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)

1 comment:

Nate said...

Well done Dommo. Free range grass fed beef. I knew this experience would make you into a granola comping wusspot.