Saturday, July 17, 2010

Village Life

As part of the pre-service-training (PST) period, all of us live in villages with host families. Our training centers on Charentsavan, a city of about 30,000 a half hour outside the capital, Yerevan.

Yerevan has nearly half the 3 million population of Armenia, and is like a country unto itself. It has modern infrastructure, including a subway, many businesses, restaurants, clubs and universities. Much of that was built up during the Soviet era and I understand the intent was to build up other cities similarly. The collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia’s subsequent independence, a severe earthquake and conflicts with its neighbors (including closed borders with Turkey and Azerbeijan) prevented that from happening.

As a result, cities like Charentsavan have fewer services than one might expect. We are in seven villages surrounding this city that have fewer still and have populations of about 500 to 3,000. We live with host families in small villages for two reasons – complete immersion in the Armenian language since most of the villagers do not speak English, and most of the health education, environmental education and English education volunteers get permanent assignments in small villages and towns, so the training sites are similar to where people will spend the two years of their actual assignments once we are sworn in as volunteers (we are “trainees” at this point).

Solak, the village in which eight of us live, has a population of 2,800. Many of the villagers have lived here their entire lives, as have many generations of their families. Many subsist on agriculture for their own consumption or to sell in markets, and many of the houses have livestock on the property. It is not uncommon to see herds of sheep and goats in the roads and cows walk around quite a bit as certain people take others’ animals out for grazing during the day and return them in the evening (a sort of day care). You get to the point where you don’t even watch where you walk.

My house has a cow, a calf, eight sheep and goats (they never stand still long enough for me to get a count of which are which), two roosters and about 20 chickens. There are trees that grow apricots, apples, pears, plums, cherries and walnuts and there are raspberry bushes as well. Nothing is sold at market although some is given away as pay to local kids who help pick the fruit. My host mother makes her own bread, cheese and “matsun”, a yogurt that is a national staple here and seen as a cure for all ills. She also makes preserves and juice from the fruit they grow.

Few of the houses have indoor plumbing and many do not have running water (my house has neither) although the village is running pipes right now that are supposed to provide everyone with running water by the end of the year. At present, water runs through the village from noon until two (give or take) every day and people store bucketsful in various places around their houses. In my house, there is a hose outside tapped into the water supply and that is where the water gathering is done. For bathing, there is a stove in the bathroom and water is heated for bucket baths (see picture). Similarly, water is heated to do laundry, all of which is done by hand and hung outside to dry. Electricity and gas supplies are pretty good (unlike some years back) although we lose power periodically (the other night, it went off at 9:00 PM and came back on at 1:00 the next afternoon). Everyone takes this in stride. Despite this, cel phone service is prevalent and many houses have satellite TV.

Many people don’t have cars although I have seen a few BWMs, a Jaguar and a few Mercedes. Other than the artery road that connects the village to nearby cities and the highway that skirts the edge of the village, most are either not paved or haven’t been in years. While there is a train that connects Solak to nearby cities and runs into Yerevan, it doesn’t run often and many people take public transportation on intercity buses known as “marshutkas”. I’ll get into that experience some other time.

There are quite a few stores in the village although most of them sell the same things – vegetables, soda, vodka, candy, detergents, phone cards, ice cream, cigarettes. One or two sell a few items of clothing and there is a building supply store but there are no furniture, shoe, clothing or any other types of stores. For anything like that, you go to a nearby city or ask the shopkeeper to get something for you if it’s small. There are no restaurants other than some “khoravats” (barbecued skewered meats) stands along the highway and one that is part of a hotel there.

As one would expect, everyone knows everyone else’s business and quite a few are related. My first week here, I was in a store buying a bottle of water and the shopkeeper (who I had never seen before) asked if I was the one living with Gohar and Rasmik. Being substantially taller than most of the people here and not really looking Armenian, I expect to stick out but it was still a bit disconcerting. And of the eight of us living in Solak, five of our host families are related somehow. The close ties and the social fabric make for interesting celebrations though. I was invited along to a birthday party (Rasmik’s sister’s grandson turned one) that involved about forty people, a huge amount of khoravats, heaping plates of other meats, vegetables, fruits and pastries and bottles of vodka and brandy every four feet along the table. Toasts were made, people came and went all day and a cake with fireworks on it was rolled out. I haven’t been to one, but I hear the parties for when the sons go into the army for their compulsory two years and when they return are huge affairs.

The kids in the village are a lot of fun. They seem fascinated by us, especially since we spend a lot of time at the village school for language classes. Although school is out for the summer, a lot of kids hang out there during the day as there is not a lot to do otherwise after they do the family chores. Any time we have an event of some sort at the school, kids show up out of nowhere to see what we are doing and to join in. While most everyone in the village knows about us, who we are living with and probably our names, the kids are the ones we hear calling out to us as we walk through the village. The adults are more reserved and it is not uncommon for people not to acknowledge you on the street if they don’t know you personally, but the kids haven’t grown into that yet. They all learn traditional Armenian dances and perform them at special events, as when the Prime Minister passed through last week.

And while the adults are more reserved, that doesn’t mean that we are ignored. Many times, I have been stopped on the road by someone curious about me (especially when I am walking with my camera). Some just ask how I am while others ask about what we are doing here. Many of the latter speak in Russian (possibly they think I am Russian or assume I don’t know Armenian and that is the foreign language most know) so the conversation doesn’t get very far although they are pleased that I can follow Armenian to an extent.

Lastly, the scenery is pretty nice. Solak is surrounded by mountains and we hiked up one the first weekend we were here. There is an old church atop one hill (as there are many throughout the country) and the locals make pilgrimages up there to give thanks for good fortune. Those thanks may involve sacrificing an animal (we saw a chicken sacrificed during our hike) and I understand that in mid-August most of the villagers go up there to do so. Although Armenia is a Christian nation (and you are often reminded that it was the first one – making it official in 301 AD) that is more of a national identity matter than a religious one. In any event, the views are as nice from the top as from the village (the lead picture on the blog is from outside the church).

I have already visited the city where I will be living starting August 6 (after I am sworn in) but that will merit its own post. And while I won’t miss some of the rustic aspects of life here, I will kinda miss things like the calf walking into the house periodically, the view of the stars when heading to the outhouse in the middle of the night and knowing exactly how fresh the eggs and milk are when I eat. But I have already been invited to the back-from-the-army party for my host family’s son next June and can always visit again.