in the building, we stay only a few minutes, but see that they are in need of new machinery.  They produce decent quality with what they have, but it is not good enough for export quality, which is our goal.

Off to seamstress Lena's house through icy bumps in the road that are bigger than ski slope moguls, we huddle around the wood stove in her living room, and discuss potholders... Mt. Ararat, 'hamov e', and other concepts are discussed, but we settle on a donkey and pomegranate...as a test of many things:  quality, aesthetic understanding, willingness to try something new, attention to detail, communication, and all those other things that need to be in place to develop a successful line of products.

Done with the potholders, we are whisked off to the overloaded Christmas table, and toast, eat and discuss unemployment(very high among women), emigration(35% have left Vardenis since independence) and such before jumping in the car and heading back to Yerevan as the sun goes down, and a sudden snowstorm turns the road into a sheet of ice with swirling snow.

Also swirling are the thoughts in my head.  Vardenis is not what I expected.  It is colder.  It is windier. It is emptier.  It is sadder.  It is a perfect place for Homeland Handicrafts to try to make a small difference.

Boy, does Vardenis need Zorro.  But in the meantime, let's make potholders.

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