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 cafĂ© 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.