Saturday, December 08, 2007

yerazi mech apren

I can’t quite be sure where it started, but I’ve always held out the dream of being some sort of pop star. The opportunity to be the “cute younger brother type” in an up-and-coming boy band has surely passed me by as I’ve gone from being a Joey and aged into a Donny (Please recognize the NKOTB reference). The genesis may well have been my love of the Von Trapp family singers and how easily that name could be tweaked into the ‘Von Monley’ Family singers, but more likely it was my frustration at watching young ladies coo over pop stars like Jordan Knight, Justin Timberlake or Joey Fatone. Really Joey Fatone? I imagine that guy wasn’t sitting at the cool table in High School. But I could never figure out how to parlay my subpar looks and subpar talent into a life of shopping mall concerts filled with various young women throwing their undergarments at me.

Well I finally figured it out. Be born in Armenia.

For a country of maybe 1.5 million people and geographically the size of Maryland, this place has a BOOMING pop music business. I’ve pondered the reasons for this… and I’ve got nothing. Really it is shocking, just shocking. Pop stars are everywhere! And what is more, most of the pop stars have subpar talent (a worldwide phenomenon I realize) but in Armenia they aren’t even necessarily good looking. The women tend to be a bit more to behold, but many, if not most of the male pop stars are of portly stature and plain of face. There is not a washboard stomach to be seen, though I suppose in a climate this frigid there aren’t a lot of extremities exposed, let alone midriffs.

What I love most is that because the country is so small you run into these pop stars everywhere. I can hardly go to any medium sized event without a murmur breaking out amongst the younger women in the crowd. Inevitably I end up being excitedly informed that ‘such and such’ is sitting in the front row. Dumbfounded, I always require supplemental information like, ‘oh you know, the guy from the video… you know… the one where he is dancing in a fountain with the five newer model BMWs parked in the background’. But even if you aren’t lucky enough to run across the cream of the crop pop stars, there is inevitably a group of newly post-pubescent, pimple-faced teenagers making their ‘world debut’ somewhere. I recently went to teach a class at a local orphanage and instead of walking into the normal melee of 10 children running around and attempting to do each other bodily harm with any available semi-sharp object, I entered to find the ‘debut concert’ of a group called yotitz-mek (see picture below). I’m no expert, but I have to imagine that there are better places to debut than an under-heated, poorly furnished room of penniless orphans.

My introduction to Armenian pop music was blessed from the beginning. When I first arrived at my permanent site, I learned that my host-family’s brother was the manager of the Armenian equivalent of Latin America’s ‘Menudo’. For those of you who do not know, ‘Menudo’ is a boy band that rotates out talent just when singers reach puberty and thus maintains the groups high-pitched vitality (Ricky Martin got his start in Menudo). My second week living in Gyumri I was able to attend the 25th anniversary of this ‘Armenian Menudo’ (the bands actual name is ‘Dexanik’). It was a parade of all the talented singers who had gotten their start in this band. Most of the hottest pop stars in Armenia came out to pay homage to this pillar of pop-star production. After 3 hours spent listening to various catchy tunes and the ear rending screams of adoring young fans, I was escorted backstage to meet all the stars. (It’s good to be an American sometimes.) My friend dragged me around and posed me with nearly every performer. At one point she had to literally rip two young fans off of this guy (see below) so I could take a picture.

She kept assuring me that I would appreciate these pictures later…. And I have. I’m amazed at how impressed people are that I have actually me these stars! Again, I have no still have no idea who any of them are, but I did get to meet: this guy (again, not sure who he is, but he's big)

And this guy. They call him Mr. X and he never takes off his Zorro-esque eye-band in public (it’s quite mysterious).

Or these ladies. You may recognize the singer second from the left as the Second place finisher in Armenia’s version of ‘American Idol’ called ‘Hay Superstar’.

I suppose that this high concentration of pop-music is a healthy thing for a country of this size. It again displays an entrepreneurial spirit of which I’ve already written plenty, and also I think it shows that an inordinate of people here have big dreams and are willing to pursue them endlessly. It’s kind of inspiring. How easily my pop-star dreams faded as the pressure of college-loans and responsibility built-up. Hmmmm… I’ve still got a coupla months left here to procure an Armenian fan base. If I can parlay that into a groundswell among the Armenian Diaspora community in Glendale and Moscow, then on to the larger LA scene and after that….. Who knows… Watch out Joey Fatone…

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Oh my Darlins'

I just finished up one of those oft sought after projects during Peace Corps service… the type that provides that fuzzy feeling deep in the cockles of one’s heart. I suppose working with kids will do that to you.
In tandem with another volunteer from Poland, we worked with some wonderful children from a local orphanage to practice and then perform a play/musical in a national children’s theater festival. It was a foolishly ambitious plan (and not mine). The play, ‘Oh my Darlin’ Clementine’ was acted out and sung all in English. This presented a challenge as none of the children spoke English (save for our narrator, thank goodness). But the largest problem was the rampant learning disabilities and ADD present in nearly every child. Readers can imagine how difficult it was to get these 6-13 year olds to memorize their lines in an unfamiliar language. But the kids worked really hard and in the end came through. We certainly didn’t win any prizes but at the very least the kids got a great experience.

(The group after rehearsals)

Many of these children had never been to the capital city before, performed in a theatre festival, or been in a play for that matter. The real success of the project was providing these kids with a sense of accomplishment and some exposure to the larger world (even if that exposure was merely a trip to the capital city, a 2 hour drive away).

(More rehearsals)

Their excitement was evident on the bus ride down. I sat down in the front seat to guard against any wayward children falling out the only exit point of the vehicle. Before we had even left the orphanage, one of the young boys came running up to me and asked if he could sit on my lap for the ride to the capital. I assented; glad that I’d be able to keep an eye on this particular boy who is perhaps the most overly active and ADD stricken young person since Robin Williams was an adolescent. In the course of our conversation I asked him why he wanted so badly to sit by me (I was probably just subconsciously fishing for a compliment). He looked up at me with a look of exhilaration, leaned in and whispered in my ear that he wanted to be the first one to arrive in the capital city. I was confused, until he explained (quite succinctly) that if he was at the front of the bus when we pulled into the city limits he would be the first one there. It was one of the cutest things I’ve ever experienced. It was obvious he had been hatching this scheme for some time. I was proud of him.
As we entered the city, it was awesome to watch him stare out the window in wonder at all the large buildings, streets congested with traffic and people milling about. The scale of the Capital city, Yerevan is not comparable to anything else in the country and this kid was impressed and intrigued. His eyes were like saucers, and he kept leaning over and would begin to ask me a question only to become distracted by something else more interesting to look at outside of the bus. For a kid with this degree of ADD, it was joyous overload. I had thoughts of taking my keys out of my pocket and jangling them behind his head as my own little self-indulgent behavioral test, but then thought better of it, fearing that his head might explode.

(our narrator during the final performance. Unfortunately we don't have any good pictures of the play itself)

The play went off without a hitch (we even had the Polish Ambassador in attendance, which was a big deal). But more than that, the kids had an awesome eye-opening experience and seemed to feel a real sense of accomplishment. It was a cool thing to witness. I’ve said it before, but this Peace Corps gig ain’t all that bad.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

eench kooz es?

The ‘up-sell’ is a staple in most developed economies. In stores, shops and restaurants all across the great liberty filled expanse of America things like; “would you like fries with that”, “buy two more and the fourth will be free”or “for just 2 more dollars you can buy the higher quality version or this or that widget” etc… are uttered nearly every second. Just the thought of employees who are willing to consistently attempt to wring the last few pennies out of malleable customers brings a certain comfort and warmth to this young capitalist’s heart.

This sort of enterprise does not generally apply in Armenia… At least not where I live.

At times this lack of assertive capitalism is appreciated. The lady at the store who tells you that the bread you asked for is actually not fresh and thus you’d be better served to try this or that loaf instead is great. It smacks of some 1940’s mid-western general store, of which stories I was raised on by my mother. It’s nice to have shop keepers who are looking out for the customer and not always the bottom line. It is when this sort of ‘thoughtfulness’ is combined with the assumption (of seemingly all shop keepers in my city) that young men (especially Americans) cannot take care of themselves, that it adversely affects my life and becomes a real pain.

There are so many examples that pop up in my life that I will merely lay out a few to give my readers a basic idea.

I went into a store the other day to buy an umbrella. A simple task one would assume. Not so. I approached the lady behind the counter and asked to see the umbrellas. She brought out an odd assortment of umbrellas. I, not being much of a shopper or overly concerned with fashion, pointed to the first medium-sized black umbrella that I saw. The shopkeeper told me firmly that, “certainly I didn’t want ‘that’ umbrella”. She punctuated her statement with the all too familiar tongue clicking (somewhat akin to our ‘tisk-tisk) of Armenian women when they are disgusted with the lack of knowledge of foreigners. She reached beneath the counter and produced a pink umbrella with pictures of circus animals dancing on it. Seriously, it was one of those long skinny numbers with a curved wood handle. I thought she was joking (obviously) and laughed a bit. She looked up a bit confused and proceeded to extol the value of this umbrella as opposed to my initial choice. The conversation continued;

Me: thanks, but I would really just prefer the black one

Her: but the black umbrella costs 250 dram more (which is the equivalent of $0.75)

Me: Oh I realize, thanks for your concern, but I’d like to purchase the black umbrella. Here is my money (thrusting forth the proper amount).

Her: I’m sorry but I don’t think you understand. Where are you from?

Me: I’m from America, here is the money please give me the black umbrella.

Her: America? You don’t understand. Are you married?

Me: I’m not actually married.

Her: (again the reproachful tongue clicking) well then let me assure you from a mother and a wife that certainly you want this one (pointing to the pink dancing circus animal covered umbrella).

Me: thanks so much for your help, but I’ll just take the black one. Here, here’s the money… take it!

Her: I’m not selling you the black umbrella. You must trust me, this one is better. Do you have a mother and a father in America? What city are you from?

Me: Really…please… this is how it works. I give you money and you give me what I ask for. Seriously, just give me the umbrella… Take the money…. TAKE IT!

…This verbal jousting continued for sometime. Finally as other patrons piled up behind me (all adding their own opinions), they collectively came to the conclusion that the pink umbrella was a no-brainer for a no-brainer from America. I realized it was a loosing cause and walked out, uncovered into the down pouring rain, returning to my apartment soaked and once again emotionally battered.

Another favorite was when I needed super-glue for an important task. Really if you’re going to the trouble to buy super glue it must be an important task that calls for some hard-core adhesion. I went to the hardware stall in the market and asked for the name brand super glue prominently displayed on the wall. The guy of course reaches beneath the counter and produces some knock off brand and brags that it only costs 100 dram (about $0.33 cents) for the whole tube. I asked if he had anything of maybe more reliable quality and maybe a little more expensive... like say, that one I just pointed to prominently displayed on the wall. He replied in the affirmative, but told me that this one only cost 100 dram so there would be no reason to pay the extra $0.75 for the name brand trustworthy stuff. We went back and forth for sometime (reference above ‘umbrella’ conversation, but replace the questions about marriage with more unseemly inquiries). This time I bought the cheap glue, and needless to say I was disappointed with the results.

But these are almost understandable, as price considerations, combined with concern for hapless foreigners leads shopkeepers to be overly fretful and protective of proper purchasing. It’s when obvious matters of taste come into play that I am just baffled.

Example:

I am a huge fan of the peaches here. They are leaving the market soon (as winter approaches) so I am attempting to consume as many as humanly possible while I still can. I often buy from this nice lady who sells fruit by my house. That was until last week…

Me: Hi. Nice to see you again. I hope your family is well, and that your life is going well. My family both in America and in Armenia are doing well. Also my work and life in general is really great. I’m still not married, but I did enjoy meeting your daughter the other day. I agree that she is wonderful and will obviously make a wonderful wife someday. You should be very proud. (I always try to shorten conversations by preemptively answering the obligatory and chronic questions, before they are inevitably asked.) May I have 2 kilos of your peaches?

Her: ah Dominic Jan, I have these wonderful pears now. How about I give you 2 kilos of the pears… or what about 1 kilo of the pears and a kilo of these lovely blood oranges. They just came in today and are so fresh. My cousin grew them in Varamaberd village… Do you know where Varamaberd village i?(beginning to fill my bag with pears and blood oranges.) Dominic jan, you aren’t still living alone are you? You really need to find a wife. How old did you say you were?

Me: Varamaberd is a lovely place… but actually, though the pears look great, I’d really just like the peaches. You know how much I love peaches, and I want to eat as many as I can before they are gone for the winter. So I’ll take 2 kilos of the peaches. Here is my money (thrusting forth the proper amount).

Her: Dominic jan, you eat far too many peaches. It’s not healthy. Why don’t you come to my house tonight and I’ll cook you up a nice meal. You really are far too skinny. Women don’t like skinny husbands. They don’t provide as well for their families. It’s decided then! You will come to my house tonight and we’ll eat fresh blood oranges. I’ll call my cousin from Varamaberd. He grew the blood oranges you know. Did you know that Varamaberd is the name for the great fort that our great Armenian king Varam helped to defend?

Me: Wow. I did not know that. I would love to come to dinner, but I have to teach a class tonight. Maybe another time. Actually I’m kind of in a rush to get to said class… so can I just get the two kilos of peaches. Here is the money.

Her: Eating so many peaches is not healthy. Peaches make you skinny. It’s not safe to be skinny with the winter coming. I’ll give you a kilo of pears and throw in the blood oranges for free. They’re really quite fresh.

Me: (realizing that I was hopelessly outmatched partially conceded defeat) How about I take 1 kilo of the peaches and then I’ll also buy 1 kilo of the pears. I’ll take 1 blood orange to try and if I like them I’ll come back and buy more. With my health and future nuptial prospects in mind I promise to share the peaches with my class tonight, so I won’t be eating them all myself. Deal?

Her: Well I suppose. I don’t like it, but if you like the blood oranges you have to promise to come back…

The conversation concluded with some discussion about the health and girth of married men in their mid-twenties in relation to those who remain single.

Though these episodes (and many others like them) might give the impression that the market economy at the street level in my town is a bit immature, I tell you there is hope. I was relieved to walk to the fruit stand on the next block and have the lady there not only sell me all the peaches I wanted, but attempt to charge me a higher price because I was from America. Now comfortable in the knowledge that capitalist greed was at least beginning to take hold here, I gladly paid the premium.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Vacation

I just returned from my first real vacation during the Peace Corps. A few friends and I climbed Mt. Ararat and visited eastern Turkey. All in all a really cool trip.

The symbol of Armenia is Mt. Ararat. The only thing is that this coveted mountain sits just over the border (closed due to a war in the 1990s) in Turkey. This perceived denial of land, especially the ultimate symbol of Armenia makes this mountain a huge part of the national consciousness. With our American passports in hand we were able to make this trip, and fulfill the dream of many Armenians. Needless to say upon our return we have acquired a huge store of “street cred” with Armenians.

I’m no climber, but the mountain is kinda tall. Almost 17000 feet. All the guide books claim it is “the tallest mountain in Europe”. But if eastern Turkey is in “Europe” then I’ve got hopes that Mongolia will be an ascension country to the EU in no time. We had been warned about altitude sickness and the like, but our group seemed to do ok. There were certainly a few headaches at the top.

So below you'll find some pics of our vacation, if interested.


This is a photo of Mt. Ararat from the capital city of Yerevan.


The 5 days spent climbing the mountain were fairly uneventful, as there's not much to look at nature wise, as evidenced by this picture.


Our summit hike began at two in the morning so we could reach the top at sunrise, which we accomplished. This was the view out over Armenia from the top of the mountain as the sun was rising. Unfortunately it was hazy and we couldn't make out the capital city in Yerevan.


This is the group of us that made it up to the top of the mountain. It was very, Very, VERY cold on the top of the mountain.

I lost a bet to a buddy of mine from Boston and have been wearing a Boston Red Sox hat ever since. Go Giants!

On our trip we were also able to see a bit of Eastern Turkey, which is really quite a beautiful and developed place (reletive to what I was expecting). It was certainly the most militarized place I've ever been, as 4 pretty hot borders meet in a small area and the Kurdish inhabitants of this part of Turkey are a bit restless. There were tanks, armored vehicles and men with automatic weapons everywhere. I d

My favorite place that we went was the abandoned ancient city of Ani. In short (and this does the history no justice) it was the capital of Armenia when the culture was at its Zenith in the mid 10th century. It was a great walled city that has since sat untouched, except by earthquakes and time. The Turkish government doesn't keep it up really at all so it is this crazy eerie ancient city where the churches are the only things still standing. At one time it was known as the city of a thousand churches.

This church was damaged in an earthquake in teh 14th century and then struck by lightning in the 20th century, which caused half of it to fall down.


Another example of an Armenian church in Ani fallen into disrepair.


We also stopped off at an old Turkish fort on the way. It was interesting to compare the two architectural styles.

All in all it was a good trip.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Summer reca(m)p

Peace Corps service is shot through with down time. Winters are book reading bonanzas spent sitting by heaters in Armenia and outside of huts in Peace Corps Africa. But summers… well summers are for camps. In Peace Corps Armenia we’ve got a camp for just about everything. We’ve got eco camps, girls camps, boys camps, international camps, sports camps, human rights camps, computer camps… you name a cause and we’ve probably got a camp.

I and the other volunteers yearned for the chance to be productive and busy for extended periods of time; planning games, chasing kids around campsites at 4 in the morning and other such nonsense. I was personally able to head up one camp myself and be a counselor and planner for many others. Below is a recap of some of the highlights (complete with nifty pictures).

IOC camp 2007

The IOC camp was the first of many international camps I was to be a part of. With Armenia being relatively isolated, one of the big things is to try to expose Armenian youth to other cultures and ideas. We had participants from a few other countries, but most interestingly was that we were able to get participants from Turkey to come. With a closed border and animosity of both sides, it was a great to see all these participants from Turkey and Armenia getting along swimmingly.


This is the arrival of one or our Turkish Participants. It was awesome to see how they were embraced by all the Armenians.



Three guesses what the American counselors are singing here….? Yes that’s right…. Lean on me. Being campy = Cliché.


This is a cool photo of our camp director Lusine looking out over the crowd of our participants. The participants had so much energy. It was impressive and as a teacher it was great to be able to tap into.


A big part of this camp was cultural exchange. This is a pair of Armenians performing a traditional dance.


This is another of our Turkish participants doing a traditional dance. It was explained that these Turkish dances sometimes mimic animals. This particular dance was mimicking an eagle.


The Armenians at the camp greatly outnumbered the internationals. This photo shows the Armenian contingent performing a song for the final day talent show. The group of Armenians we had at this camp was really quite impressive. I was so blessed to meet so many bright driven young people.


The group of Peace Corps counselors at the IOC camp was awesome. Because we live in pretty remote areas, we really don’t get to know the volunteers from other parts of the country all that well. This camp gave me a chance to get to know a great group of PCVs from other parts of the country. This picture shows us in the typical Caucasian squatting stance (not as easy as it looks), surely talking about something important like…. The current price of eggplant in the market, or maybe green beans.

Youth Without Borders / Under the Same Sky Camps

The names of these two camps quickly betray that they were European Funded camps that no right thinking American funder would ever give money to. Unlike the IOC camp, the European Commission is all about straight cultural exchange. Whereas the IOC camp actually had curriculum and classes that taught things, these two camps bring together people from many different European nations to exchange their cultures. There was a service element during the camps, meaning that every morning the participants would wake up and go do something with an orphanage or some old peoples home. But besides those three hours of the day it was basically sitting around talking and hopefully exchanging cultures. For people who know me personally, these camps were certainly not my idea, but this is the bread and butter of an organization that I work with, so I swallowed my tongue and exchanged culture for a few weeks.

Here is a group of us (Latvians, a Georgian, an Englishman and yours truly) culturally exhanging while taking a break from one of the work projects.

This is my counterpart (who is awesome) and another Armenian participant after a long bout of cultural exchange. This time the cultural exhange took the shape of the singing of “Winds of Change” by the Scorpions numerous times. By numerous I mean about 26. They love that song.

This is a photo of a few of the participants culturally exhanging by a wall overlooking the unfinished Soviet buildings that surround the city where I live. Notice the Headband. There’s a cultural exchange for you.



At the end of one of the camps we had a talent show, and a few of us created a musical/play that mocked the cultural clash between the very forward Latvian male participants and the very conservative Armenian females at the camp. It was a hilarious play. What was less hilarious was watching the horrified conservative Armenian females fend off the Latvian advances. That was some cultural exchange.

BRO Camp 2007

BRO camp has been my baby since I got to my site. BRO stands for Boys Reaching Out. It was the offshoot of a similar young womens camp done in many other Peace Corps countries. That camp was called GLOW (Girls leading our world) but for obvious reasons the name had to be adjusted. Merely replacing the “G” simply wouldn’t suffice.

The camp brought together the best and the brightest boys aged 11-15 from all over the country to learn about leadership and other important topics relevant to the life of young men. The most useful parts I felt were the lessons we had on Health/Knowing your changing body/STDs/and gender. We were able to create an atmosphere where the boys felt comfortable asking any questions they may have had. In this way we were able to dispel many many many many many misconceptions and traditional wivestales. Though I had to stand in front of a crowd of pubescent boys and answer some of the most awkward questions ever posed, it was well worth it. We blew some minds at this camp.



Here is a group of the young men after climbing a mountain. The camp was set in a fairly scenic area, just near the Georgian border in the north and the Turkish border to the west.



A camp isn’t a camp without the shirts. A few of the participants with their shirts.


Here I am during our “we’ll answer any question you ask” session. It lasted for almost 3 hours. They boys really felt comfortable asking about absolutely anything. And by anything I mean any taboo awkward subject that you can think of they asked about. It was wonderful to be able to talk frankly with them about things that they may never be able to discuss openly again.


One the boys. I love this picture.


This is Jamie (another PCV) teaching the kids about gender. This was the hardest lesson for the kids.The gender roles in Armenia are so set that it was rough to even crack the façade. But hopefully we were able to at least get a few of the boys thinking about why gender roles in Armenia are the way they are.


The future leaders of Armenia.

In conclusion… with the summer done and all my camps over with, I get to settle in and wait for winter to come. But first I’m off to climb Mt. Ararat. It’s real tall, so hopefully I’ll make it down off the mountain in order to post a blog with some pictures from the top.







Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Musings on a year past

The Peace Corps just brought together the A-14 group (Armenia - 14th year) of volunteers to celebrate the half-way point of our service. It was a great time to relax, discuss and compare experiences with other volunteers. On top of that they put us up in a pretty nice hotel/dorm that had clean sheets and intermittent hot water. Thank you taxpayers. Mostly the Peace Corps Administration let us just relax and reflect. It was really quite useful and enjoyable.

At the half-way point I’m struck by how much different my experience has been from what I expected when I flew out of Sacramento Int’l airport over a year ago. I came to the Peace Corps drunk on stories of riding motorcycles across Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s and photos of squatting mid-westerners teaching some feeble farmer a different way of scattering seeds in order to increase the harvest. Thus far my experience has been nothing like that. Not at all.

But it’s not a bad thing necessarily. Of course I’m sure all the former volunteers with whom I talked before I decided to apply to the Peace Corps had romanticized their experiences as they drew farther from the present. And I can appreciate the need to show glossy romanticized pictures in the PC brochures. How else would you sell something like this to potential volunteers?

Upon reflection I’m currently concluding that my life isn’t all that bad. I get to at least attempt to be helpful to many people (usually unsuccessfully). I have learned a lot about Armenian culture and can communicate on some level with locals in their language. I’ve been able to successfully represent America to people who might not have had positive exposure to our country. I’ve not only made amazing Armenian friends, but also amazing friends of the other volunteers living here in country. Though frustrations abound, I’m learning to cope with them so much better than when I first arrived, and in the upcoming year I figure I’ll be so much savvier as to become more successful than before with my projects and relationships.

Conclusion at the half-way point: Not all that bad of a gig really.

Conclusion 2: easily the sappiest and most boring Blog I've ever posted. And that's saying something. Sorry. Please don't stop reading my blog.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

of cows and contentment


My host brother and I just herded the cattle up to the mountains for a few days to feed. Guess I can check that off the Man Card.
A few weeks ago I received a call from my host brother from the village. He informed me that my host father had gone to Russia to work for a while and that he needed a little help tending to the cattle. I being a professional volunteer after all, and possessing an affinity for the movie City Slickers, excitedly agreed. I asked him what it entailed. He informed me that basically, we were taking the cattle to the mountains to eat grass. Growing up in the breadbasket of California and having some milking experience myself, it made sense.
I asked him what I needed to bring. He said maybe a jacket. I asked about water. He informed me that it wasn’t necessary because he was bringing vodka. I wondered aloud about the wisdom of going 3 days hiking without water. He repeated (with a tinge of annoyance in his voice) that he was bringing vodka. And that was that.
My permanent site in Armenia is in a large city. I suppose one could say that relative to most other volunteers in country I live a terribly cosmopolitan existence. I looked forward to getting “back to nature and spending some time with my host brother with whom I’d lost touch since moving out to the “Big City”, as he so disdainfully refers to it.
The weather was very damp and the clouds were ominously grey as we set out from the house. I hadn’t really packed well (besides the water hidden beneath my summer change of clothes) and was pretty worried about rain coming, but as we reached the top of one of the large mountains, we came upon this large camp/community of makeshift shacks and old train cars. Apparently the people from the village all come up here to live during the summer as their cattle graze. It reminded me of border town Mexico, with car doors and chicken wire laid out in rows denoting property lines and serving as fences. There were traffic jams of livestock all over the place, the cows and sheep cutting each other off in much the same way as I used to do back on the mean freeways of California. Eager to show me the lay of the land, my host brother grabbed some cheese, vodka and some friends from the village and we set out on a hike around the top of these mountains.
Armenia has great contrast in flora, fauna and weather in different areas of the country even though it is a small place. Not four hours before, I had been in my dry hot arid home in Gyumri, but as we hiked even further up the mountain it almost seemed tropical. The mist was swirling around us, sometimes opening up to give us amazing views of the valley and villages below. The plants were looked thick and lush like something you’d find in the tropics. It was truly shocking. There were waterfalls and springs, flowers and foliage that was just amazing. It was like we had climbed this mountain and ended up in a different world.









Along this trail there were numerous benches and lookout points where the herders had built makeshift benches and tables. At each stop we would sit and partake of some cheese and vodka and toast the nature and how good life was. These people were truly content to be on this mountain with their cattle.
We rounded up a few stray cattle along the way and headed back to the makeshift community down the mountain a ways. We penned the bulls, and led the cows into the barn (more properly just labeled merely a covered area) and began the milking for the day. As we brought in pail after pail of milk, the women of the house began running the milk through various machines and boiling it on an open fire to pasteurize it. The men finished up and sat down to have yet more vodka and cheese and watch the women produce so many different things from this milk. Truly nothing was wasted. I watched as they produced cheese, yogurt, drinking milk, tan, sour cream, and other marvelous things that would cause a lactose intolerant person to throw caution to the wind. We finished the night off with a large bar-b-que and still more vodka and cheese.











(My host brother on his horse)






I arose early the next morning to the smell of cooking meat, dressed and did the whole thing again. The mist never fully parted to allow me to take in the full beauty of the landscape, but for all the glorious explanations I received from all the herders I believe it must have been beautiful. I was just stoked to be able to spend some time with people as genuinely happy as content as these.
The volunteers here often talk about “Peace Corps moments”. Those times when you truly feel that the brochures and stories that convinced us to join up for 2 years were not just a fraud. My experience had previously been utterly devoid of these, but I have to say that this experience was one for the brochures.


(a group of us standing by one of the fountains, and sitting at one of the makeshift tables)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A few photos


My Peace Corps crew from Gyumri. This is pretty much our life after work. Clockwise. Me, Brian, Scott, Bob and Peggy.


We had a Peace Corps photo contest and this picture won. Birthdays are big events around here.


The fruit is back in the markets now. My life is so much better now that I'm off the "all potato" diet. No more scurvy scares.

Cramped

My leg cramped up in a marchutnie yesterday. It was quite a scene.
Public transportation in Armenia is made up of small mini buses known as “marchutnies” or “marshutkas”. These medium sized vans are not as big as the short bus used in American schools but not as small as my family’s Ford Aerostar minivan that I recall so fondly from my childhood. I imagine that the picture you may be formulating in your head regarding the size of this vehicle is probably about right… except for the fact that you’re probably mentally filling this van with what… say 11 or 12 comfortably seated passengers? Or maybe you’re picturing some sort of hand rail running along the roof that allows excess passengers to stand in the aisles during peak hours. Let me assure you that you’re terribly mistaken.
The long haul city-to-city marchutnies across this great country do offer seats, but the intercity kinds are quite different. I have nary been in one where an actual seat is available. Usually as the vehicle approaches and stops in front of the awaiting customers all that is to be seen is a number of dark pant clad rear-ends pushing up against the window of the sliding door. Inevitably an arm slithers through the crowd of butts and disengages the latch of the door and suddenly the door pops open and the rear-ends tumble out followed by their respective bodies. The hope is that someone will be getting off at the stop and that more room will be freed up for the new passengers. If this is the case then all the layers of bodies barrel off until the person leaving is exposed. During the summer months this rider tumbles out breathless and sweating profusely, but with a look of joy indicative the joy of recently acquired freedom. As everyone shoves back into the vehicle, the waiting passengers wait till the end and then charge headfirst into the fray, somehow managing to close the door behind them. Their butts now pushed up against the sliding door window.
The inside of a marchutnie can not really be measured properly in number of passengers but is more justly measured in some unit of volume. Bodies are contorted and smooshed together in such a way that nearly every available space is filled. Oftentimes the taller will be hunched down bending over the crouched body of a squatting old lady, protecting her sack of produce with her body. The personal space of any passenger lucky enough to have found a seat is shamelessly violated. I’ve sat on many a lap, or cursed the breath of many a passenger with whom I’ve had to press my face up against. My main strategy is to avoid the armpits of all, chancing the rest to fate. As the marchutnie rushes over pot-holed streets and quickly taken turns the collective mass of bodies serves to absorb the centrifugal forces. Children and the elderly for obvious reasons are usually shuttled to the center of the vehicle to avoid injury.
It was against this backdrop that I foolishly entered a marchutnie the day after completing a long run and having tight sore legs. I was already late for a meeting across town and figured that taking public transport would save me a few minutes. The marchutnie was packed as usual. I pushed my way in and several stops later had been shoved towards the back of the aisle. I was bent over a shorter old man who was taking the brunt of my weight on every turn. That’s when I felt it. The brief tug of thigh muscle, followed by the clinching and buckling of said muscle, then immediate intense pain. (Those of you who have driven home from an intense day of skiing may be able to sympathize.) I was able to somehow squelch the urge to cry out, but couldn’t stop my leg from spasming and straightening. I had greatly upset the inner stasis of the marchutnie. There was nowhere for the surrounding people to go. As I tried to move my leg into a more comfortable position I kept kicking a bag of tomatoes sitting at the feet of an elderly lady hunched down. She understandably took offense to this and started yelling at me and pushing my leg away, protecting her produce. This had the obvious affect of increasing my own agony. I fell forward onto the old man and pushed him headlong into a seated lady who cried out as his head rammed into her chest and lap area. With only one leg working I had no leverage with which to straighten myself up and remove the weight of my body from this poor guy. As I crushed this old man into probably the most compromising position of his life, the old lady with the tomatoes continued hitting my thighs and butt with her purse, while others joined in, by collectively shoving me away from themselves in an effort to protect their produce. By this time the whole of the marchutnie was realizing that they had a kicking, unbalanced American on their hands. Many were yelling out profanities, others were just throwing disgusted looks that I could feel burning into the back of my agony filled body. I was finally able to roll off the old man and slither onto the floor of the marchutnie. Thankfully I ended up rolling over onto a sack of potatoes (a vegetable of a more hearty structure) and was afforded a slight bit of relief.
Gathering myself I meekly told the driver to stop, and was helped out of the vehicle by a few of the more kindly riders. They dropped me on the side of the road and I was left to hobble home and stretch. It’s a shame there’s no way to stretch one’s pride and make it feel better.

Khanutoom

Being an American in Armenia, people are interested in you. Say a couple of words in an Armenian (especially the local dialect) and they’re proposing that you marry their first born.
Example; The picture above shows me with some employees of a local store. I walked in, asked for some eggs and some bread (my cooking skills are limited) and next thing I know the owner/butcher (the guy in the middle) who was visibly drunk, is pulling me to the back of the store to introduce me to his daughter (far left). This was all a front though, as I believe he truly just wanted to drink a bottle of Vodka with me. People who have gone through some sort of alcoholic recovery would refer to my role as an “enabler” I believe.
After many shared toasts and good tidings exchanged, he showed me how to butcher a cow carcass. I had already learned this from my previous host family (they were the local village butchers) but of course I didn’t let on. Employees and customers interested by the stranger in their midst were coming and going, sharing shots of vodka, coffee and local news. Inevitably they all asked me the same questions, over and over again. After explaining for the 10th time that New York and Los Angeles are not really that close to each other and that I was not a Mormon, I was finally able to pry myself loose of the crowd. I left with not only my eggs and bread but also a large bag of cow innards (with which I have no idea what I will do) and some homemade jams and cakes. Not a bad deal if you ask me.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Picture


It's green and warm in Gyumri now. here is a picture of one of my english classes. A far cry from where our classes were held during the winter.... i.e. a freezing cold classroom.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

tarberutsyun chka

I suppose life is really just a series of events to look forward to. I know that I’ve always kept my sanity through boring stretches of work or school by looking forward to the next fun event. These events are relative… in my previous life I would look forward to the golfing weekend with my college buddies, or the beginning of the Woodland City League basketball season… You know…. Big Things like that. I think I can gauge the descent of my life by what things I look forward to now. Things like the eggplant (which is phenomenal here) coming back into the market next month or finding a roll of paper towels in the market can set off a rush of endorphins shooting through my body. It’s sad really.
But one event will occur this week that is the mother of all events in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer. Bigger even than the eggplant… seriously. The arrival of the new group of volunteers.
47 new American, English-speaking, Freedom loving, pop-culture informed human beings will be flying into Armenia on June 1st. They will bring with them glorious things like new DVDs, new stories and new books. They will also be bringing way too much stuff, from which many useful things can be instantly plundered by the more experienced volunteers.
Some of the current volunteers are looking forward to the infusion of new friends, others to potential life partners (tons of these fools get married over here), still others to being in a more “expert position” no longer the “new” volunteers. I… I just look forward to having some sort of concrete threshold, some marker to have passed. Technically I’m not even halfway done with my service yet, but with the arrival of these new volunteers I feel like I’m finally summiting and on the downward slope of my service. Secondarily I am looking forward to a much needed infusion of unfounded and uninformed idealism. I hope it is refreshing to all the older volunteers. I should also mention that there is a cool party that accompanies the night before arrival.
I remember vividly meeting the new group of volunteers last year. After such a long trip from New York the group of volunteers was bleery-eyed and sleep deprived. The Peace Corps shoved down our throats the idea that we needed to get off the plane dressed professionally, as that is how everyone in Peace Corps Armenia dressed. As we disembarked our bus (all dressed in suits, ties, and dresses) we approached the most rag-tag bunch of scruffy Americans I may have ever seen concentrated in one area. It was almost like they had done a sweep of the underbelly of the overpasses of San Francisco and collected all the sodden and downtrodden and plopped them down just outside of Zvartnots airport in Yerevan, Armenia. It’s been a long time since I read “the Lord of the Flies” but approaching this scene I must admit that my mind leapt immediately to this story. I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to be on this island.
This year I’m sure it will be no different. I sure as hell ain’t wearin’ a suit. What a difference a year makes.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

do asa

The curiousity of Armenians is oftentimes terribly tangential. Chalk it up to a broad curiosity about all things… well everything if you like, but I gotta tell you I’ve never had so many random and unrelated questions thrown at me in quick succession until I arrived here. The initial questioning upon gaining acquaintance with someone new is pretty standard and lays out (with surprisingly few exceptions) in this way;
· What is your name?
· Where are you from?
· Is that near Glendale, California, because you know there are a lot of Armenians there?
· How much money do you make?
· What is a volunteer…? No really… How much do you get paid?
· Why in the hell would someone work for nothing?
· Are you married? Why not? You are old, you know that you’re quite old to be single right? Do you want to marry my daughter? She’s very nice and speaks wonderful English…
It’s at this point that things usually get dicey. There’s no telling what will come next. Sometimes you’re saved by some sort of nationalist ranting about the “old country” or a rehashing of the laundry list of Armenian poets and playwrights who, “you absolutely must read.” These interrogators can be easily sated with a few knowing nods of the head and a mention of “the damn Turks” or “William Saroyan” respectively. But even though these situations are “more common” than the others, they are in no way “common” or can be anticipated. Usually the questions come out of nowhere and follow no train of thought whatsoever. This peculiarity became glaringly clear with a recent experience of mine.
I was recently invited to be interviewed on a radio talk/music show. The show was to be about American folk/popular music, and how it has changed over the years. I was told I would play a few songs and take a few calls from listeners. I had prepared myself with a stock of American songs that I felt would give the audience a real feeling of what American music was like, from some basic blues standards on through some John Cougar Melloncamp, and ending with some of those tunes that “the kids are listening to these days”. I also asked two other volunteers to join me, one from the south (Alabama) and well versed in the blues, and the other a man who lived through the 1960s and 70s (a subject that I was sure would come up). The fact that he only “remembers parts” of the aforementioned decades seems to add more credence to his insight and knowledge of the time period. The show was only in Russian so I, knowing only rudimentary Armenian, also brought along a friend as a translator.
When we arrived and the studio the DJ was pretty excited to see us. She is this strange Armenian anomaly. She dresses in bright colored clothes, is outgoing and gregarious and could only be compared to a burnt out hippy that is still holding on to the early 70s. I had met with her once previously and she had told me in the most certain terms that I must go to the mountains (pointing to a specific range in the distance) before the show, because there is “good energy” in those mountains, and that I must take this energy from the mountains and bring it to the show with me. Obviously I had not done this, but of course lied when she inquired about it. She was ecstatic that such “good energy” would be present in the studio.
I should know better than to go into any situation in Armenia with expectations of how things will go… because they never pan out, but I was expecting to introduce myself, the Peace Corps (I’m all about PR) and then talk a bit about the growth of American Folk/popular music while supplementing some points by performing some songs acoustically as examples. Maybe even take a few questions from callers. As the show got underway I did get a chance to introduce myself, as did Brian and Bob (the other PC volunteers) and Brian was able to tell the story about selling one’s soul at “the crossroads” in Mississippi to become a better blues guitarist. But after one quick rendition of a blues standard, the DJ had had enough. She wanted to know about us. She had Questions…
The DJ would speak (in Russian) to our translator, who would then turn to us and relay the question in English. My knowledge of Russian is non-existent, save for a few colloquial words used in our regional Armenian dialect, so I had no way to follow the conversation before our translator turned to our unsuspecting group and spluttered forth possibly the most disjointed and unexpected questions ever strung together. There was no way to anticipate these questions. How could we. We were in Armenia...

Translator: Bob, she wants to know if you believe in Angels?
Bob: I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that, “angels”? Well I am not quite sure.
Translator: How about God Bob. Do you believe in God? Do you have faith in God Bob?
Bob: Well I suppose I do, I just hope that he doesn’t loose faith in me. (Bob’s a witty guy)
Translator: Brian, She wants to know why do you think people in America are fat? For instance Tom Cruise married Katie Holmes.
Brian: I’m not quite sure how Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes factor into this, but I think that maybe in America the food has more preservatives and we don’t walk as much, because it is more common for people to drive cars. America is very spread out, so we need to use cars. But I’m no expert in this area.
Translator: Brian she’s asking if you believe in… oh I don’t know the word… those things that fly and have lights and are shaped like a plate, or maybe a bowl…?
Brian: You mean UFOs?
Translator: Yes! That’s it. She wants to know if you believe in UFOs and how many you have seen?
Brian: Well I think that… Actually I really don’t know. I mean… there are people who believe that they’ve seen them, but I really don’t know about it… ummm… I can’t say really…. I suppose there’s no real reason that there couldn’t be other life out there in the Universe.
Translator: She wants to ask, if you had to choose one single word as “the sweetest word” in the whole entire world what it would be.
Brian: Wow, well there are so many words out there… That’s a tough one… I think that Dominic would be best equipped to handle this one… (Passing the mic to me)

I would hope that my humble readership gets the idea. This went on for 2 hours with minimal commercial interruptions. Other highlights included;
  • Me admitting that yes, I would die for true love
  • A lengthy discussion on the differences of people on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, where I ended up (in a desperate attempt to get the show back on track) selling out and using platitudes like, “I think that things like music and love are examples of how we’re all just people, no matter if you were in Armenia or California during the Cold War. Really we’re all just people, no matter where we live, we all love our families, we all want the best for our children.”
  • Brian eventually realizing that “love” was the correct answer to the “sweetest word” question, and randomly blurting it out during some conversation about Yoga or some other nonsense.

All in all it was a mess, but pretty cool nonetheless. The feedback from the show was overwhelmingly positive. I suppose people really are more concerned with whether or not I would die for true love, than the intricacies of American folk music.

Yerkee


The kids here sing. In the spirit of transparency I should add that I didn’t spend much time around children when I was in the states, but I think I spent enough to be able to make a proper comparison with Armenian youth. The young people here don’t feel self-conscious at all about busting out into song in any situation. The wonderful thing is that nearly every time this happens many others join in. There seems to be this vast pool of well-known traditional songs (mostly about the capital city Yerevan or Mt. Ararat) that everyone knows the words to.
I was recently on a bus with a bunch of young orphans that I’m involved in a project with currently, and what would be a normally mundane bus ride in the states was instantly converted to a revelrous celebration of singing. It began with one kid singing to himself and then his neighbor hearing him and joining in. In no time, we (I was humming along only) were all singing song after song after song. There were no pauses between songs. As soon as one would end someone from the opposite end of the bus would begin with another. We were clapping and whooping it up like crazy. There were kids dancing in the aisles, hanging from the ceiling. Frankly it was a zoo (another difference here is the acceptance of a lack of order). The Bus Driver was on board too, singing and dancing in his seat, while paying a disturbingly small amount of attention to the mountainous road.
The ride was a long one and we began rehashing previously sung songs. I was surprised at how the 2nd time around they were just as excited to sing the song as before. I guess that’s the cool thing that I haven’t witnessed with youth in the states, is this freedom to enjoy the mere act of singing. The songs only serving as the vehicle. There seems to me to be a lack of self-consciousness among the youth here that I find refreshing and awesome.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

ov eh hamov

Last Tuesday was the “Genocide Memorial Day” in Armenia. This day stands in commemoration of the massive number of Armenians murdered at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries amid the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire and the shifting national boundaries, allegiances and nationalist suspicions that went along with the beginnings of WWI . This event still looms large in the Armenian psyche and its full recognition is still a sticking point between Armenia and its neighbors. Naturally, the day of recognition April 24th is a big deal here.

There is a massive remembrance event in Yerevan (the capital) where thousands upon thousands of people rest flowers at the National Genocide memorial. But there also exists numerous regional ceremonies as well. I and a fellow PC volunteer (my boy Scott) thought that it might be more authentic, more worthwhile to take part in our own regional ceremony that takes place every year, 15 miles outside of my city. During the previous 7 months spent living in Gyumri I have driven by this regional genocide memorial many times as I traveled to the neighboring regions, and had listened intently to many stories from locals about, “how wonderful it is on Genocide day when all the locals from Gyumri come together and travel the vast expanse from the city to the memorial by foot talking about memories of relatives lost during those dark days”. The memorial site sits in a high valley in the mountain range that separates my region of Shirak Marz from the neighboring region of Lori.

I awoke that morning to a light dusting of snow on my window sill. The grey hue visible outside and the wind-rattled window panes did not bode well for our trip. As I rolled out of bed and sprinted to engage and hug my heater, I dug down mentally to the depths of myself grasping for the sort of resilience that Peace Corps volunteers are supposedly known for, steeling myself for the difficult day ahead.

How does one dress for such a day? I knew it was going to be cold, and my limited, shamelessly pieced together winter wardrobe meant that if I wanted to ensure my warmth and wellbeing I would look disrespectfully unkempt. But this was an important and somber day… and I have plenty of Business casual clothing in country. Siding with what I assumed to be properly solemn protocol I dressed in slacks and a dress shirt (a layer of long-underwear beneath), but decided to forgo the suit jacket, and grabbed my thin shell of a rain jacket. An umbrella would have been a phenomenal idea, but under these cold conditions, who can blame such a seemingly small mistake.

Mile 0: Approaching the main square I expected to see a huge mass of people all holding flowers, fathers leaning over and sensitively explaining the events to their children, all ready to brave the elements and trudge up to the memorial. Alas, I only saw Scott there waiting for me. As we began walking out of the city we passed one area with many buses lined up and tons of people piling on to make the trip up to the memorial. Our trip just barely underway, Scott and I breezed past with an air of superiority, looking forward to discussing this lazy lack of proper deference for the event with the hundreds of “real” walking mourners we planned to meet on the road ahead. As we exited our city and the sidewalk turned to ice and mud we saw none of the multitude of walkers we had been promised by so many stories and other sources. In fact we saw nothing, except miles of steadily climbing road ahead and ominous grey clouds.

Mile 3: Scott is a trooper. I used to be a trooper, but since my enlistment in the Peace Corps my verve for life has diminished greatly. I’ll admit, that as the first storm cloud broke and snow started blowing upwards in our faces, I realized that walking into the strong wind as we were, this trip was going to be difficult. As passing vehicles began splashing mud all over us and the snow started sticking to the ground and soaking our clothes, I was the first to suggest going back. We were only 3 miles out of the city by then, but hadn’t seen any of the previously promised throngs of people. In fact we hadn’t seen a single other person walking, save for the Sheppard quickly herding his sheep towards shelter. We should have known.

Mile 5: We came across our first known landmark. The little village of Shirak. We had held out hope that the hearty village folk along the way would certainly not be taking buses up the mountain for the activities. These were people chiseled from the hard earth of the Eastern Anatolian Steppe. As we passed walked through the village, we asked a few of these “hearty” folks how far the memorial site was. In classic Armenian fashion we received answers ranging from 30 kilometers downwards to 4 kilometers. We, being woven of optimistic fiber (one has to be to sign up for this gig) chose to believe the 4 kilometer guy. He was wrong.

Mile 7: As we started ascending the mountain the weather turned angry. I suppose it didn’t so much “turn” angry, more that we were just walking directly up a mountain into a pretty crazy pass where a storm was raging. As we crossed the snow line we came across three young kids and asked them how far the memorial was. Immediately they suggested that we allow them to accompany and show us. Scott saw it as nice gesture, being that they were likewise underdressed for such a harrowing journey, I on the other hand thought they might just be waiting for us to freeze to death so that they would be well positioned to take our wallets. Scott accepted willingly, I less so, our spirits buoyed for a second push. As the slope increased and the pain in my legs began to stem more from the build up of lactic acid than the freezing cold, visibility dropped and I began loosing faith in our chances of success/survival. I started cursing the fact that these local kids had come along. With them in toe there was no way that we could use our better judgement and turn back now. We were here representing America Damn It, and American Don’t Quit! I suppose they were thinking the same thing about their representation of the motherland also. Ah… how nationalism can turn men into utter fools.

Mile 11: The storm did not let up, in fact it got worse as the snow turned to hail. Not willing to fully let down my country, I began working for a compromise. I suggested that we try and flag down a bus, a common enough occurrence in Armenia. For some reason, maybe the visibility, maybe because people couldn’t believe that there would actually be pedestrians in these mountains, none of the buses would stop for us. It was absolutely ridiculous. There were tons of buses passing us filled with mourners going to the exact same place that we were. I saw numerous open seats through the fogged up windows. As we took turns running out into the road to flag down buses, every one just swerved and avoided us, splashing a healthy dose of mud and ice all over our frozen bodies. I learned a few new Armenian curse words that day. Finally, in exasperation we decided to have a rest on a roadside barricade (see above picture, that’s me in the back). The rest was risky, not so much because of the cold, as most of us had lost feeling in all our extremities, but I could tell that we were all looking around Donner-Party style for who looked the weakest/tastiest.

Mile 13: After leaving the road to take a straight shot up the mountain (as opposed to the switchbacks that the heartless drivers of the buses were using) we crested a ridge and saw our prize. I remembered it being bigger, better, more worth it.

Mile 14: We arrived just in time to see everyone filing away from the memorial site. The ceremony had just ended. I suppose it was a fitting end to our journey. As I turned to head towards the buses all heading back to Gyumri free-of-charge, Scott inquired as to where I was going. I told him the buses. He suggested that we go back by foot, “after-all it’s all down hill now.” Did I mention that my boy Scott is an idiot sometimes.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Tapakatz Gatoshka

There are a few things that I am perpetually thankful for in the Peace Corps. As my city slowly climbs out of winter I thought it a good exercise to forcefully be thankful for a few things. The Peace Corps’ depression handbook recommended it. The suggestion came right after the section on sitting cross-legged in the middle of your room, arms raised, fingers pursed, head tilted back whispering the serenity prayer over and over again. There was also a footnote that referenced some sort of “happy place”.
Many of the new experiences, cultural differences, quirks, etc… in Peace Corps are great, but tend to loose their luster fairly quickly. In this category I would place things like… doing laundry by hand. Sure, initially it was great to have such an invigorating task to complete that produced such tangible results. I felt like one of those volunteers that you see in all the marketing materials the Peace Corps produces. But inevitably the joy of this act faded quickly, leaving me dreading my Sundays, with all the preparation of mass amounts of hot water, the scrubbing and wringing, wringing and hanging. Other things in this category would include bucket baths, snow in April, taxi-drivers constantly attempting to cheat you, etc…
But I am eternally grateful that I have been blessed with an indefatigable love for fried potatoes and that the draw of a free few hours and a book (not even necessarily a good one) still remains so attractive to me.
I’ve always loved potatoes. Fried, mashed, scalloped, twice baked, just baked once, and all other forms. In fact, when I got my placement in the Caucasus I specifically checked to see what the staple food was here in Armenia. Knowing that in many Peace Corps countries there is some sort of millet or rice, I was relieved to know that in this cold arid climate, the potato was king. And lo and behold I was placed in a potato producing part of the country, Shirak Marz. Never mind that some farmers are apparently still using soviet era pesticides like DDT. They still taste great!
What I am thankful for though is that my love for fried potatoes in particular has never left me, nor even waned for that matter. I still find myself rushing home, greatly looking forward to a plate of my golden-fried friends. Strangely “golden-fried” is a bit of an overstatement as my many attempts at preparing them has in no way made me proficient at it. In fact, it’s kind of sad that I am not better at it by now. But nonetheless, I am able to eat a cheap meal, that is available year-round (of the utmost importance here during winter) and enjoy it immensely and equally every sitting.
This “Peace Corps experience” also allows for much free time, spent… say sitting by your heater trying to stave off frost bite, or… sitting by your heater trying to stave of frost bite. I am also quite thankful that my love for reading has also not diminished. Mostly my weekends are spent sitting around my house, doing pretty much nothing except reading books. This may sound to many not ideal, but again I still look forward to my weekends nearly as much as I did in the states, (when there were so many other options for stimulation… things like say… not sitting by your heater trying to stave off frostbite.) Again, I am thankful that my excitement for incessant reading has not lessened. The book selection here is limited (the Peace Corps library is awash with mostly trashy novels) but still I romanticize the experience of just sitting, reading and relaxing just as much as when I first arrived.
Of all the ways to stave off depression, I suppose that I’ve been blessed with a few little things that allow me to skip the recommended hippy modes of stress reduction and sanity maintenance (see above.) Guess I’ll be saving the cross-legged serenity prayer chanting for next winter.


Becka. Dave wants me to give you a “shout out”. Though I am well versed in the youthful parlance of our generation, I’m not quite sure how to transfer a “shout out” textually to this blog post… so I hope this will suffice.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Varsaveeranotz

The Peace Corps is not known as an arena where style is a priority, but a person still has to have their hair cut every once in a while. Since coming to this country I have been known to hold out for a good long time before cutting my hair, even though the bushiness is very uncommon here in Armenia. Because of the cold I can’t wear Birkenstocks and so this hippie-hair makes me feel, at least a little like a real textbook Peace Corps volunteer.
The first time I was at site I asked a friend from work to take me to his barber. He said no problem and set me up an appointment. As I arrived I started feeling nervous, glancing around for any male friends who may have seen me walk in the door to this place that could only be referred to as a “Salon”. There were posters of beautiful people with what I assumed to be beautiful hair, and flashy looking, well-packaged goops, goos and sprays in shimmering glass cases. The man who greeted me could only be referred to as a “stylist”. After performing a surgically precise hair procedure on me that lasted some 45 minutes (using various tools and spray bottles of liquids for which I could only guess at their contents) he beckoned me to follow him into a back room. Glancing at my hair in the mirror (strangely it looked the same as when my buddies in college used to cut it after a few beers, only scissors) I followed. I was horrified at what I saw. It looked like some torture machine chair. As he reached up to the top of it and turned on some water spigot at the top of the chair he told me to sit. Being out of my element (at a salon in a foreign country) I followed his order and sat down, thoughts of Chinese water torture running through my head. Drip…drip….drip…drip… As he wrapped a fluffy towel around my neck (the first time I’ve felt a “fluffy” towel since being in country) he pulled my head backwards and held it fast. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best. Apparently at some places (salons) they wash your hair after cutting it. The feeling was rather pleasant as he massaged my scalp and rinsed my hair clean. But as I rose and paid the man (an exorbitant amount of money) I left the place with a sinking feeling rising in my stomach. What had I just done? Thousands of years of male evolution; hunting and gathering, fighting wars, wrestling, etc… had just been sullied. I had spit in the face of my genetic code and manly responsibility. I vowed to never again engage in such an egregious affront to masculinity.
As my hair once again reached culturally unacceptable lengths I asked some old men playing chess on the street where they got their hair cut. Surely these men, veterans of great wars, the fall of the Soviet Union, and years of hard labor would not be caught dead in a “Salon”. As they pointed me in the correct direction (actually 4 different directions) they finally decided on the best place and I set out, hoping to make some incremental jump in the pecking order of men. As I walked, thoughts raced through my head. I envisioned walking into the sacred establishment and sitting down in an old chair with ripped upholstery, striking up some conversation about local politics or nagging wives. I imagined them (most not being barbers, but just locals hanging out to shoot the breeze) inviting me to stick around (my neck still itchy from the residual hairs recently trimmed) to share some coffee, or vodka and salted meat. This would be my return to that most comfortable of places, the fraternity of men. What I found when I arrived was something quite different.
As I entered the barber shop, through the haze of cigarette smoke I made out a group of grizzly men wearing stained white jackets and lazing in their chairs (the upholstery was ripped at least.) The television was booming out an Iranian music channel at a deafening level, to which no one seemed to be paying any attention. No one reacted to my entrance. I finally approached the first chair and tapped the man on the shoulder and asked if I could get my hair cut. He grunted something incomprehensible to me and motioned with his head to the next chair. I approached the next chair in line to the same reaction. This continued until I got down to the second to last chair. (Didn’t these people realize that I was an American in a foreign country; easily taken advantage of and willing to unquestioningly pay an improperly high amount of money for a service, merely to avoid a run in with the locals?) The ancient man rose to greet me and bade me sit. Reaching into his little drawer he produced the thickest glasses I have ever seen. I would venture to say that they were thicker than a half-deck of playing cards. As he leaned in to inspect my head, he asked the obligatory, “how do you want your hair cut” and I replied tersely, “shorter everywhere, sir” full well knowing that he was going to have his way no matter what I requested.
He reached into his drawer and pulled out a pair of rusted, soviet era electric clippers. As he plugged them in and started on the side of my head I felt the first sting of what was to be a very long and painful episode. The clippers didn’t so much “cut” my hair, as the motion of the blades (probably due to age, lack of oil, and a poor and intermittent electric supply) is better explained as “gripping and pulling” my hair out. If any of my humble readership remembers the “flobee”, it was kind of like a terribly rusty version of that. As “clippers” gripped and pulled out uneven chunks of my hair and follicles, he finished the first side of my head and proceeded around to the back. But much to my chagrin he had to pause as the cord ran out of length. It wouldn’t even come close to reaching the other side of my head. Instead of the normal slight tilting of the head so common in all hair cutting establishments, he bid me to lean up out of the chair and slump my whole body towards the outlet from which the clippers were plugged. As he continued to work on the further, previously unreachable parts of head, I was afforded plenty of time to think about how many others had bent over in this same position and wished they kept a $.75 extension cord on hand at all times.
I’ve heard that as one receives a tattoo the pain lessens as the process moves forward and the nerves numb. My viciously violated hair follicles were beginning to thankfully sink into this stage when he finished and told me to sit up straight. I felt a fear similar to being at the dentist as he rifled through his drawer for some other cutting implement. As he pulled out the rusty straight razor and began rubbing it with a band of leather I thought to myself… this is it, this is where I purge myself of all the embarrassment of my trip to the stylist. After all isn’t this how they cut “the doughboys” hair in the trenches of WWI or the hair of “our boys” flying the B-52s in the next?
I was expecting some sort of shaving cream or some other lubricant… but I was sorely mistaken. As he leaned in close to inspect the nape of my neck, I came to the instant realization that with the sub-zero temperatures in the room (true with all buildings here in winter) this action, combined with my goose bumped neck was a recipe for excruciation. As dread overtook me, he began dragging the dull, freezing cold blade up the length of the back of my neck. I wanted to cry out, but in such a testosterone filled arena as this it was simply out of the question. As one can imagine the blade didn’t do its work in merely one pass. The man’s focused determination to rid me of all my hair (and top layers of skin) was impressive as every pass would become more and more rough and excruciating. As he finished half of the back of my neck he paused. Maybe thinking that this straight razor had a absurdly short cord attached to it also, he pulled up my chin to start with the face shaving portion (Again, keep in mind there is no shaving cream or even heat in this room.) I knew I had to end it. I had to surrender. I pulled away and told the purveyor of my pain that, “I didn’t mind a little stubble, now and again.” Though with my language skills it would probably have been more properly translated as, “me short hair like back neck face my.”
I assumed this statement would lead at best lead to an ending being brought to this episode or at worst to a civilized dialogue, but as his reply (from which I understood few words) lead to a raised-voice excoriation of my audacity, the other “barbers” began moving in to see what was afoot. As he pushed my head back down into position I resisted. There was a bizarre back-and-forth battle between the strength of his pushing motion and that of my neck. The absurdity of the situation was only heightened when another barber reached in to help his colleague. I was finished. With two men holding me in position now, I had no choice but to concede. They finished their devils work on the back of my neck, but were good enough to forgo the face shave (the shaving of my hereditary Irish neck beard would have been difficult to endure… I don’t think I would have made it.) I didn’t even wait around to see if my previously dreamed about post-haircut vodka, dried-meat, and brotherhood of man would materialize. I threw down the same amount of money I had provided the stylist for his distinguished services and left. The cold air was not so cold that day as it mixed with the warmth of regained my masculinity.