Monday, May 19, 2008

Manr@ chuneq?

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


In my previous blog I referenced a soccer tournament that was organized for children from different orphanages across Armenia. With sponsorship from the largest importer of chicken to Armenia (interestingly a majority of whole chickens come all the way here from Brazil, while the majority of legs and other dark meat parts come from America where we discard them in favor of boneless breast meat) we were able to provide jerseys and other accessories for the people playing in the tournament.

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.

A few photos of the event:

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

Cvas Tanes… Khuntremg@!!!

I’ve been thinking about interviewing for jobs lately back in the states. This process led me to brainstorm skills that I’ve acquired or honed here in the Peace Corps. As I sat at my little desk by the heater (still), I kept coming back to the word ‘patience’. In fact, as I returned from my work at the orphanage today I looked down to see it circled and emboldened numerous times with tens of passes of the pen.
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.