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.