Sunday, November 30, 2014

Final Pictures

Now that I have been safely home for 6 days, here are my final 28 photos from this year's trip.  Nancy and I are fervently hoping for another such joint trip in 2015.

Monday, November 17, 2014

More Photos and a Video

More eye candy, folks:

Random photos 14 – 17 November:

and here is a link to one of the two videos I shot Saturday from the gondola ride to Tatev:

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Thought Fragments on a Rainy Sunday

It has been a pretty busy week….well, a moderately busy week…..well, not really that busy at all.

On my first trip here in 2010, I trained five days a week, 6 hours a day.  That is normal. 

On my second trip in 2011, accompanied by Nancy, I trained only in the afternoons.  That was great, as it left us time to explore each morning.

On this trip, the bank has long decided that they cannot afford to pull people out of the branches for training during the day.  So, all training is now done in the evening, starting at 6:30.  And, bank security has declared that training must end by 8:30 so that all employees are out of the building by 9:00.  So, effectively, I am reduced to 2 hours of training a day.

Then, there is this thing I call Armenian Time.  It is not quite as bad as Hanoi Time, but it does mean that 6:30 training starts at 6:45.  And the 5-minute break is actually 15 minutes.

This sounds fun and like an easy work gig…but I have made commitments on what will be covered.  So the sessions are fast-paced, never go according to plan, and leave me pretty much mentally wrecked by 8:30.  But, the hourly pay is damn good.

I found out yesterday that Bankworld has signed a new 4-year training agreement with this bank. The bank has also asked me for a list of courses I can teach, as they want me back.  That made me feel really useful and welcome, and I would be delighted to return to Armenia as often as possible.  Hopefully there will be more lead time so other family members can join me.

So, other than rewriting the training every day, how have I been spending all of this free time?

Wandering.  Eating.  People watching.  Enjoying.

I have found several more caches…one in a park where many noted Armenian writers are buried, one near the main post office, and one in an abandoned amusement park (more on that in a minute).  I have two more to reasonably find…whether or not I do, they bring me to areas I may not have otherwise seen in detail.

I have revisited places Nancy and I visited when she accompanied me here in 2011….El CafĂ©, Jazzve, the Pixie supermarket, pizza diavola at the hotel, and many more.  Fond memories, all.  Not to ignore the new places.

One of the deputy chairmen of the bank asked me a few days ago what I thought of Yerevan since the last visit, and I wasn’t quite sure.  There is much new construction, mainly of high-rise office buildings but also some apartment complexes.  Unfortunately, there is also too much neglected infrastructure – crumbling concrete walkways, metal roofs too rusted to be much protection, etc.  I also think I see more beggars in the streets, and more elderly people who spend their days wandering.  The upscale stores have a lot of traffic but few sales…but the restaurants and informal stores are packed.  It is definitely a dichotomy.

I truly love this city.  Even today, rainy and the first bad weather day since my arrival, it was enjoyable to spend 3 hours wandering the main open-air market watching people, transactions, and the flow of society on a weekend. 

Anyway, yesterday was a most wonderful day.  My hosts (and good friends) took me on a 13-hour drive to Tatev, a famous monastery in the SE portion of the country (  My previous post herein gave a link to the photos from that trip.  But, nothing in the photos can compare to what we actually saw that day.  The next time I am here, my friends want to take me to Ngorno Karabach, the Armenian region that is also claimed by Azerbaijan and which is a main source of dispute in their 17-year war.  They have seen photos of the NC mountains where we currently live, and say that NK is very similar to that.  I very much look forward to that opportunity.

Time to reread the training I have planned for tomorrow and make possible adjustments.  Thanks for reading and listening to my random thoughts. 

A Visit to Tatev Monestary

Good morning, all.

The narrative will await another day.  But, here are 97 photos from my all-day venture to Tatev yesterday.  Enjoy!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Picture Pages!

Good morning, everybody.  It is 6:17 a.m. Thursday on the east coast as I write this, 3:17 Thursday afternoon here in Yerevan.

Time has been a little crunched as the training schedule is more truncated that I had been told and I have had to rewrite my plan twice.  Taking Nancy's advice, I have been focusing more on just wandering the city and watching people than seeking out specific sights.  So, with that in mind, enjoy my first batch of 2014 pictures over your morning coffee.

This coming weekend holds a probable trip to the Tatev Monastery, about 4 hours SE of here and near the joint borders with Azerbaijan and Iran.  Guinness certifies that it has the longest double-cable gondola trip in the world, a little over 5 km.  If fortune holds, I'll have an onboard video for you by Sunday evening.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Third Trip to Yerevan - November, 2014

Well, folks, it is time for more, unexpected reading delight.  I am back in Yerevan, Armenia on a hastily-arranged training project at Ardshininvestbank.  Since Nancy is not on this trip to perform blogging responsibilities, yours truly will try to fill in the blanks.

To get some mere details out of the way…the ascent (my first ever) out of the Asheville NC airport was beautiful, seeing the mountains with a bit of incipient color remaining.  The pitch of the climb, though, was reminiscent of O’Hare.  Landing in Atlanta about 35 seconds later (only a 130 mile flight), I found the international terminal to be clean, professional, and boring.  But, definitely not overpriced compared to most large airports.  Unfortunately, the “down” escalator to get to the shuttle trains was stuck and people had to walk down the stairs, which seemed to confuse the shit out of many.  15 minutes later the congestion had cleared, and there was no longer a line of idiots totally blocking the main corridor upstairs.

On the long-haul flight to Paris, I just happened to get up to stretch my legs as the sun peeked over the horizon as we flew just south of Kilkenny, Ireland.  Great view at 39,000 feet out the galley door window. 

Seeing the gaggle of passengers in Paris waiting to board the final flight to Armenia, it struck me that Armenians apparently love to leave the country, buy out stores elsewhere, and attempt to put everything into the overhead bins.  It also became apparent that strolling airplane aisles is a national pastime.

Breezed through Customs and was greeted by my old friends, Karen and Arevik.  They whisked me to my usual hotel, and I was in there by 10 p.m. local time.

Sunday November 9

Sunday was a day to dispense with jet lag and wander about this beautiful city.  I spent it visiting some old haunts from the last visit, especially the Jazzve coffeehouse chain.  I also walked the upscale pedestrian mall to the Opera House – while there was much foot traffic, the stores did not benefit from it.  There also seemed to be a major repair project on the paving stones that comprise the walkway, which is surprising since it was just being completed during my first visit four years ago.

Herbie Hancock is appearing at the Opera House on November 20.

For the first time, I also walked up the 768 steps that form the cascade, a 1950s-era monument to Soviet-Armenian friendship that dominates the North hill.  No maintenance work has been done on this since my last visit, and the infrastructure is badly in need of repair. In fact, much of the town needed a bit of upkeep…while neat, there is minor crumbling everywhere that will snowball if not addressed.  Citywide, many people were strolling on this sunny day and spending dram in the coffeehouses and restaurants, but I saw few tangible goods being purchased.  Little wonder, as mos items are imported and the dram has depreciated about 30% in the past 3 years.  Today’s exchange rate is 410 to the dollar.

Monday November 10

Today was my first meeting at the bank with the new training coordinator to make sure we are ready to go tomorrow.  Nothing monumental save that the bank now requires all training to start at 6:30 p.m. so employees don’t miss any of their work day.  And, it must end by 9:00 so they can get home in a timely fashion.  That will put a crimp in the amount I was planning to cover, so we may need to trim on the fly.  I’m not sure what to expect from 9 consecutive workdays of this…especially on the final (Friday) night.  But, I will do the best I can within the rules.

I tried to work in the hotel in the afternoon but the wifi crashed about 9 a.m. and didn’t return until sometime after 3.  That created a good excuse to revisit Jazzve and eat dinner/drink coffee while using their bandwidth.

Since I am free tomorrow until 5 p.m., more wandering is in store and I may try to find another geocache (Nancy and I found four here during the last trip).  I should also probably lay in a supply of quality bulk candy – it works wonders with training audiences here as rewards and bribes.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

First Snow of the Season

A chilly and rainy Friday evening in Yerevan, and Nancy is busily working on her blog post while I use this to fill the moments between emails.  As usual on a training day, I have not downloaded email in 12 hours and have about 150 in the queue.  Unfortunately, the hotel’s web service is abysmal tonight, and my backlog is coming in at the rate of one every two minutes.  I may need to leave this laptop on all night to catch up.

The raw weather promises to continue into tomorrow, possibly dampening (but not canceling) our touring plans.  There was light snow in the northern part of the city this morning, and the long-range forecast suggests more over the entire region on Wednesday.  The sidewalks here are tough to walk on good days (cobblestones) and bad days (rolling stones), so I certainly sympathize with anyone who walks during ice and snow.  Especially the young ladies with stiletto heels.

Training has been going more slowly than planned this week.  For once, this is a good outcome.  The class is more experienced than last week’s, and they tend to ask more questions and debate much more.  It is good to have people there who don’t just blindly believe whatever you tell them.  I am sure many things that have worked at banks in the States would not work here, and vice versa.  We may or may not get caught up next week, but I have several days’ worth of “just in case” activities, so it is no big deal if we do not get to those.

We had a good lesson today about the lack of customer service in government entities from former Soviet republics.  When Nancy obtained her visa to visit here, she filed for a 21-day visa because we are scheduled to be here for 21 days, Saturday to Saturday.  Makes sense, right?  Well, it does in the other countries I have visited, but not here.  We are here for 22 calendar days, not 21 consecutive 24-hour periods.  So, her visa needs to be extended by one day.  A quick check at the nation’s Visa and Passport web site tells us the office is just a few blocks away on Mashtots street, and the extension costs less than $1.50 a day.  No problem, right?

Well, we went to the visa office, where Nancy was given an extension form to fill out, told to bring a photocopy of her original visa and passport, and 1000 dram (for a 2-day extension, the minimum allowed).  Something was also said about a “bank check”, but it went right by us.  Returning ten minutes later with the copies and filled-out form, we were told again “bank check”.  It seems that the visa agents do not accept cash….one must find a local bank (not a problem) and deposit the extension fee in the visa service’s account, returning to the visa agent with the receipt as proof.  This time we managed to follow instructions to the letter, finding a local bank branch (NOT the bank at which I am training people), paying the 1000 dram and the bank’s 100 dram fee (the latter being just over 30 cents), and marched back to the visa office, feeling very confident.  It was a short-lived feeling, as the agent stapled all forms together, took Nancy’s passport, and instructed us to return on Wednesday.  We shall find out then if all has been successful….the fact that the passport was just thrown into a desk drawer made us a bit nervous.  If the passport is not ready on Wednesday I shall have to lean on my bank friends for some fast help, as we are scheduled to leave here less than 72 hours later.    

I have also been having occasional communications during this trip with my team leader for the Hanoi project.  Four weeks after I left there, the bank still can’t decide on the parameters for the marketing research project I was supposed to launch by October 1.  I am starting to have severe doubts about whether the efforts we are putting in will ever result in anything worthwhile being implemented.

One of the students in the current training class very kindly gave me a gift as we quit for the weekend – a collection of 20 or so Soviet coins from the 1980s.  Obviously there were widely used here, but are not worthless to anyone but collectors since the USSR no longer exists.  It is in the culture here to always be alert for one’s interests and use those as a basis for small gifts.  


Mid-Saturday afternoon, now.  Nancy has had a touch of nausea since about 4:00 this morning, so we cancelled today’s tour.  Actually, our hosts cancelled today – sinced they were able to show me around part of their country last year, they felt it was more important to have Nancy available for touring.  If I had been ill, instead, it is likely that my hosts would have taken Nancy without me.  They will re-work tomorrow’s schedule, and we will leave earlier than originally planned to get a longer day of viewing in.

It has been a bad day to go out, anyway…light snow since about noon, although it has been melting upon contact.  Visibility is poor, too.  Tomorrow is expected to be a much better day- partly cloudy and highs near 50.  I spent a good part of the afternoon at one of our favorite dining spots, extending my lunch to take full advantage of their wifi in the absence of decent internet at the hotel.  I also finally purchased Armenian and Georgian flags…I want a small flag from each country in which I have worked.  Understandable, no store here stocks Azerbaijani flags, so I will need to hunt that one down to complete my 4-country collection.  I ended the afternoon at the grocery store, trying to get some high-energy snacks for Nancy in case she finally feels like eating later.  I’ll spend this evening trying to crack the internet, and perhaps putting some work in on my Vietnam report.