Saturday, November 25, 2006

Americakan Despaunatoon

The American Embassy in Armenia…
I’ll be honest with you. I’ve got nothing but wonderful things to say about the people there. All those that I’ve met have been personable and desire to put forth the best American face possible while helping this country as much as possible. I have had a wonderful time and enjoy their free beer and sympathetic gifts of peanut butter and Fritos… but as dedicated American tax payers I feel it my duty to tell you what it’s like over here.
Many times these “pork barrel” policies within the US government are only able to survive because they are out of the public eye enough to not draw any attention to themselves. By flying under the radar their existence is preserved. I would categorize the American Embassy in Armenia as under said “radar.” Maybe the millions upon millions of dollars spent on the embassy compound and lavish housing for its employees is all made of that stealth bomber material. Whatever it is, it all seems a bit much. And damn it, I’m here to expose it! (All this time around former hippy / 1972 Berkeley grads who organized protests in “their day” and are now PC volunteers has gotten me all fired up about having “a cause.”)
My drive from Gyumri to the capital city rolls past many impoverished villages. Some of which sprouted up around soviet era factories that now sit unused and broken down. As one might imagine the loss of the major (almost singular) employer in the area has led to a severe lessening of their financial well being, and one can imagine how these villages look. What they do not look like is coastal Orange County California. But lo and behold as I approach the outskirts of the city of Yerevan I can look to my right and see just such a coastal Californian scene. The eye can sneak peaks through the protective walls to strips of manicured green grass and well kept streets with what look like gutters. I always expect to see Land Cruisers or other such vehicles, but I think they’re all kept in their garages. For my local readership; garages are things attached to houses that hold cars to protect them from the elements and prying eyes of bitter Peace Corps volunteers.
But the wall is not extensive enough to shield the eyes from the two and three story monstrosities inside the complex. These houses are ridiculous! I haven’t been in many of them, but the few I have been in are nonsensically nice. We’re not talking MTV Cribs here (for my older readership, ask a youngster, they’ll know) but they are way more than is necessary, prudent and culturally sensitive (I can’t believe I just used that buzz-word seriously.)
I am in no way downplaying the job that these Foreign Service officers do, only saying that there is no shortage of qualified people fighting tooth-and-nail for these Foreign Service jobs. Though I can attest that it is definitely difficult to work in a foreign country, there is no need to incentivise (according to MS Word this is not an actual “word”) these people in such a way. I happen to know that with free housing, mostly tax-free status, and life in a place with a low cost of living, the financial incentives are present. I suppose I forgot to mention that the government of our fair country (America) pays them pretty handsomely too. The demand for these jobs coupled with a small number of positions available would lead any amateur economist to the simple conclusion that excessive pay and incentives are not necessary. But this is only half of my gripe, or cause if you will.
We come to the issue of cultural sensitivity. I realize that the Embassy is not Peace Corps (an organization that wants us to live at the level of our surrounding neighbors and beneficiaries) but I do think that there is something to be said for being inconspicuous. Projecting this sort of effusive wealth to the local population does no favor to the organizations trying to convince people that they really do want to help, just because. I have a helluva (another example of an MS Word “non-word”) time convincing anyone here that I’m a volunteer. Their exposure to the excess of America that many see as a byproduct of her capitalist greed foments bitterness and distrust of Americans countrywide. I would assume worldwide also.
It just all seems so insensitive, imprudent and again… Ridiculous. It would seem obvious that it would behoove the United States Government to scale back their flashy and excessive provisions for Embassy staff. Even if it was necessary to incentivise the Foreign Service employees in this way (which I find hard to believe) it could be done in a more unobtrusive way. Maybe try and fly under the radar of the Armenian people and not the decision makers in Washington.

Post-disclaimer: In the spirit of transparency I should admit that the posting of this does coincide closely with the defeat of the Peace Corps Football team in the first annual “Embassy vs. Peace Corps Thanksgiving Football classic.” Take that as you will.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Photos finally

Hey for friends and family (and anyone interested I suppose for that matter.) I was finally able to get a good connection and post some photos. So if you want go to
login as: dmonley
password: dominic

I think the slideshow is a good way to view things

If anyone has a better way to display these photos on the internet let me know. They posted in alphabetical order, so there's no rhyme of reason to the order.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Nor Yeregha

My cousins had a baby yesterday. Michael Patrick Monley! The addition of another Monley to the earth was a big deal in pockets of the west coast and Minnesota for sure, but who could have known that a house in Gyumri, Armenia would erupt in celebration.
After receiving a call from the new uncle discussing the details of the birth, I exited my bedroom to talk with my family over dinner. I truly didn’t think that they would be too interested in the new addition to the Monley clan half a world away, but as the conversation slowed and I, always feeling awkward in times of silence (even when I don’t really speak the language) realized that I could formulate a sentence describing my new relative, burst forth with it. As my mother (who speaks some English) reformulated my word order and translated from my Armenian to actual comprehensible Armenian the family understood and the table exploded in congratulations. Hugs were spread around and the liquor cabinet was cracked. This normal Tuesday night dinner turned into a celebration of Michael Patrick.
My new host family (in great contrast to my first) doesn’t drink. In fact, I’ve never seen any one of them so much as drain a full shot glass full of wine over the course of a party, but apparently this was different. As my host brother reached to the depths of the liquor cabinet he kept producing these amazingly old bottles of cognac. I’ve a bit of knowledge regarding alcohol costs. My time spent as a bartender at a fancy establishment made me aware of the basic going rate for a decent bottle of well aged cognac. Bearing this in mind I can’t even begin to imagine how valuable the bottle of 60 year old bottle of cognac was, let alone the 85 year old one, both from which we were partaking and comparing.
As the cognac continued to flow so did the toasts. Young Michael Patrick was celebrated in proper Armenian fashion. After a couple too many toasts we came to the conclusion that indeed he would make a fine Armenian!
For me this just served as not only a way to curb my loneliness at missing such a momentous family event in America, but also another example of how gracious and genuinely caring this culture is. I’m really quite lucky to have received a Peace Corps placement in a country with such wonderful people and tradition.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Khash jasheeapse

Every sport has its finale. The World Series in baseball speaks for itself. The NBA finals is coming into it’s own as of late, as dynasties are broken and more parity takes hold. What can hold a candle to those first two days of the NCAA college basketball tournament, leading to 3 more blissful weeks of the narrowing of the field of 64 to the final 4. And college football… well, I guess not every sport has its finale.
On a much more micro level the Peace Corps in Armenia has their own little finale of sorts. I guess it’s more of a rivalry than a finale and the initial paragraph of this blog should have more fittingly talked of the Iron bowl, Kings-Lakers, Yankees-Red Sox, and Woodland vs. Davis back in the day (my apologies to all non-Yolo county residents.) In Peace Corps Armenia we draw our Mason-Dixon line somewhere around scenic Lake Sevan. This is the separating line of the volunteers from the North and the South of the country.
The Khash Bowl was explained to me as a “not so friendly” flag football game for bragging rights within PC Armenia. With all the pre-weekend discussion and trash talk I believed it. The south won last year and thus had the honors of hosting the event somewhere south of Sevan. They, being a spiteful bunch placed the game far down in the south of the country. By subjecting us to an arduous journey I’m sure they hoped to dampen our spirits and stiffen our shamefully out-of-shape bodies. Frankly, I think it worked pretty well. By the time I rolled out of the 4 hour ride on a cramped and crowded mini-bus I was a bit stiff, to say the least. I have to imagine that my fellow teammates felt the same.
The rules of Khash Bowl are simple; basic flag football. The rules are pretty much interpreted by the referees arbitrarily. My readership might imagine this a problem as the pool of qualified and unbiased American football refs in Armenia, and the Caucasus for that matter is very small (in fact, non-existent.) Thus the referees are taken from our own ranks. Since “our ranks” all live in either the north or the south (how could it be any other way) this also brings up issues. But fate is a fickle and sometimes friendly beast who afforded Peace Corps Armenia quite possibly the most over-qualified volunteer ever. Our referee was a retired Federal Court judge. And from a relatively corruption-free nation like the US, we couldn’t ask for much more.
We (the north) jumped out to a quick lead. I don’t think the south was really prepared for the grittiness of the recently-arrived volunteers from the north. The south began clawing its way back slowly. Two huge plays turned the tide. One being a questionable kicked ball on a fumble that led to a 75 yard touchdown. (Someone who knows these things should tell me if kicking is legal.) When all was said and done two and half hours later, we were left battered and broken and the south had a two touchdown margin of victory, and that portion of the Khash Bowl weekend was finished.
Only a portion of volunteers actually play in the game. Most come to the event just to watch and partake in the after party. Every year someone is foolish enough to agree to host this event at their site and completely ruin their reputation and standing in the community for the rest of their service there. When 60-70 Peace Corps volunteers descend upon one village of people who has seen nary a foreigner, let alone the panoply of ethnically mixed volunteers that the Peace Corps brings, the actions of every visiting volunteer is sure to effect the community’s opinions of the volunteer(s) who hosting the event. And make no mistake, Americans in this culture are always seen as shameful.
We rented out a restaurant (to keep everyone contained and off the streets) and had a helluva a time. One of the volunteers had prepared some amazing chili, and there was a “straight out the village” homemade vodka tasting. Being that I live in a large, very developed site (you might even say a city) I haven’t had the pleasure… or let’s say experience, of tasting the variety of witch’s brews that are produced in various bathtubs, old soda bottles, and random vats in villages across this great country. They were all pretty potent, and I supposed resembled vodka (mostly in color only.) As one might imagine the night descended into debauchery, and was enjoyed by all. Maybe less-so by the hosting volunteers who have to face this community for the remainder of their service.
As my wracked body and those of my teammates piled into our mini-bus for the cramped, uncomfortable and miserable all-day trip home I couldn’t help but be excited for the next Khash Bowl and some redemption for the North. Mostly though I just hope I never have to host this event in my site and subject my reputation to the battering of such a large group of Peace Corps volunteers.