Tuesday, August 05, 2008
I hated all the clichés attached to the Peace Corps before I left, but some of them do ring true as I reflect initially on my service. I truly did learn a lot more from the people with whom I lived. I learned much from the people surrounding me, but also a great deal just by living in a different culture and thus gaining a different perspective on things. I hope to retain and remember this as I wade back into American life.
I won’t drone on for too long... I’ve already been doing it on this blog for 2+ years. At my core I'm not a sentimental person, so this transition feels easier than perhaps it is for other volunteers. It was a good time and I will certainly miss the lifestyle of a volunteer. What better than to wake up every morning and in a very basic sense attempt to help people. That always made up for whatever ‘hardships’ living in a developing country might have posed. I will also miss the friends I made during this time, both Armenian and American.
Lastly, I love being associated with an organization such as the Peace Corps that is putting forth the best face of America in some of the most difficult corners of the world.
Thanks to all those who read this blog. I appreciated all the comments and interest.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
1 month left. 2 things are setting in; senioritis and nostalgia. Maybe nostalgia is not the right word, but more the anticipation of the impending nostalgia that my return to America is sure to bring. Sorry, I ain’t no word-ologist.
There has been this interesting arc of thoughts throughout my service. The first year was filled with surprise at different cultural Armenian quirks as I compared this country to America. The middle portion of my service was filled with a basic callousness to all things cultural as I gained a pretty full level of comfort in an Armenian lifestyle. Now I find myself comparing things in Armenia to what I will soon be experiencing (or not experiencing) back in the states. I’ve caught myself numerous times bursting forth with platitudinous remarks like, “wow, I’m gonna miss this”, “I wish we had this in America” or “this is something I hope to bring back with me when I return to the states”. Oftentimes they aren’t so positive, and leave me longing for the next few weeks to fly by so I can once again command the comfort of my own culture.
A few random examples:
I was in the fruit market (more an open air bazaar) last weekend in a random city I had never visited. The fruit vendor who vaguely knew a friend of mine instantly invited us behind his stall where we sat and he treated us to fresh fruit, homemade wine and good conversation. His hospitality probably cost him more than the small amount of money we spent on buying fruit from him. This is a very common occurrence in business here, and one that I’ll miss.
There’s this thing I love to do here when I have a few minutes to kill before a meeting, class or other engagement. It is failsafe, I swear. Leaving the main road a block or two I walk around looking a bit lost and confused. Inevitably someone will ask me where I’m going, what I’m doing etc… Replying in the local dialect will always, and I mean always produce an invitation to come to their house for coffee, vodka or a meal. It’s awesome. What better way to pass a quick bit of time before an event than meeting new friendly people who are curious about you and can’t wait to ply you with any food or drink they may have lying about?
There’s something wonderful about being abroad for a while and coming together as a group of Americans. It’s just so fully comfortable. One thing that I’ve grown to enjoy immensely here in the Peace Corps is gathering as Americans and playing old-timey American folk tunes. We’ve been blessed to have a banjo player, a harmonica guy and a couple of fiddlers. I’ve always loved music but was never exposed to much classic American folk music. Wherever our “musicatin’ weekends” take place, whether it be in the relative comfort of a hotel in the capital city or some mountain shack miles from civilization, they are always so much fun and refreshing. I will miss these pockets of America shared with other Americans in a foreign land.
I suppose I should stop here before I fall off the cliff into a sea of sentimentality.
Monday, May 19, 2008
Change is hard to come by here in Armenia. No one, from shopkeepers to taxi drivers ever seems to have any. Either that or (as is my suspicion) they just harbor a distain for distributing it to foreigners.
The local currency (the Armenian dram) is denominated in a normal way. A coke costs around 200 dram and the smallest bill is the thousand, with various denominations of small coins. The 1000 dram bill is relatively easily used to purchase goods in stores… but it is when you attempt to utilize larger bills that things become a bit dicier.
The 5000 dram bill presents a challenge. As I have outlined numerous times in this blog, people in shops (outside of the westernized capital city) oftentimes don’t care whether they sell you something or not. No matter how willing a purchaser you are. It is something, in my opinion, that this society will need to get over if they plan on becoming a full partner in a capitalist world. I have gone to many a shop and tried to buy… let’s say 1200 dram worth of vegetables with a 5000 dram bill, only to be thwarted by the stores lack of change. The more enterprising among us, might run next door to find some change, or even…oh I don’t know…. keep a bit of petty cash on hand everyday to alleviate this problem. But it’s not just the lack of change. It’s more the distain with which they always stare, eyes boring into me with disgust as if asking who in the world do I think I am bringing a 5000 dram bill into this store (keep in mind 5000 = approx $16).
Heaven forbid that you ever receive a 10000 dram bill. Then it gets maddening. I have gone hungry because I couldn’t purchase food at establishments with such a bill. I monthly approach the ATM machine with much trepidation, hoping beyond hope that it is not stocked with 10000 bills. Once the bank machine gave me a 20000 dram bill and I was poor for a month as I waited to use it to pay my monthly rent. You can imagine my landlords were none to happy.
Again it is not a lack of liquidity or wealth in country, but a lack of preparation to have the change on hand to give to customers, or (when on hand) an incomprehensible unwillingness to use it to complete a transaction. I always enjoy the conversations that ensue when I can actually view the requisite change sitting in the cardboard box that inevitably every shopkeeper keeps their petty cash in. The conversations usually proceed a little something like this…
Shopkeeper: Do you have change? That 5000 dram bill is too big.
Me: No, this is all I have.
Shopkeeper: Well I don’t know what to say. I can’t help you. You may have to go to another store.
Me: But why don’t you just use the change you have in your box?
Shopkeeper: I don’t have change in my box.
Me: Yes you do, I can clearly see it. It’s right there behind you sitting on the counter.
Then the shopkeeper (always with a look of annoyance) does one of two things: more often than not grudgingly completes the transaction, or goes off on some rant about me not understanding because I am from America. As if we count differently in my homeland.
Nor is this a problem of the ‘rich ugly American’ with too much money for his/her own good. Oh no. The problem of change is also present in the use of the small coins of this economy. Even the most minute of denominations the 10 dram coin (equal to less than a penny) is often in short supply. In my first few weeks in country I was always confused as the shopkeepers handed me books of matches after most small purchases. Upon closer examination I learned that the lack of change has led to the acceptance of matches in place of actual money.
So I suppose my recommendation for foreign visitors would be to only withdraw money from the ATM in 4000 dram increments or bring lots and lots of matches.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
All in all it was a huge success. We were able to expose the boys on our team to an organized team sporting experience (in my opinion something that is sorely missing in many lives of Armenian youth), and as the games took place in the national stadium it added much legitimacy and excitement to their experience (and nice grass too). Our orphanage squad was soundly trounced by every opponent, but the boys seemed to enjoy themselves.
As a bonus there was a concurrent tournament between different groups of internationals living and working in Armenia. I played for the Argentinean side and savored the opportunity to get out and do something active for the first time in a while. The best thing about this side tournament was the Armenian women’s national team who showed up and gave a good solid beating to many quality men’s teams. The girls were very skilled and impressive. The looks on the numerous men’s faces that were soundly ‘schooled’ by these women in a sport normally reserved for men in this society was priceless. Though the young boys on our team would never admit it, they were a bit awestruck and intimidated (and hopefully informed) by women in such a position of….dare I say… equality.
Here is our team lined up for opening ceremonies. Ours is the team on the right (the sign reads 'Gyumri'). Notice how small we are compared to the other teams.
Our star player Samvel
Our goalie Arsen in action.
Our Argentinean team vs. the female national team.
Notice the reddish hue of my face while I get worked over by this girl. I almost died of exhaustion due to two full years of relative inactivity in the Peace Corps.
Monday, May 05, 2008
I didn’t have much experience or patience with children prior to my time here in Armenia, but I sure have been thrown to the wolves here. I work with possibly the most overly energetic and wholly inattentive group of youngsters to ever grace God’s green earth. These kids are absolutely crazy.
We’re currently working with the teenage boys in the home to prepare them for an inter-orphanage soccer tournament to take place in the national football stadium in the capital city. One would assume an easy sell, but unfortunately this is not the case. This ‘carrot’ has not proved adequate to squeeze even a modicum of civil behavior out of the group. At times during practice it’s like an out of body experience for me. I sometimes just float outside myself and survey the chaos swirling about me. Ignoring any sort of direction, the boys just run around aimlessly, yelling at each other, hitting each other, gathering various sharp and/or dangerous jabbing implements, smoking cigarettes, screaming in my ear just to see if I react and other such nonsense. I truly don’t have the words or ability to fully describe the chaos.
If I or the other volunteer (a Polish guy from a European organization) are able to finally wrangle the group into some semblance of a line it is bound to digress into some sort of pandemonium. Our practices, for the most part consist of an unfailing but never successful attempt to start some sort of organized activity. Our one success has been our post practice meetings where we review the activities that we attempted to begin that day. We, the coaches, are usually able to bring together most of the participants in a semi-recognizable group and bestow upon them a nugget or two of wisdom or observation. But even this has lately run into problems as some of the boys have taken to standing 15 feet outside the group and kicking the balls as hard as possible directly at the gathered group… and unfortunately they’re pretty good at it, often times hitting the younger kids in the head, inducing fits of crying. It’s really quite inexplicable (the kicking not the crying). It seems as soon as we take the balls away from one group, another bunch of boys is willing to grab rocks and start throwing them at the group. Our initial reaction was to ask them why in the world they are kicking balls and/or throwing rocks at the group. The answer inevitably is ‘vorovhetev’ (because). So we tell them that they can’t do it, that it’s ‘not allowed’. The answer, again inevitably comes back ‘Karili e’ (it is allowed). How is one to deal with this lack of rationality?! It’s as if we’re speaking different languages (which according to the score on my last Armenian language exam, I may well be). We’ve tried to ignore it all and not give them the attention we assume they’re seeking, but when balls and rocks are glancing of your head… at some point you have to put a stop to it.
Though their behavior necessitates the muttering of the serenity prayer under my breath nearly every practice, these young men are at their core wonderful kids who have merely caught innumerable tough breaks throughout their lives. They betray their tough facades with their need for contact and attention. They are trying so hard to do something for which we can praise them or merely acknowledge their existence that it clouds their ability to think or surely pay attention to my poorly formulated and slow Armenian. My patience has been pushed to the limit, but just as I want to physically accost these kids I’m always thankfully reminded that this is probably the reaction they’ve received their whole lives and are probably accustomed to. If I, a carefree American with nothing to worry about can’t come here and show them patience, then who can.
So I guess I have gained a little something here in the Peace Corps. Now If I ever have really crazy subordinates or a boss who won’t listen and prefers to kick soccer balls at my head… I’ll know what to do.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
I’ve been struggling mightily as of late to come up with new fodder for this blog. As I sat in a meeting today and lectured a new NGO on how they must always keep their audience in focus when writing a grant, I realized that maybe I too had lost sight of such an essential. As I’ve lived here and become more accustomed to Armenian culture, I have naturally become more callous to things that you, my humble and patient audience may find interesting. So here are a few tidbits:
Random dance party outbreaks:
Armenians love to dance. You can literally be anywhere, and if the music starts playing you can be sure that the moving of tables, chairs and other obstructions will soon follow. Today for example I was sitting in a meeting with an organization, alongside a Canadian volunteer who has just arrived in country and someone turned up the background music a bit. Next thing I know we’re shoving tables aside and whooping ‘dashiiiiii’ while forming a circle to allow for the more qualified dancers to show off. The reaction to the music was nothing short of reflexive. Grant writing cast aside midsentence, others started streaming in from adjoining offices to join in the revelry. On one knee and clapping rhythmically to allow 3 women to complete a traditional Armenian dance around me, I glanced over at the bewildered face of the newly arrived Canadian volunteer (a very accomplished 50 year old man) still sitting at the computer; I remembered that this wouldn’t really be considered normal in western business culture.
In no way was this an isolated event. At most dinner parties there is almost always a late night dance portion. These can go on torturously for hours. If there is an eligible young girl of marrying age then the dancing/talent portion is all but guaranteed.
I am awkwardly atremble as I type this, recalling the 2 hour solo karaoke show that was put on by one unwed 18-year-old village girl for yours truly. Her father sat beside me, constantly requesting my affirmation that she was indeed a ‘wonderful singer of incomparable beauty’. On the first count at least, I can say with all confidence that she was not. This show only began after 3 hours of dancing.
I have always thought that we possess an appreciation for ‘straight shooters’ in America. People who tell you what they think and don’t equivocate or hold back their thoughts are often seen as doers, people without the time or inclination for niceties in the cause of clarity or other such things. After nearly 2 years in Armenia I challenge that notion. We’ve got nothing on the Armenians.
Armenians generally tend to be true straight shooters. While our American version is still beholden to a certain level of decorum, this place is the Wild West (or East as it were). Nothing is off limits. This is probably one of the largest cultural clashes that Americans (especially in the villages) encounter.
I was reminded of this today when I walked into my office with a new haircut. Reactions from coworkers included; ‘Dominic why did you cut your hair?’ ‘That looks very bad, did you cut it yourself? Couldn’t you have at least used a mirror?’ ‘It will grow back soon.’ Etc… I have grown so used to this country that it didn’t even affect me. Though this has only come after much time immersed here.
In my first week in Armenia, upon meeting my village grandmother, she grabbed my stomach and stated loudly to the gathered that I was so skinny I looked sick. Bear in mind that I had known her for all of 3 seconds, and she was in fact holding a good chuck of my stomach in her hands (betraying her statement outright). As I left the room in the morning, (looking admittedly a bit unkempt) she would often tell me that I was shameful and not as good-looking as the previous volunteer that had lived with them. But this was nothing compared with a fellow female volunteer who lived across the street from me. Nearly everyday when she returned from Armenian language classes her host mother would tell her she was fat and naughty (a loose translation). Already grating against the self-conscience of an American female, it was followed up daily with the statement that she was fatter than the day before. Admittedly the men receive but a small fraction of the unintentional disparagement heaped upon them that the women receive.
Guard dogs are normally employed to keep intruders or other unwanted guests out of private spaces. Here oftentimes they are used outside of public establishments like stores and offices. There is a specific store near my work that would be so convenient for me to visit, but for the vicious dog that patrols the entrance. It strikes me as bad business practice to put obstacles, especially ones that threaten immediate bodily harm, in front of a customer’s access to the establishment.
Walls of Walkers
When walking in Armenia it is usually in groups and nearly always arm in arm or holding hands. Normally only intra-gender (boys hold hands and lock arms as much as the girls here), these chains of people walking together down the street can reach breadths that are debilitating to the average pedestrian. In America it’s common courtesy to move aside to let others pass when blocking a path. Not so here. These walls of walkers NEVER move or break rank for the lone pedestrian! It frustrates me to no end. Add to this the various other obstacles on the streets (fruit stands, burned out car carcasses, etc…) and you have a confounding mix.
Often one is forced to walk inordinate distances around them if passing from behind, but it’s when they are approaching you that it becomes interesting. My first year, as I was more concerned with integration, I would cross the street or move aside if the path allowed (one time I even gave in, turned around and went home), but now I’ve taken to the more direct approach. Some of you may have played the game Red Rover during your formative years. It’s kinda of like that. I get a nice head of steam and head for the weakest looking pair/portion of the wall. I’m always sure to say excuse me as I burst through their grasps. It’s probably not regulation Peace Corps behavior, but it’s good for my soul.
These are but a sampling of these things. I will try to keep my eyes peeled for more as my service winds to a close.
Friday, March 14, 2008
I chalked up another point on my cultural integration/man card today. There was a huge snow storm and as the snow abated we all (meaning the males in the neighborhood) headed outside to shovel our way out. Being from California I had never shoveled snow before and thus zealously took to the task. Maybe with a bit too much relish as it turns out. As I seized the shovel from the clutches of a leisurely moving neighbor’s hand and started shoveling frantically (determined to show these people what real ‘American’ elbow grease smells like) the gathered crowd of men looked upon me disapprovingly.
There seems to be a certain code of conduct when it comes to the work ethic here in Armenia. Unlike America, speed is not really all that important. (Actually that last sentence was maybe the understatement of the year.) As far as I can tell the joy is in the process. Though not a purveyor of the culinary arts, in any way shape or form I assume that it equates to a chef cooking a great meal. He/she doesn’t enjoy the food so much as the making of said food. The act is there to be savored.
My initial recognition of this cultural quirk may have been the first time one of the Marshutnis (mini-buses) that was transporting me between cities broke down in the middle of nowhere (an occurrence that seems to happen on more trips than not). As we stopped, and smoke began billowing forth from the hood, every man of child-rearing age jumped out, and went to take stock of the situation alongside the driver. As cigarettes were lit and wholly uninformed initial diagnoses were exchanged, the natural ‘tinkerers’ and experts amongst the group forced their way to the front to pop the hood and initiate the process. A universally understood pecking order was quickly established. In this case the problem was quickly identified and one of the lesser-tinkerers was sent to a trash heap beside the road. He returned with a small scrap of metal wire. The wire was ceremoniously passed to each of the observers and all comments and opinions were duly voiced. Then the men stepped away from the hood, a few of them squatting and started talking and smoking. Now to an American’s analytic mind it was simple. The problem had been identified and a means/material for fixing the problem had been found. So obviously one would want to execute the solution as quickly as possible and be on one’s way. But not so here in Armenia. As I sat in the marshutni (feeling somewhat emasculated by this point) cursing and complaining about the delay along with all the female passengers and children, the men rose and again approached the hood. They bent the wire every which way, discussing every contortion in detail. After 15 minutes the wire was put in place and the engine started right up**. The men returned to the cabin visibly satisfied and reeking of cigarette smoke and unproductivity (not a word I realize).
Finally stopping my frantic shoveling one old man laid his hand on my shoulder and asked me why I was in such a rush to accomplish this modest task. I told him that I had much work to get back to (a bald-faced lie… I’m a Peace Corps volunteer after all). He said that there would always be work to do, and that if I rushed through the work I was doing now I would never enjoy it, and that would be a wasted opportunity. I suppose this is something that we’ve lost a bit of in America. I remember rushing around so much that I never really enjoyed/appreciated the act of working. The Armenians, in general seem to retain a greater appreciation for the ‘process’. This is one of the things I’ve learned in the Peace Corps and hope to take back with me to America. (potential future Employers please disregard last paragraph, when considering my application)
**Other fascinating fixes include a large piece of cardboard shoved somewhere into the back of the hood, or bubble gum and tape used to fix a hole in some tubing. And my personal favorite; the driver going into a house by the side of the road and returning with a box of powdered laundry detergent. The detergent was then poured into the radiator (possibly lowering the boiling point??? I can’t be sure). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that all the aforementioned repairs were successful.
Monday, March 03, 2008
So instead of political comment I thought I'd post some pictures that a photographer friend of mine recently took of Armenia.
This is a photo of Noravank, in my opinion the most beautiful church in Armenia. With numerous empires washing over Armenian territory for the last 2000 some odd years, many Armenian churches were built in inconspicuous areas, to avoid plunder and destruction. Some atop mountains, others in the small shallows of plains. This particular church rises from almost out of nowhere as you drive through a spectacular gorge. The stone was quarried from the adjoining mountain and makes it almost camouflage. This photo is taken from an adjoining mountain.
This statue has always been one of my favorites in Armenia. It sits just outside of my city (Gyumri) just in front of a run-down and abandoned Soviet-era glass factory. There's something about the communist ideal embodied in these young workers marching forward in solidarity, which makes the now rotting reality somehow eerily symbolic of the decay that the Soviet Union loosed on Armenia.
This picture was taken in a village called Getk, just outside of Gyumri. The village life here is so much different than in the city.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
I had heard about the challenges of working in a foreign culture before coming to Armenia. The Peace Corps provides us with numerous trainings in this regard. The language, the customs, the differing modes of work, etc… I came to Armenia fully steeled to face these challenges. But after living in Armenia for a while, I find that my biggest challenge regarding my daily work is how to function with ludicrous amounts of caffeine constantly coursing through my veins, making my head feel as if a pinball machine, a hundred balls simultaneously being played.
As outlined too many times in this blog, Armenians are a hospitable people. Sometimes this hospitality borders on militant. Armenians also love their coffee and the act of sitting over a cup and discussing work, life… pretty much anything. The confluence of these two things means that I drink a LOT of coffee.
Armenian coffee (also served in Turkey … but I would never blasphemously refer to it as such) is a thick, overly-concentrated brew served in tiny cups. It is not filtered, and thus the fine grounds sit in the bottom of the cup ensuring maximum caffeine intake. Most preparers of coffee here in Armenia infuse their coffee with huge amounts of sugar, increasing the impact of its consumption.
My daily routine usually consists of meeting with various people, community groups and different Non-Governmental Organizations. Every encounter inevitably begins with a cup of the aforementioned potent concoction. The first cup is a nice little pick-me up initially. Then the creeping starts… I can feel the first movements in my mind. At first it’s kinda nice. As the wheels in my mind start turning a bit faster I feel more of alive and aware, and I can still manage to engage in focused conversation. It’s usually on the second or third cup that it reaches the tipping point (haven’t read the book, but hopefully I’m using the word in proper context, probably not).
Upon consumption of the 3rd (certainly the 4th cup) It feels as though my eyeballs are pushing up against the top of my head in an attempt to fly right out of my skull. Everything I see takes on a certain haze. Not a fog so much, but it’s as if I can’t focus on any one thing for more than a millisecond, and thus everything is seen through a sort of super strobe-effect. I’m constantly trying to shake it, never with much success. By the fifth cup it’s nearly unbearable. My thoughts feel like palpable things violently swarming around my head that I cannot properly grasp at any one time. I find myself grasping in vain to try and wrangle my disparate ideas and trains of thought in the hope that I can give voice to something in a passably concise manner, inevitably failing.
I suppose these sorts of adverse conditions are just part of the job, but I would never have guessed that my days would have a sort of productivity arc to them, based mainly on my caffeine intake. I will admit that generally, meetings I have near the end of the day are scattered and usually much less productive. I arrange my schedule accordingly.
For any new Peace Corps Armenia volunteers who may happen upon this blog, I suggest that you start upping your Starbucks intake now in preparation. It will truly make you a more productive volunteer.
Other suggestions of tolerances to increase before disembarking upon the shores of Armenia… potatoes and vodka.