Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
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
· 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.
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
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.