Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

This past weekend, I was able to travel outside of Gyumri for the first time since I had moved here last month. Peace Corps requires that you spend the first month at your site so as to integrate into the community, start to assess their needs for projects and, I suspect, to get people used to being on their own for a while (traveling can be very difficult during the winter so volunteers tend to get more isolated then). As the month had passed, most of the volunteers planned trips to various places around the country and I was among a group that went to Lake Sevan, the largest in the country. Although the weather has been unusually warm this year, the weather in the northern half of the country normally starts getting cool in mid-September so the timing was off-season. And, while the weather was hot and sunny up until the day before we went, we had mostly cool to cold temperatures and a fair amount of rain. Some went swimming anyway, but I was not among them.

There are a variety of hotels along the lake, including a Best-Western, but the one we stayed at was a series of “domiks”, rail cars that were converted into living spaces (the same things used as temporary housing after the 1988 earthquake). Any resemblance to a trailer park is purely coincidental.

There is a peninsula jutting out into the lake that had been an island before a Soviet era plan to increase the water outflow to the river the lake feeds (it was intended to improve irrigation and hydroelectric energy production but it didn’t quite work and the lake surface is now about 20 meters lower than it used to be). At the end of the peninsula is the Sevanavank monastery, which is comprised of two churches and the remains of a third building. Some of us took advantage of the nicer weather on Saturday afternoon to take a look and had an interesting encounter with an Iranian tourist who loudly proclaimed his love of America, American film stars and the benefits of the Aikido that he learned from Steven Seagal (presumably not personally).

On the way to Sevan and again on the way back, I spent some time in Yerevan, and again was amazed that it is in the same country in which I have been living. Again, I was there only a few hours but I saw luxury shopping, tons of restaurants, nice park spaces, an entire area of booksellers (there are virtually no bookstores in Gyumri) and well paved roads. The subway is pretty old and only one line with 10 stations, but it was easy to use and cost only 50 dram (about 15 cents). I will be spending a weekend there at the end of September so I will have more to write about Yerevan later.

As I mentioned above, the weather has been warm later than normal here, but that has given me the opportunity to observe a segment of Gyumri social life that probably doesn’t continue into the colder weather. The main square in the city (“Freedom Square”) is a large open area with statues and fountains in the center, All Saviours cathedral and Yot Verk church on opposite sides, the monstrous new city hall under construction (in the picture below) on one side and a row of cafes on the other. Every day, late afternoon into the night, people gather in the square to stroll and socialize. Sitting in one of the cafes, you can watch groups of young people arrive in a car and start circulating (weekend nights, the cars also cruise the perimeter making the act of crossing the street into the square more dangerous than usual). There are people selling sunflower seeds (a very popular snack here for which you can pay 30 dram for a shot-glass full) and speakers with piped in music that you can hear throughout the square. For whatever reason, the songs “Besame Mucho” and “Feelings” are very popular here, as is the theme from “The Godfather” (I hear them everywhere I go where music is either piped in or played by a band). Luckily “My Heart Will Go On” is not big in the repertoire. As there seem to be no “bars” here, this seems to be a primary social activity, but the crowd also includes parents with young children (there are also vendors selling toys) and older people although most are the younger crowd.

Another place I like to visit is the main market (or “shuka” as it is called in Armenian). As I have mentioned previously, the vegetables here tend to be very fresh and they are still in abundance here at this time of year (soon they won’t be so many families are busy canning them for the winter months). In the shuka, you can also buy spices, meats (including cow and sheep heads if you like), cheese, clothing, housewares and pretty much anything else. As with the square, I have yet to see it in the winter but will continue to visit and watch it change with the seasons.

Recently I also paid a visit to one of the Gyumri cemeteries. I like to visit and photograph cemeteries when I visit a city as I find you can learn a lot about a place by how their dead are remembered. The gravestones in Armenia tend to have portraits of the deceased etched into them, sometimes from a very formal picture and sometimes from one that I imagine was a favorite photo, showing logo-design clothing as many people wear here. Approaching from what I later realized was the rear of the cemetery, I was surprised at how disheveled and overgrown the place is. I felt foolish about that when I realized the likely reason.

Passing a gravestone in one of the better maintained sections, I noticed the picture was of a teenage girl, as was the one next to it. Noticing that both had died in 1988, it hit me that I was seeing the graves of some of the people killed in the earthquake. The condition of the area I first saw is likely due to the disruption from the earthquake itself and the fact that the breadth of casualties may mean that there are no longer any relatives to maintain the sites (I remember hearing a similar explanation for the Jewish section of the main cemetery in Vienna as a result of the Holocaust). As I looked more closely, I began to see family graves where two or three generations were buried together with 1988 as the date of death. Most had a clock inscribed with the time of the earthquake, reinforcing that as the cause.

I have not yet had a conversation with anyone who lived through the earthquake as it seems too painful a topic to broach. As I mentioned, the signs of it are everywhere (physical and economic) making me curious about the experience, but I imagine people want to talk about it as much as I want to talk about being in New York on September 11, 2001.