The Legacy of Plastic Bags in Post-Soviet Society

The topic of plastic has been 'trending' in mainstream media and in day-to-day conversation. It is more common now to see images of animals, especially marine life, dying because of their unknowing consumption of plastics.  

This photo shows plastic bags removed from a pilot whale that was floating off the shores of Thailand. Upon being rescued, the whale began vomiting pieces of plastic and died soon after. There were 80 plastic bags weighing more than 17 lbs inside its stomach. 

 Plastic bags removed from a pilot whale's stomach. Photo: Smithsonian Magazine

Plastic bags removed from a pilot whale's stomach. Photo: Smithsonian Magazine

So how does this and the Soviet Union come together? Bare with me... we're getting there.

Let's go back to 1965. A Swedish company by the name of Celloplast obtained a U.S. patent for the idea of what would later be known as the "T-shirt plastic bag" and thus, the plastic bag that we use today was born.

 The "T-shirt plastic bag" design filed at the U.S. patent office

The "T-shirt plastic bag" design filed at the U.S. patent office

Though these bags were introduced, initially, the public didn't buy in to the idea, and for many years, still preferred paper bags for their groceries. This changed in 1985 when Robert Bauman of Chem Systems announced at the New Materials and Profits in Grocery Sacks and Conextrusions Conference, that plastic bags were 11.5% cheaper than paper bags (Vince Staten, Can you Trust a Tomato in January). Staten adds that according to Plastics World magazine, "plastic bags were in only 10 percent of the supermarkets in 1983. By the end of 1985 that had leaped to 75 percent."

1985 was significant as well in the Soviet Union. This is the year that Mikhail Gorbachev took office as the General Secretary of the Soviet Union. With it, he brought glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), which also meant that the Soviet Union's borders were more open to foreign tourists. According to a Los Angeles Times article, Gorbachev Sparks New interest: More Americans visiting Soviet Union This Year published on July 18, 1987, the Soviet Union "expected a record number of foreign tourists in 1987."

As plastic bag usage began to grow in the United States, the Soviet Union kept on with its use of reusable bags. The net bags seen above were very popular and durable. In the Soviet Union, and even in post-Soviet society, reusing bags, or taking in glass bottles for payment was very common. Yet plastic bags were intriguing, as were most things American. 

My mother grew up in Soviet Armenia and lived for many years in Soviet Estonia. As a student in grammar school, she recalls her staunch communist teacher speaking to the class about how Americans had invented the plastic bag, and saying "Who cares! We've invented more important things!"

Yet, anti-American speeches didn't do much to keep people away from American-made items. She also recalls that when family from the States would visit, they would bring gifts in plastic bags. They would treasure these bags, as they would treasure anything American, and would walk around town with pride that they were carrying a plastic bag. They would gently wash and iron these bags so that they would look brand new for their next parade around town. This held true in Estonia as well. 

With the borders now more open, and with plastic bags more available to Americans, Soviet families began to become more accustomed to them, and viewed them as a sign of wealth, because America equaled wealth. 

 Photo: Sergei Zhukov, Anatoly Semenikhin/TASS

Photo: Sergei Zhukov, Anatoly Semenikhin/TASS

I was recently speaking with a zero-waste enthusiast friend of mine who was visiting Armenia, about her frustration with plastic waste around Yerevan. One of the easiest ways someone can reduce plastic waste is by carrying their own reusable shopping bag. Even as she traveled, she took her reusable bag with her. Many times, she got confused stares from fellow shoppers, and someone even said that by bringing in a reusable bag you create an image of being cheap.

This mindset that plastic bags are grander because they're American or European, and not Soviet, has stuck, but hopefully this will change. Foreign tourists unknowingly made plastic bags popular in the Soviet Union, so I have confidence that today's sustainable minded tourists can create change again - this time, away from plastics.  

The Glorious Machu Picchu

No words or photos will do this place much justice. After spending over eight hours walking and hiking the site, I wish I had at least another two hours to just sit and truly understand where I was. 

At the Sun Gate (Inti Punku)

In April, a group of my classmates and I decided to pay a visit to this ancient site of Machu Picchu prior to our fieldwork in the informal settlements (slums) of Lima, Peru. Here is a short journey of the trip.

CUZCO

Upon landing in Lima, we flew to the historic city of Cuzco (or Cusco/Qusco). The city was once the administrative and religious capital of the Inca Empire and is about 11,152 feet (3,450 meters) above sea level, and is higher than Machu Picchu.  

Cuzco

The city offers all the luxuries you'll want and more. You can shop for art, local made clothing (many made of alpaca wool), bags, jewelry, etc., and get massages for less than $15.

Some unique aspects of the city include its food and drink varieties, local to the area and the country. If you ever wanted to try alpaca meat, well, Cuzco is your place. Also, they have a really tasty drink called chicha which consists of purple corn, cinnamon and cloves (click here for the recipe). Also, don't forget to test out the famous Peruvian drink, pisco sour (here is the recipe), but keep in mind that your drunkenness levels are enhanced with high elevation.

From Cuzco, we took a short drive to catch the train that would take us to Aguas Calientes (the village/small town closest to Machu Picchu). On our way there, we made a quick stop at this spot... I mean, how can you not?

The beauty of Peru

And then... the train ride.

Inside the train on our way to Aguas Calientes

View from the train

AGUAS CALIENTES

Aguas Calientes (Spanish for 'hot waters' or 'hot springs'), also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, is a beautiful small town/village surrounded by mountains and rivers and a lush green landscape. It also has hot springs (fitting to its name) that you can enjoy, only a few minutes hike from the center of town. It is recommended to spend at least one night here (unless you're taking the Inca Trail path) prior to visiting Machu Picchu because people have become ill from not resting properly. 

MACHU PICCHU

Finally, it was time to head out to Machu Picchu. We wanted to be there as early as possible in order to see as much as we could, as we were only there for one day. We got to the site at 6 am and were greeted by fog and rain, which is common for the area.

By 11 am, the clouds lifted and let in the sunshine. 

The site stretches over 5 miles, with over 3000 stone steps throughout, and was constructed at the height of the Inca Empire (15th to 16th centuries). In 1993, it was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site and in 2007, it was designated as the New Seven Wonders of the World site.

The purpose of the structure has various theories, most of which agree that the elite lived there. Our tour guide explained it as such: the elite did live in Machu Picchu, but what they considered elite is not quite the way we may understand it. Being elite for the Incas was not about royalty or monetary wealth (in fact, they did not have money). Being elite meant contributing something for the betterment of the community. Once you were living in Machu Picchu did not mean that you and your family would stay there. If your offspring did not contribute, they would be sent down to live in the villages nearby. Pretty amazing, isn't it?

The site is also super sustainable. The Incas were an extremely sophisticated people and it is not by mistake that they built this structure in this area. They studied the area for its environmental benefits including the production of fog which allowed for the watering of crops as well as capturing drinking water. 

The empire thrived until the Spaniards invaded with their oh so lovely new diseases and lack of tolerance for non-Catholics. We can learn so much from the Incas and their ancestors! But for now, here are some more photos of Machu Picchu. 

I cannot wait to see this place again and other ancient sites that this magnificent country has to offer. 

Informal Dumpsite

For the past few months, I've been studying Environment and Sustainable Development at the University College London. Part of the program is to conduct field research in a developing country in the "Global South" and for the past four years, they've been researching in Lima, Peru. 

The two intense weeks spent in Lima, specifically in the informal settlement area of Chuquitanta was extremely eyeopening and humbling to say the least. Chuquitanta has a rich history, pre-dating the Incas by three thousand years. 

This post is not about our research, but if you'd like to learn more about it, here's a short YouTube clip of our findings and recommendations. 

This post however, is a photographic journey through one of the informal dumpsites in Chuquitanta. 

Travel Edinburgh, Scotland

As you step off the train in Edinburgh, you suddenly find yourself immersed in medieval and Georgian architecture. You look around thinking you'll find Harry, Hermione and Ron flying by (or at least I kind of wished they would).

This was my second trip to the enchanted city, and I hope to be back. There is much to see in the city. I'll attempt to give you some highlights. 

Edinburgh became the capital city of Scotland in the 15th century, and since then, though with its share of battles, mainly against England, the city began to boom. To keep up with its population growth, the city's main housing was in the form of tenement buildings, which in today's terms would be high-rise apartments. Some of these buildings stretched as high as 14 stories. Though impressive in height, many of Edinburgh's tenement buildings were built poorly and very close to one another. 

Here are some examples of what these buildings looked like until the 1800's.

After one of these buildings collapsed, new building codes were regulated, and today, what was once considered the slums of Edinburgh, these tenement buildings have been transformed to one of the most expensive living quarters in the UK. 

Atop the city, you will find Edinburgh's castle, perched on an inactive volcano. As you walk toward the entrance of the castle, you're greeted by two statues: one of Robert the Bruce, and the other, William Wallace. These two figures were instrumental in defining Scottish identity, and thirst for freedom from English rule. Tickets to get in range from £10-17 ($15-26) depending on your age. If castles are not so fascinating to you, then don't put your hard-earned cash there. But if you're interested in castles, I think it's worth the ticket price. 

Another royal part of town you can take a look at is Palace of Holyroodhouse. This is after all, where the last king of Scotland, James VI was born. James later became King James I of England, uniting Scotland and England once and for all (unless of course the Scots decide otherwise). This too will cost you up to £11 per person.

The cheapest and most effective way of knowing Edinburgh is to walk the city.

In fact, this time around I took a free walking tour by Sandeman's New Europe Walking Tours. I highly recommend doing this, and if you can, do it before you begin exploring on your own, as it'll give you some guidance. 

Finally, don't forget your friends and family back home. It's nice to send them a postcard or two.  It's a nice way of saying, "too bad you're not here, but here's a postcard."

To end, here are some famous/influential Scotsmen...

Lord Kelvin, of the Kelvin Scale of absolute temperature; Adam Smith, Father of Modern Economics, and David Hume, Philosopher. 

Ava's 1st Birthday and Atamnahatik

So what's an atamnahatik (atamhatik, agrahadig)? 

It's an Armenian tradition, a celebration of the baby's first tooth. Career based objects are placed in front of the baby and legend has it, that whatever object he or she chooses first is what their profession will be. 

Prediction has it, that Ava will become a doctor!

As a history buff, I love the fact that this tradition continues from one generation to the next. Sometimes what you choose as a baby isn't what your profession turns out to be. I grabbed a compact (you know, the mirror/powder combo) and I'd say I'm far from knowing what to do with it. But perhaps it meant that I would be taking photos of beauty. 

No Armenian celebration is complete without a proper dinner, a toast or two, kids, family, music, dancing and amazing dresses.

iWitness Concert at Grand Park

The iWitness public art installation at Grand Park in Downtown Los Angeles, showcases larger-than-life portraits of Armenian Genocide survivors. These free-standing displays vary in height and are lit at night. 

I would recommend seeing the display both in the day and at night, and more than once. The second time I went, I realized how well placed these images were. No matter what direction you look, there are rows of survivors looking straight back at you. It's amazing, chilling. 

Last night, iWitness hosted a free, outdoor concert at Grand Park featuring musicians, Sebu Simonian of Capital Cities and Harout Pamboukjian -- A night full of good music, great company, under the stars, with City Hall in front of you and Armenian Genocide survivors behind you. 

The project is a collaboration by artists Ara Oshagan, Levon Parian and designer Vahagn Thomasian.  

Erebuni

I was fortunate enough to have been able to travel to Armenia for the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. Within the eight days there, I traveled around as much as possible. If you'd oblige, I'd like to take you through a journey of Armenian history by showing you some of the sites I visited this time around. Throughout, I'll be adding small historical facts about the sites, and I hope this will spark an interest for you to learn more, and eventually, to see Armenia in person. 

For the first post, I thought it would be fitting to begin with Erebuni. 

Erebuni was constructed in 782 BC by Urartu King, Argishti the First. The settlement is atop Arin Fortress and today looks down upon the suburbs of Yerevan. Erebuni is considered the beginnings of Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia. 

The settlement was divided into three sections: religious, economic and royal.

The next two photos are of the Royal Hall. The blue and yellow/gold paint has remained intact since the time of Argishti. 

Inscriptions in Urartu cuneiform found at Erebuni are considered to be historical documents that depict Erebuni as the starting grounds of Yerevan. 

And I'll end this post with a photo of Erebuni looking down on its much younger sister, Yerevan.

the TWINS!

The lovely parents of twins David and Natalie asked that I take some shots of the now four year olds. They warned me though, that they're a handful. As a twin myself, I was excited to meet these kids!

David was very uninterested in the camera and would look away whenever he had the chance. Natalie seemed to be the more fearless one out of the two. 

Sure, they weren't on their "best behavior" but what child should be? They have character, and that's way more interesting than the "perfect pose." I mean, look at these faces!

With their proud pappa. 

I particularly love this photo. The parents know, though it wasn't the shot they were looking for, where everyone's eyes were on the camera, they wouldn't have it any other way.

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman

My sister was (and still is) a huge Dr. Quinn fan. So I surprised her with a visit to Dr. Quinn's town.  

For those who don't know who Dr. Quinn was, she was the main character in the series, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman", who was, as you probably guessed, a doctor. She moved to Colorado Springs from Boston. As you can imagine, her life in Colorado was very different than in Boston. She now had to adjust to life in the wild west. 

Her show was filmed in Paramount Ranch, in Agoura (about 30-45 minutes from Los Angeles). The land was purchased by Paramount in the late 1920's. The studio created a "Western Town" that still stands today. Movies that were filmed at the ranch include: (1937), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), Geronimo (1939), The Streets of Laredo (1949), etc.

The ranch was purchased by William Randolph Hearst (of the Hearst Castle) from Paramount in the 1950's, building permanent wild-west props. 

The ranch has a beautiful stream, amazing oak trees, and short hiking trails. Admission is FREE and it wasn't very crowded. It's a cool place to check out some Hollywood/Western history.

For those who watched Dr. Quinn, it's as if you stepped back in time, to the 1800's, to where she lived. 

Hasmik's Creations

Before Valentine's Day, I took some photos for an up-and-coming young pastry chef, Hasmik Krpoyan. She packaged already baked sugar cookie hearts with all the essentials to decorate them. 

The package consisted of baked cookies, frosting, a piping set and sprinkles. 

Hasmik's Valentines Day Decorating Kit

It came in this box...

She also makes amazing orange marmalade that I was lucky enough to take home!

Don't worry if you missed out on the Valentines Day package. She is now working on an Easter package! This is a great way to keep kids busy while the adults devour Easter sweets - sweets that Hasmik can make for you!  

You may reach Hasmik at 818-736-7916.

Anto's 3rd Birthday

Let me introduce you to Anto, an extremely adorable kid who is full of the world's energy. He will literally run circles around you. 

His birthday was Lego-themed which was brilliant. The cake and sweets were Legos. 

And now, the awesomely crazy family (and friends)!

The proud parents!

Thank you for letting me be a part of it!

Khndzoresk

The first time I traveled to Khndzoresk (Խնձորեսկ) was in 2007, and since then, every time I am in Armenia, I am pulled to travel there again. It is a magical place. For Lord of the Ring fans, it's like stepping into a real-life Rivendell.

Khndzoresk is located in southeast Armenia, about 160 miles from Armenia's capital, Yerevan, and normally takes five hours to get there. It's part of the Syunik province, on the slopes of Khor Dzor (Deep Gorge). 

Until the 1950's/1960's, villagers lived in cave dwellings depicted in the photos below. These dwellings, some of which are man-made caves, are intricate, consisting of separate rooms. There have also been underground tunnels found from one home to the next. These tunnels were used to warn of enemy attacks. In the mid-1900's, Soviet officials removed the remaining villagers still living in these caves, as they deemed it uncivilized. Some of these dwellings are still used today to house livestock.

The people of Khndzoresk, and Syunik in general, have been and are still known for their strength and courage. While Armenia adopted Christianity in 301AD, the people of Khndzoresk are believed to have remained Pagan until around the 1600's (still to be historically proven). Their location, which was difficult to get to, and their stubbornness is what has kept their traditions alive.

One Khndzoresk villager told me a story about how his grandmother would protect her home on horseback against the Turks.

Until 2012, getting to the cave dwellings was a hike through untamed trails. In 2012, a "swinging bridge" was constructed to allow for an easier and faster access, especially for the villagers of Khndzoresk. The bridge, seen below, bounces with your every step. the man, a villager from Khndzoresk, at the end of the bridge had been too afraid to walk through it, but said, "If crazy tourists from America can do this, I'm going to do it as well." Towards the end, he was running on the bridge like a little kid.

If you're ever in the area, I highly recommend you visiting Khndzoresk. Take the hike to the bridge and explore the dwellings. On your way back you'll be hungry enough to have some delicious khorovats (Armenian BBQ), or the endless healthy greens this place has to offer.

Rachel and David

Though Rachel and David are to wed in June, 2015, they held a small, private ceremony at home, specifically for their grandparents. For this couple to selflessly do this so that their grandparents could enjoy their wedding is amazing, and I was thrilled to be a part of it. What made it better was that they also lit a candle for Hanukkah.  

The Shmavonyan's

It's always nice and refreshing to see a happy family. The Shmavonyan's are just that. And they love taking family photos! Photos are a glimpse of our memory - capture as much as you can, and if you need help with that, let me know.