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.


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.


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.