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)