Sunday, August 29, 2010

Three Months In

As of today, I have been “in country” for three months. Again, I am surprised at how quickly time has passed and how much I have experienced in that time, making it feel as though I have been here longer. Regardless of how long I am here, though, there are things that I am still getting used to.

One thing is that “privacy” is more an American concept than an Armenian one. Questions that are routinely asked here can come as quite a shock, reflecting the interest people here have in one another, and especially of strangers. For instance, a few weeks ago I went for a walk from my village to another nearby. People driving past me stared (as usual) and at one point I came upon a group of guys who had passed me on the road and had stopped at a sidewalk café-type place. They waved me over and in the course of two minutes (immediately upon meeting me), asked me (1) where I am from, (2) how old I am, (3) if I am married, (4) if I have any children, and (5) what my name is. In that order. Even little kids ask your age before they ask your name.

Similarly, religion can be raised as a topic of conversation (and since I am working with a diocese of the Armenian Church, I can expect it to be raised more than others would). When I first met my work counterpart last month, at one point during the day he asked me if I go to church regularly. I responded that I don’t and he didn’t pursue it. A similar conversation occurred with a second co-worker after I started working this month. This past week, I met with the bishop (along with the second co-worker) and when he asked my last name and I answered, he went on to say that Kelly sounds Irish, that most Irish people are Catholic, and he asked me if I am Catholic. I replied that I was raised Catholic but no longer consider myself part of the church. He then wanted me to explain why not and I deflected the question, saying it is a long story. His reply was that I will be here for two years and that we can follow up later (I can’t wait for THAT conversation). He went on to ask about the religious beliefs of the other volunteers and I explained that I do not typically discuss religion with others and did not know. [Throughout this conversation, I kept thinking about hearing “Losing My Religion” playing on a radio in the background when I was waiting to meet with him.] Being that Armenia is officially a Christian nation (the first, as we are continually reminded, having adopted it in AD 301), religion is part of the community and part of how the national identity has survived for so long. Discussion of religion is therefore as natural a topic as anything else. Having said that, not that many people attend services and it is not unusual for people to walk in and out when one is in progress. Throughout the country, you also see cross-stones in seemingly random places, grottoes on sidewalks and miniature churches in some of the old rail cars.

Having said all of that, my host family is very good at respecting my privacy, maybe because they are what I call a “professional host family”, having hosted five others before me. As a courtesy, I let them know when I am going out and will be back (partly because they make my meals so I want to let them know if I will not be eating) but I don’t have the hovering that some of the other volunteers experience, especially the younger women. The latter is partially due to the societal norms here about how women are expected to behave, but I will get into that in a later post. I try to spend time with the host family when they watch TV at night and at mealtimes but they leave me alone when I want to read, study or the rare instance when I am at my computer.

Another thing to get used to is the approach people take when confronted with a foreigner. Here in Gyumri, the young guys sometimes refer to Americans as “Johnny” – not to your face but more as a taunt. When I do hear it I pretend that I don't and just keep moving. Shopkeepers who can tell that I am not Armenian may immediately start speaking to me in Russian, possibly because there is a sizable Russian population here, particularly with the Army base not far from where I live, so it is not unreasonable to think that a foreigner is from there also. They are often very surprised that I can speak some Armenian (although not as much as I should by now but the dialect here has set me back some). But most people just stare. It is much more difficult for the non-white volunteers as they stand out more and the racial acceptance is where the US was quite some time ago (I saw someone pull the sides of her eyes back once when saying the word “Chinese”). I don’t think it is intended maliciously – I believe it is more because many have not had the opportunity to meet foreigners and understand but it can still be jarring.

Then there is the use of cel phones. Many of the volunteers here have commented that it is funny to live in a place where you may not have running water or indoor plumbing, but you have a cel phone and satellite TV. As infrastructure goes, it does not seem to me that the land-line phone system is very good and probably never will be since cel phones let you leapfrog over them and there is no real reason to have one (although there is one where I am living). Despite this, there does not seem to be voicemail at all (your missed call register is all you need) – whether due to the cost of the technology or whether voicemail would be considered rude, I don’t know. Since there is no voicemail, though, people take cel phone calls when they come in – regardless of what they are doing. I was at a concert last week and heard people on phones during the performance. When I taught a training class a few weeks back, people either walked out to take a call or simply took it in the room. Part of the training was about customer service and one business owner (the owner of a beauty salon) pointed out that the hairdressers in her shop take calls in the middle of giving a haircut. While this is not unheard of in the US, there are rarely the requests to turn off phones before an event – it seems to just be accepted that it will happen. And many people talk more loudly than normal when on a cel phone, but that is nothing different from the US so I am used to that already.

I like the remnants of the Soviet era that I see around although I know I have to tread lightly if I discuss that with people here. While the country voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1991, there is still a fair bit of nostalgia for how much better things were economically when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. And while some of the statues were torn down (in Solak, a pedestal remains where a statue of Lenin once stood) there are still quite a few generic ones remain in Gyumri.

Most street signs (when they exist) show the street names in Armenian and Russian although the newer ones have Armenian and a transliteration with roman letters. Many of the old storefronts likewise have the Russian names displayed. Some of the abandoned businesses you see all over here also seem to have been designed in the Sputnik era, as have other structures still in use (like the bus stop below). But the sheer extent of abandoned storefronts, playgrounds, factories, etc., still makes me sad even though I like to photograph them.

There are things that I hope I never get used to, one being the way animals are treated. There are a lot of stray dogs throughout the country and even when people keep them as pets, they are often treated atrociously (some of the volunteers have told me that their host families' pets often don't have names and simply disappear at some point). In our safety training, we are told that the best way to avoid a confrontation with a stray dog is to hold a rock as though you were preparing to throw it. The dogs here are so conditioned to being beaten and pelted with rocks that they will usually run away at the sight of a rock - there is no need to actually throw one. I have also noticed that packs of dogs will prey upon another dog, the way that bullies in a schoolyard will pick on a small kid. But the dogs get into real fights and people witnessing it will just stand and watch. Gosha (Albert and Emma's dog) was scarce for a couple of days this week and when he came back, he looked horrible - scarred all over his head - and has since been pretty listless. I'm not sure what happened to him but I suppose it was similar to the three dogs I saw the other day chasing a fourth. Since money is scarce, people probably would not spend money on a vet in case of injuries to their pets - they just get another. The fact that drivers here won't swerve for animals explains the dog I saw in the middle of the road on my way home the other day. Cars continued to pass by until a man went out into the road to pull it away (at considerable danger to himself since drivers don't seem to swerve for people either). Other men gathered with the first and I'm pretty sure that he put it out of its misery. I couldn't watch.

Monday, August 16, 2010

I can see Turkey from my house!

Not really, but from a park a few blocks from where I am living, I can see across the border which is less than 10 miles away. More on that later.

Last Thursday (August 5), I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The ceremony was both solemn and festive, with speeches by our country director, the US Ambassador to Armenia and two of the new volunteers (speaking in Armenian about their experiences during training, they being two who mastered the language very well and are excellent at public speaking also). Some of the musically inclined volunteers sang (Armenian songs as well as “Imagine”). It was a proud moment and I admit to getting more choked up than I had expected to. Members of our host families came, we got “welcome kits” from last year’s volunteers and afterward we went to a nearby café to hang out and enjoy the last day we would all be in one place for a while.

The next morning, we said goodbye to the villages and moved on. My host mother made a fresh batch of the apple turnover things that I loved and sent me off with all the leftovers. The picture below shows Lizzie (another of the Solak group) with her host mother and our common host grandmother ("tatik") who lives in the house where I stayed.

We all regrouped in Charentsavan and got sorted into buses and taxis to our various destinations; I was in a group of six heading north. The trip (normally two hours direct) wound up taking six since we needed to divert to Yerevan for a bit, we stopped to drop two of the group in their village – and one guy's host family literally pulled us bodily into the house for coffee, cookies, ice cream and candy. I arrived at my new host family’s house to a warm welcome.

So, as of last Friday, I am living in Gyumri, my permanent site. It is the second largest city in Armenia (Yerevan has a population of 1.3 million, Gyumri is about 160,000) with a rich and tragic history. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was on the main trading route with Turkey, it had numerous factories and (still has) breweries. It was once named Kumayri, was renamed Alexandrapol by Tsar Nicholas in honor of his wife, renamed again as Leninakan right after Lenin’s death and renamed as Gyumri after independence.

[The following is excerpted from the Bradt travel guide to Armenia] On the morning of December 7, 1988, Gyumri was severely damaged by the Spitak Earthquake, which registered 6.9 on the Richter scale and was followed by a 5.4 magnitude aftershock four minutes later. The quake completely demolished the village of Spitak and also damaged Vanadzor, the nearest large city. In Gyumri, most of the hospitals were of Soviet construction and collapsed immediately. Similarly, apartment buildings collapsed [the tallest buildings I have seen so far have five stories and they all seem to be recent construction]. All told, about 60% of the buildings were destroyed and, in the region, about 25,000 people died and 500,000 were made homeless. Medical care was very difficult, not only because the hospitals were gone, but also because about half of the city’s doctors died. In one maternity hospital, all of the expectant mothers, new mothers and newborns were killed. In nearby villages, the small houses survived but the children, who were in schools, did not. Unable to handle the rescue and relief efforts itself, the Soviet Union accepted assistance from other nations to assist for the first time. The rescue efforts were disorganized and many more people died than probably would have if the city and country had been better prepared.

Three years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and Armenia voted to become independent. As about 70% of Armenian production during the Soviet era was in support of other union nations, the economy dried up and many of the factories throughout Armenia closed. Due to the earthquake, a nuclear power plant near the epicenter was closed, leading to a sharp drop in the nation's power supply. In 1992, a war with Azerbeijan led to Turkey closing the border with Armenia (which, among many other things, eliminated another source of Gyumri’s economy). As a result of all of these factors, many Armenians had no power or heat during the winters of 1992 – 1995. The population of Gyumri, which had been about 250,000 dropped to about 130,000.

The impact of the earthquake is still visible everywhere here. Most of the roads are not paved, many buildings are still damaged and many people still live in “temporary” housing that was set up in 1988 using old rail cars.

The main cathedral in town was one of the casualties of the earthquake due to circumvention of an earthquake contingency design - the tops of the bell towers were intended to absorb the shock of an earthquake and pop off of the building, preserving the rest of the structure. A few years before this one hit, they were cemented for reinforcement and as a result the roof collapsed (the other church across the main square fared much better because the caps operated as intended and it is now operational). Reconstruction of the cathedral is ongoing and far from finished, but it is open one day every year on one of the church holidays for a service over which the local bishop presides. When I was here last month, I was invited to attend the service which was quite memorable since it was such a rare opportunity. (The picture just below is the cathedral as it is now and the one below it shows the other church across the square.)

Gyumri's unemployment rate is officially about 25-30% but is probably closer to 60-70%. Due to the lack of jobs, as in other parts of the country, many men move to Russia for work (mostly manual labor as I understand it) and send money to their families here.

All is not gloom and doom, however, as there is quite a bit of new construction going on now, some buildings have been restored and for others restoration is underway.

There are also ongoing discussions about reopening the border with Turkey although the talks stall for various reasons and a lot of infrastructure investment would be needed to get the border crossings functional again. As mentioned above, the population has climbed from the post-earthquake level but it is still not what it was (and the census figures throughout the country need to be taken with a grain of salt, but that is a subject for another day).

The people here are also different from those in Solak, as one can imagine. There is a wariness that I recognize from other cities I have visited and from living in New York. While eight of us really stood out in a village of 2,800, there are quite a few foreigners here – those that work with various NGOs, tourists and a sizable number of Russian soldiers. As a result, the kids don’t automatically say "hello" and a greeting to an adult is usually met with silence. I will get used to that aspect and I must say that I like having more amenities than were available in the village. There is a movie theater (although it only shows movies in Russian), numerous cafes and restaurants, markets, universities and a couple of parks that have amusement-park-type rides (although their condition makes Coney Island look fresh and new).

I have started work at the Social-Education Center of Shirak diocese, an organization (mostly) funded by the Armenian church to help needy people in the area, provide vocational training (sewing, furniture making, computer skills), provide cultural education (painting, traditional Armenian Dance), language education (English and German), provide legal assistance and spiritual education and counseling. This past week, I spent most of my time meeting with the various people working there and observing what they do. I am not clear yet as to where my energies will need to be devoted but I am already being asked to carry on with some projects (outside the Social Education Center) that one of the volunteers that just headed back to the US was working on. In the meantime, I check out the city, get people used to seeing me and learn about the other organizations here and what they do.

I am also enjoying my new home. Unlike in Solak, the house I am staying in has running water and indoor plumbing (although I again live on an unpaved road with above-ground gas lines).

The house is on the second floor of a building that housed a bakery on the ground floor until a few years ago and has a nice courtyard once you come through the street entrance.

The running water is cold only, meaning that I still need to take bucket baths after water is heated up, but the bathroom has a real tub to use so I am not complaining. While laundry still has to be done manually, there is an “agitator” that does some of the initial washing and takes about an hour out of the process.

My host parents are in their early 70s and have children my age and seven grandchildren. Unlike many Armenian families, none of the children live with them, the sons having moved to Moscow decades ago while daughters normally move in with their husband's family. Albert raises parrots and rabbits, grows fruits, vegetables and flowers and makes his own vodka. The house (including a property they own across the street) has rose bushes, cherry, apple and walnut trees and raspberry bushes. There are also grapevines and Emma makes wine every fall.

There is a filthy but very friendly dog (Gosha) who hangs out in the courtyard and never comes into the house. Albert has his various hideaways for putting together his jigsaw puzzles and playing Nardi (a backgammon type game) with his friends and Emma keeps the house in very nice order. As with Gohar in Solak, Emma is a very good cook and I have no complaints about the food here (French toast on a regular basis is quite nice for breakfast). Emma’s sister and the neighbors are frequent visitors and they drink coffee, watch TV and chat in the courtyard. It’s a very comfortable place to live.

While the weather is nice and work is slow, I have been spending a lot of time in the park near the house. There is a rotunda that was once a very popular spot for outdoor dancing, but is now just a good open area to sit and read. The rotunda faces west and on a clear day you can see the mountains over the Turkish border (past the local statue of Mother Armenia). We’re not allowed to go near the border and are advised against taking any pictures even if we can see it, so the one at the beginning of this post will have to do for now.

More to come soon.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Goodbye Solak

This week I finished my training period and will be sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer. I took a language proficiency interview Monday and demonstrated improvement from the one conducted at the beginning of July. While I am not fluent by a long shot, I can communicate and understand many questions asked of me. Not bad for two months’ studying. The challenge now will be to continue improving my language skills without the structure of daily classes (I will hire a tutor) and to adapt to the dialect in Gyumri, which is different than the textbook-correct grammar that we have been learning. A year from now, I will have another proficiency interview and another when I finish service in two years. Some people regress over those periods when they have English speaking co-workers (as I will) but we shall see.

The end of training also involved completing some test as to safety and medical matters, assessing whether we have the core competencies to perform our service and going other various other administrative matters. Of the 58 that came over in late May, there are 55 remaining as three decided to return to the US for various personal reasons. I still find it hard to believe that the 10 weeks is behind me already.

As I write this I still need to get used to the fact that I will be leaving the house and village that have been home for the past two months. While I am looking forward to getting started on what I came here for and living in a place with some degree of amenities, I will miss some aspects of Solak.

My host family has made me feel very welcome and put up with my barely knowing a word of Armenian at first. With the sheer number of us here, there is a wide variety of host family situations and I am on the luckier end. One of my host mother’s grandsons has taken quite a liking to me, follows me around when he is here and tends to imitate things that I do (particularly when I am helping out around the house). Given that boys in Armenia don’t really do a lot and get fawned upon this is a bit of an accomplishment.

I enjoy what I refer to as “rush hour” when the cows, sheep and goats are brought home from the grazing pastures every night. A group of us took a cab ride back to the village last week during rush hour and the cab driver didn’t even slow down as he weaved through the herd of cows in the road. It was like being in a live action driving video game. Note that no cows, cars, volunteers or drivers were injured during that incident as both the drivers and the cows seem to be used to each other.I have gotten used to the personal politics that arise when you patronize a store that is different from the one you normally go to (the stores tend to be clustered near one another and you’d better believe they notice when you go to another one). Given that everything we do attracts notice, there seems to be a sort of status implied in our choosing one store over another. One of the others in the village is living with one of the store owners’ family so that is a must to shop in (the picture below is another shop owner in a different part of the village - she always asks us to help her daughter practice English).I will miss the children that always have a smile for us when we are at the school or are walking along the road. Below is a picture from our July 4 celebration, with the eight trainees here, our language teachers and some of the kids that we played games with that day. We introduced them to water balloon tossing, three-legged races and duck-duck-goose (modified to gatu-gatu-shoon (cat-cat-dog) since those were easier for us to remember than the Armenian words for duck and goose).

I will miss encountering the people who have spent their lives here and really seem to enjoy that someone new is around. Many have a lifetime etched on their faces and I get self-conscious about taking pictures as I feel I am intruding. Like the children, though, they often wave me over when they see my camera and ask me to photograph them - they want to have their pictures taken, even with no expectation of seeing the prints. They are thrilled when I print any for them to keep as I do sometimes (although that involves going to a photo store when I am in Charentsavan – the nearest city – so I haven’t been able to do that too often). The third picture below was taken by another of the volunteers - she is his host-grandmother (Tatik as they are referred to) and was not staged - it was garlic harvesting time.

I will NOT miss the outdoor plumbing and can’t get my head around the thought of using it during the winter. Solak has a project underway to provide water throughout the village but I don’t know if my host family will take the step of having their indoor toilet connected.

As I am somewhat taller than most of the people here, I will also not miss the low doorways and stairways where I have to remember to duck. Just as one scar on the top of my head cleared last week I got a new one on my forehead related to a nighttime outhouse visit. I get differing opinions as to whether I now look like Mikhail Gorbachev or Harry Potter.

I will kind of miss the experience I had this week, when a lot of the villagers went out to begin the process of harvesting hay for the winter. Large fields near the village had been mowed (at least some by hand using a scythe) and the family went out to theirs to gather the mowed grass/plants/flowers/weeds into piles that are then made into hay bales. About a dozen of us rode out in the family truck to clear fields for each of the extended family units. From the picture you can see the size of the first field we did (this was taken when it was substantially finished) and there was a second field about one third of the size that we did later in the day. There were five of us, including Rasmik, Gohar and their two sons-in-law. I did pretty well considering it was my first time really using a pitchfork and it took about 10 hours in the sun. As it turns out, I was a minor celebrity here for taking part. My body paid for it after but it was kind of nice to get some exercise besides walking. Last night the gathering of hay bales began and this morning I helped load them into the hayloft (more are coming this afternoon).

I will not miss the huge number of flies that one encounters when living around livestock and fruit trees.

I will miss seeing the others who have lived with me in Solak for the past ten weeks. We will see each other at various events throughout the year, we will talk on the phone periodically and I will have others with me in Gyumri for friendship and support. But it’s still not the same as seeing everyone every day as I have had to get used to with not seeing everyone in the US.

So today I took one last walk around the village, took some pictures and started saying my goodbyes. Today will also be spent doing laundry, starting to pack and getting myself presentable since the American Ambassador to Armenia will attend the swearing-in ceremony tomorrow. Onward I go.