Category Archives: Travel

Tavush Region, Armenia (Oct 2016)

Post Trip Write up in Habitat Armenia Newsletter:

Gurgen’s dream is coming true
In October this year Gurgen and Ofelya’s family got the biggest gift of their lifetime. Now they are one step closer to their dream of having their own home. Currently the family lives in Getahovit village of Tavush region in Ofelya’s ancestral home. The family started a new house last year but they were not able to complete it because of lack of resources. They were happy and excited to have been selected to partner with Habitat Armenia. Their happiness doubled as they hosted a Global Village team of international volunteers. The team of 14 from the U.S., Denmark and Poland worked in their house for 2 weeks and helped them complete the plastering of walls. Gurgen says, “I can’t believe this is true. Now we will have our own home where the kids will have a place to play and study and we will have privacy.” Gurgen and Ofelya are grateful for the support they got from Habitat Armenia and send their best wishes to the volunteers who came from far away to help them move closer to their dream of owning a house.

About Armenia
Armenia occupies 29,700,000 square meters and is situated in the northeast Armenian highlands. Armenia is a former Soviet Republic located in Central Asia. It has a population of 3.2 million. Yerevan is the largest city and capital of Armenia. Nestled on the Ararat Plain along the Hrazdan River, Yerevan is a leading industrial, cultural and scientific centre in the Caucasus region.

Three events have shaped the current housing situation: economic and social transition, including housing privatization; a massive earthquake in 1988; and a large influx of refugees. Because of these factors, more than 50 percent of Armenia’s families in this area live in deteriorated housing with cramped quarters and limited water and heat. Almost every building in the country is considered to be below current safety requirements for earthquakes.

When families are forced to abandon the dream of completing their home due to financial hardship, they often live in the unfinished basement or cellar. This is basically a large hole in the ground with a dirt floor and makeshift roof. Others live in domiks, which are metal containers that were brought to Armenia as part of the relief effort following the devastating 1988 earthquake. Many families have been living in these containers for more than a decade. Domiks are unbearably hot in the summer and only makeshift stoves fight off the extreme cold in winter.

Ninety-six percent of the housing stock in Armenia is privately owned. The 4 percent of housing remaining in public rental is not targeted to low-income households. The work Habitat is doing in the country is essential to ensuring simple, decent, affordable housing for hundreds of Armenians.

About Habitat for Humanity in Armenia

Habitat for Humanity in Armenia tackles poverty housing through a variety of efforts, including the construction of affordable, efficient houses, the completion of half-built homes, implementation of water and sanitation facilities, advocacy of improved housing policies for low-income families, engagement of volunteers and other like-minded partners and more. As of 2008, Habitat for Humanity in Armenia had helped nearly 400 families in need in Armenia into safe and secure shelter. Learn more at

Eldama Ravine, Kenya (July 2012)

My first trip!  I decided to join this team when I was struggling to figure out what to do for my birthday.  Throw a big party for myself?  Spend a quiet evening with my family and close friends?  Such were my first world problems…  I went back and forth a thousand times.  I was itching to go somewhere, and a fantastic safari in 2011 with my dad left me wanting to see more of Africa – from a more “local” view.  But traveling alone over my birthday didn’t quite feel right…

Almost on a whim, I googled “volunteer” and “Kenya” and found the Habitat for Humanity Global Village program.  What?  I thought HFH was a US-focused organization?  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  It turns out, they work in over 40 countries around the globe.  And the paradigm – 1 to 2 week volunteer experiences in local communities helping families in need – was just perfect for what I was looking for at that time.  I contacted several team leaders to inquire about availability on their teams and hooked up with a woman whose life experiences eerily mirrored my own.  How could I not join??  I paid my deposit and bought a ticket before I had time to change my mind.  I’m so glad that I did!

This first trip was an eye opening experience.  There are many stories that are worthy of their own blog posts – my terror upon arrival at having made a mistake in chosing to spend my birthday in Africa far from my family, meeting my “twin brother”, working with the shoeless-gloveless-shirtless stone mason named Collins, becoming friends with people who have never seen a white person in “real life”…  These stories and more will come in time because they are ingrained in my soul and always make me smile.  They deserve to be shared. 🙂

For now, a few photos of this wonderful community and my teammates a/k/a lifelong friends!


The Incident of the Raw Horse

One of the best parts of traveling (well, really, of life?) is eating. 🙂  When you travel around the world, you are suddenly exposed to so many new types of food – often some that surprise you, for better or for worse.

When I began to venture out of the US, this proposition was kind of scary…  The first time I remember leaving the country was when I was 13 and we crossed the border to Tijuana.  At the closest border town, my sister and I were commanded by our mom to “eat, drink and go to the bathroom now because you’re not doing it again until we return!”.  Needless to say, I did not sample any Mexican cuisine on that outing.

The next time I left the US was on a school trip to the Soviet Union.  Yes, it was still called “The Soviet Union” at that time.  I don’t remember much about the food, but I’m pretty sure I ate a lot of potatoes and bread (because beets taste like dirt [this article explains why and appeals to my scientific nature] and I wasn’t about to eat little slimy fish with their heads still attached…).  It’s a wonder I didn’t come home with scurvy…  What I do remember is my camera film being confiscated on our “commute home” at the East/West Berlin border crossing (yes…still in existence too…) by a very large German man with a gun.  But that’s a story for another day. 🙂

In my early travel years, I admit to being “one of those people” that sought out the most “American” looking food I could find because it seemed “safe”.  I drew the line at McDonalds, but if there was an American chain restaurant in sight or a recognizable packaged snack at the store, there’s a good chance I headed toward it.  Thankfully that phase didn’t last long – now I am excited to explore everything (everything?) that local cuisines have to offer.  And boy have I sampled it.

It’s hard to describe some of the surprises that have been placed before me.  Rabbit ears, duck tongues, and scorpions (China), mice on a stick (Malawi), termites (Kenya), and a lot of unidentifiable creatures from the sea (Japan) are just a few that are on the list.  Sometimes I can handle it – the rabbit ears were actually cold, pickled, and surprisingly tasty. 🙂  But sometimes there is absolutely zero chance.  Those mice still had FUR!!

This is, of course, balanced by the delicious dishes that make up 90%+ of what I actually eat overseas.  Who can argue with a delicious wine and pasta dinner in Italy?  Or fresh sushi and sake in Japan, ugali and kachumbari in Kenya, homemade bread and apricot jam in Kyrgyzstan??  If you keep your mind open, the possibilities are endless.  In fact, I’m starting to collect these gems on my very first Pinterest board.  Don’t judge – I’m just starting – but what a way to start. 🙂

This finally brings me around to the title of the post.  It’s true.  I reached a new level on my last trip to Japan.  The conversation went something like this:

Him: “we’re going to order this because we love it and you won’t eat it, so we will have it all!”.

Me:  “OK.  We’ll see….”

ONLY with the help of a generous sake selection did the Horse Sashimi have a chance.


And when it happened…it really wasn’t too bad. 🙂  Kind of like beef tartare…

So the moral of the story is?  Don’t be afraid – just eat it! 🙂

Meet Emily’s Family

As I was finishing the preparation of this post, two things went through my head:

  1. “Wow – this blog is becoming so serious! I need to post some more fun things…” I DO travel a lot for fun.  OK – so the post after this will be something just for fun. 🙂
  2. “Hmmm…this has gotten longer than I intended…” Two options: break the post into Part 1 and Part 2, to make it easier to digest, or just go for it. Well, I decided the story tells itself best as one big post. Take your time – it’ll be here when you’re ready!

So here we go.  🙂

In July, I embarked on a one week volunteer trip with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program, leading a group of 15 other volunteers to Salima, Malawi building homes for families in need. This was my fifth time volunteering in Africa, but my first time visiting Malawi. I quickly learned why they call Malawi “the warm heart of Africa”!

Because we were such a large group, we were split onto two different build sites. Our goal was to complete one home per team over the course of just 5 days. Would we be able to accomplish this task? The stakes were never higher, so we gave it our all.

On my build site, the family we were working for is headed by a 45-year old woman named Emily. Emily had lost her own family some years ago, and was willing to take on responsibility for several orphaned children within the village she called home. Currently, she cares for three siblings: Mercy (age 18), Yakobo (age 13), and Brenda (age 10). Here they are!


At the start of the year, these four people were living in a two-roomed house made of unburnt clay bricks with a grass thatched roof and a dirt floor.* The house contained no windows and had very poor ventilation – which led to many illnesses including colds, malaria and skin irritations. The roof was not waterproof. There was no proper toilet. Here’s a photo of Emily, Yakobo and Brenda in front of their old home:

OldHouse In fact, the house was in such poor condition that prior to our arrival it completely collapsed (luckily no one was hurt). The family was forced to move in with a neighbor. Here are some photos of the house where they were living when I arrived:


(left) Exterior view of current home (right) View of living/eating            space and childrens room

Because of their poor living conditions, each of the children often miss school (Mercy is in grade 4, Yakobo in grade 3, and Brenda in grade 2). Mercy summed up their troubles in a very succinct way: “We often skip classes at school because our books get wet and clothes soaked from rain water. It’s hard to sleep when standing up but we do it because we have no choice. Our life is miserable and very hard because of the house we live in.”

Sleep standing up because your house is all wet????  I can’t imagine.

The vision of Habitat for Humanity is “a world where everyone has a decent place to live.” In a village like the one we visited, the need is obvious. We were lucky to participate in a special program supporting Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Malawi. According to the mandate of this program, community organizations and village chiefs identify families who are in the greatest need and then work with Habitat to provide a new home for them at no cost. The houses are basic, around 300 square feet, but safe and durable. There are generally 2 or 3 rooms with little to no furniture. Cooking is done outside. An outdoor, brick and cement latrine is also provided. We had a chance to visit one finished home and meet the proud home owner during our time in Salima:

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clockwise from top left:  a) exterior of finished home, b) sleeping area for the family, with sacks used to store all belongings (clothing, fertilizer, and food), c) living area with cooking utensils d) permanent, non-leaking tin roof!

When Emily’s family learned that they had been selected, their joy was palpable. “We are happy that Habitat has given us a chance of owning a house. A lot will change in our lives and I look forward to that day”, said Mercy.

So what can a team of 8 volunteers and 3 local workers accomplish in a week? You’d be surprised! When we arrived, the foundation and corners of the house had been already prepared.


Over the course of the next three days, we successfully built up the walls to roof level!


After the gables were added by the local workers, tin was installed and we finished leveling the floors:

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Although our time was up, the family was expecting to move into their new home within 1-2 weeks following our departure. The only tasks remaining were to install the doors and windows, and then pour the concrete floor. On our last day, everyone celebrated this huge life changing moment!

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My impressions of Malawi are both joyful and tragic. The people are incredibly resilient in the face of so many obstacles. I’m grateful to have experienced such a welcoming community, and to have spent a week getting to learn more about these families. My heart aches for even the most basic physical comforts that they will never know, but I have learned from them that even in hardship, there are important things in life that we should never take for granted: the pleasure of being part of a family, the incredible amount of support that a close knit community provides, the capacity of the human spirit to always strive to make yourself a better person – no matter what your circumstances. Their smiles touch your soul. I can’t wait to return. 🙂

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*family details and quotes were provided by Habitat for Humanity Malawi