Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Year in Review - 2011

Similar to last year, my last post of 2011 will be a fairly lazy one.  As noted last year, I remember a radio station doing a year-end recap of notable events in the guise of reading predictions that might have been made by someone, and which no one would have believed. Here is my list of predictions that someone might have made about me for 2011. 

  • You will wander around the city scavenging for food for the first week of the year.  You will be excited when you find a store that is not only open but has eggs instead of coconuts.
  • You will blow up a water heater by turning it on while your pipes are frozen.  You will make note of the fact that, had you been standing two feet to the left, you might no longer have a face.
  • As a byproduct of the explosion you will be without water for a short period.  You will learn that you have to melt a significant amount of snow on the stove to get enough water to flush your toilet.
  • You will be remarkably sanguine when you resume bucket bathing but will learn that 45 minutes of hot water in a public shower may be the best 500 dram you ever spent.
  • You will join a gym and start befriending the Armenian cousins of Hans and Franz.
  • While walking along a highway one day, you will be invited to a barbecue by four guys you have never met before.  Before the day ends, you will consume countless shots of vodka, visit one man’s father’s grave, visit three houses including one with an indoor bee farm, eat honey straight from the bees’ honeycomb,  and wonder if you will ever get home again.
  • You will stare down a dog and hear the voice of the Peace Corps safety and security officer say “I told you so” when it bites you.
  • You will consider moving your water bottle away from your laptop one minute before knocking over said bottle and frying your keyboard.
  • You will travel often enough between Gyumri and Yerevan in one month to be a known presence at the bus station and essentially get a “frequent flyer” rate from taxi drivers there.
  • You will watch the end of the Academy Awards at the civilized hour of 9AM.  Your Armenian will be sufficiently good to recognize that the simultaneous translation on TV is not accurate.
  • You will walk nearly 200 miles across the country (wearing jeans) in nine days of walking.  You will only develop minor blisters and you will not collapse.  You will, however, eat astonishing amounts of food every day but lose weight.
  • While sleeping outside at a Silk Road era caravan way-station, you will encounter a group of men who think it is a good idea to barbecue fish at 11:00 PM in the middle of nowhere.  You will accept shots of vodka from them while some of your traveling companions are scared half to death by their presence (and others sleep through the whole thing).

  • Despite predictions of Armenians, you will NOT be eaten by wolves while sleeping at said Silk Road era caravan way-station.
  • You will wisely avoid riding an inner tube down a rocky river that is only two feet deep.  The scars you see on your companions and the lost shoe of one will make you happy with your decision.
  • The entire dynamic of your volunteer experience will change when the volunteers who welcomed you to Armenia last year leave and you become the welcomer, mentor and advisor.  From that point onward, time will somehow start going even faster than it had been.
  • You will develop a fan club of 10-16 year olds by engaging in water and snowball fights with them.  You will also develop a fan club of five- and six-year olds for no discernible reason.
  • You will discover that you have a knack for making soups, applesauce and peanut butter and baking bread, cakes and cookies - all from scratch.
  • You will become a minor local celebrity of sorts after a television reporter literally puts words in your mouth by dubbing your voice with things he wished you had said. Regardless, you will self impose a media blackout.
  • You will agree with a business university rector to conduct an English class for students who speak English but want to improve.  Upon starting the class, you will discover that none of them actually speak English and devote an entire lesson to vocabulary related to kitchens and food.
  • You will learn that a Kindle that sits in a pool of orange juice for a couple of minutes will no longer work.
  • You will stop working with a tutor but will find your Armenian improves when you start corresponding online using transliterated words.
  • You will begin to think you have been in Armenia too long when the Chess King remainders you see in the market while clothes shopping “don’t look too bad.”
  • A shoe repairman will suggest you marry his daughter and then show you the porn he watches on the television in his shop.
  • You will work as a counselor at a week-long youth camp.  You will be utterly exhausted and be grateful that the GI problems you experience from drinking unfiltered water there will not require a doctor visit as it will for three other volunteers.
  • You will experience your first earthquake that is somehow milder than the one felt in New York.
  • You will climb the highest mountain in Armenia as part of a poorly planned 13 hour odyssey that includes climbing down a long stretch in the dark and losing your wallet in the process.
  • In replacing the contents of your lost wallet, you will discover that you can get a new American Express card faster than you can get a new Peace Corps identification card.
  • You will be very grateful that people not only come to visit you but lug many pounds of things for you in their luggage.
  • You will finally go to the south of Armenia but fail to make it as far as the Iranian border.
  • You will go to Tbilisi enough times to declare that Springtime is the best time of year to visit.
  • You will attend a conference in a Soviet era hotel that was popular with the military as a “sanatorium”.  You will continually remark on how much the place reminds you of the movie “The Shining.”
  • Your hopes for a mild winter will be dashed when snow starts to fall in mid-November and remains on the ground outside your door from then onward.
  • While walking on ice and carrying both a tray of dessert you will fall on your ass and manage not to drop either (in other words, you will maintain your priorities).

  • You will continually be amazed at the ability of Armenian men in dress shoes and Armenian women in spike heels to walk (and run) on ice without falling.
  • You will go on vacation to countries significantly warmer than frost-covered Armenia yet still feel glad to return home.
  • Amy Winehouse will be responsible for you winning money.
  • You will read 27 books.
  • You will see fewer than five movies released in 2011, breaking your multi-year low count from 2010.  But you will learn why so many people love “Arrested Development”.
  • You will realize that receiving simple or silly things in the mail (old copies of Entertainment Weekly, Swiss Fudge Cookies, a frozen-margarita-in-a-bag kit, a toothbrush, a talking Mr. Hankey doll, cards from your nieces and nephews) can really brighten your day.
  • After countless times of saying that women are not less intelligent than men, you will see that some people are accepting the message.  Smokers will thank you when you tell them you are teaching their children not to start smoking.  Participants in your conversation club will win prizes in a creative writing contest and thank you for encouraging them to enter in the first place.  You will realize that your effectiveness as a volunteer may come in small ways that you never expected.
 Here is wishing everyone a happy and healthy 2012.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Home at the End of the World

As this week marked the anniversary of the 1998 earthquake, there have been quite a few news items surrounding the event itself, how it signaled change in the Soviet Union (despite initially declining, the USSR accepted foreign assistance for the first time since World War II) and the lingering impact.  

Since I am living in the city with most of the latter, I paid particular attention to these stories.  Many of them deal with “temporary housing” in “domiks” – usually with political finger-pointing or highlighting that movement to get people permanent housing always precedes election cycles (although the publishing of such stories during election cycles is another issue).  Regardless of the main topic, though, one of the recurring themes, and one which I have written about several times already, is the number of people still living in domiks.   

They are all over the city, and there are quite a few that I pass on a regular basis.  As families have grown over the years, some have been added to and they take on a different shape but you can usually see the original container. As they are made of metal, they are very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter.
They generally have no running water.  The woman in the picture below is getting her household water from a break in the pipe she is standing above.

In the course of my time here, I have been in several – one that a few of us looked at when we were looking for apartments last year, a few when I accompanied my co-workers on trips to give food and clothing to needy families.  If the family has had some form of income, they can be homey and almost comfortable (ignoring the temperature issue) while others make you wonder how people live in them. This article has a slideshow with the kind of pictures that need to be seen but which I never would have felt comfortable taking myself and interviews with some inhabitants. 

Slow as it may be, there are apartment buildings under construction and I sometimes hear of families finally getting permanent housing and see domiks being dismantled.  But the interview linked below provides another fascinating aspect of this story – and why some are resistant to move out of what have been their homes for decades. 

The concept of “learned helplessness” that he speaks about goes far beyond this particular aspect of Armenian life, and is important to understand how many people think.

Many of my projects involve working with people born after the earthquake and that presents another aspect - while their parents remember the earlier time, there is an entire generation for whom the presence of domiks (or living in one) is all that they have ever known.  Given that, acceptance of the situation seems almost inevitable.

I also walked for the first time this week through an area that seems not to have been touched since the earthquake.  The "Textil" neighborhood was so named because it was the center for the clothing and textile factories that were the economic heart of Gyumri.  They collapsed during the earthquake and the market for the products disappeared when the country separated from the Soviet Union so there has been no reason to reconstruct them.  I suppose this is the closest I will get to seeing what Gyumri was like right after the earthquake - there was snow on the ground then also.  Hard to imagine. [There are more pictures in the Gyumri photo album linked at right].

Again, there is an entire generation for whom this is not unusual. There are indications that people hang out there, drink other things.  When you have this to walk through as a shortcut (the entire area is open) I suppose a domik can seem not so bad - think of the alternative.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

We Are the 99%

Old habits are hard to break and I read the New York Times online every day while I am here.  While I have not read too many of the specific articles, it is impossible to miss the Occupy Wall Street movement and the tagline of “We Are the 99%”.  It is also impossible to miss the fact that similar protests have started in other cities around the world.  Armenia, however, has not picked up on it.  

There have been protest rallies ongoing in Yerevan for the past several months, arranged by the opposition parties of the government, but those have been aimed at partisan issues rather than income inequality.  But income inequality is definitely here.  While I have seen all along how pronounced it is when you compare Yerevan to the rest of the country, I also see it within Gyumri.  This was highlighted to me when I recently saw a video ad for a hotel that just opened here. 

Not only is the place over-the-top enough to make Donald Trump proud, but it is owned by the mayor of the city.  As I have mentioned many times, there are residents in the city who are still living in “temporary” housing that they moved into after the earthquake 23 years ago, many do not have running water, streets remain unpaved, streets are unlit, people gather around trees as they are pruned to take home firewood and unemployment is upwards of 70%.  But at the same time, a five-star hotel opens.  And while it is well known that the mayor owns it (and, naturally, paid for it himself) someone pointed out to me that the construction timetable pretty much matched that of the new city hall and the stonework and many fixtures inside are conveniently the same in both buildings.  Curious.

While there have been no “Occupy Gyumri” protests, I have heard that the online news outlets have been full of reader commentary critical of the hotel for the reasons cited above.  And reality seems to have arrived in one respect – while the initial room rates started at 50,000 dram per night, I am told that there have been very few guests since the hotel opened a couple of months ago and yesterday I was told that the starting rate is now 20,000 dram.

Behind the building you can see some of the “temporary” domiks or other run down houses.   

Domiks behind the hotel which you can see on the right
This is partly because there are no such things as “rich” neighborhoods here.  When the country separated itself from the Soviet Union, everyone was given the homes they were in, free and clear.  The earthquake had destroyed many of those buildings and some people were able to rebuild their houses (quite a few of which I call “Mansionyans”) on their properties, which may be next to the domiks their neighbors have not been able to afford to move out from.  


Adjacent to the house above
This article from 2005 about the disappearing middle class in Armenia is still relevant.  The article was written after the second post-independence presidential election (and that president was replaced in the last cycle) but the themes are consistent with what I hear on a daily basis. 

So where to Peace Corps volunteers fit into this? We receive a monthly living allowance that is intended for us to live at a level consistent with the communities in which we live.  Excluding rent – to make matters comparable for the home ownership I mentioned; I read recently that 89% of Armenians own their homes outright - we receive between 117,000 and 129,000 dram per month. Depending on the exchange rate, this comes to about $300 – 350 per month and the variation in the amount over the course of the year is because we get extra funds in colder months to cover higher utility costs.  This amount is not much different than the average monthly salary in Armenia of about 115,000 dram (although salaries, unlike our allowances, don’t increase in the colder months).  The average excluding Yerevan is about 95,000 dram, putting us somewhat above that average; nonetheless, I have heard anecdotes from other volunteers who were asked how much we get and were then asked “How do you live on that?”

While some of us have personal savings we can draw from, Peace Corps discourages that.  A big part of being effective here is fitting in with your community and living more lavishly than everyone else could easily prevent that (and, believe me, people notice everything we do and buy).  There is a perception that everyone from the US is rich and periodically I am asked for money from strangers on the street.  To counteract that perception, and to allow integration with ordinary citizens, we become the 99%.  

I do dip into my savings when I go to Yerevan and want to treat myself to a dinner nicer than a kebab, but I live within my Peace Corps allowance while at home in Gyumri.  The bulk of the PCVs in Armenia are living likewise and it does make you appreciate how most people here live.  I normally cook for myself instead of eating out.  I have gotten quite adept at finding ways to save money such as buying groceries in the market by the kilo instead of packaged (tea, flour, rice, etc) which is significantly less expensive.  I have gotten good at repairing my socks instead of replacing them (never mind that I can’t really find any that I like anyway).  What “luxuries” I have treated myself to lately include a vacuum cleaner and a blender, and even with those I am not spending more than I get. 

While people here pay a lot of attention to how they dress, I do notice people wearing the same things multiple days in a week.  This is probably a combination of not spending a lot of money in absolute terms on clothing and the pain-in-the-ass factor of line drying in cold weather (both of which I relate to).  That may also explain why so many people here wear black all the time.

Food prices also have been rising lately.  While pricing changes based on supply and demand are a byproduct of a market economy, it is hard to separate how much is pure economics versus manipulation (when you go into capitalism and market economics, oligopolies are another byproduct).  This is all fine academically, but when you see people foregoing food because it is beyond their means it gives you a much different perspective.  And after egg prices doubled at the end of last year the government started talking about regulating food prices.  Again, old habits die hard.

The one exception, or “luxury”, that I allow myself is to run my heating more than the average person does. As my second winter here sets in, I notice that people do not normally turn on their heat before November 1 no matter what.  Regardless of the fact that this year has been much colder so far and the cold started much earlier, people just bundle up and endure it until the time comes to fire up the heaters.  So as to do this reasonably, I do as most people do: I spend most of my time in the room with my gas heater and stay in much of the time. 

In the first few years of independence, things were much worse.  After the earthquake in 1988, Armenia’s nuclear power plant (which produces about 40% of Armenia's electricity) was shut.  Closure of the borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan created energy shortages and the government decided to reopen it in 1993.  During that time, various nations donated kerosene heaters and areas, such as Gyumri, were virtually deforested as people cut down trees for firewood.  Family libraries were decimated for the same reason.  Now, people tend to have wood stoves, gas heaters, electric heaters or some combination of the above.  But gas, electricity and wood cost money and many people factor warmth into the equation with food and clothing as to how to spend the relatively little amount they have each month.

Matters are even worse in schools, many of which do not have heat at all.  Most of my fellow volunteers who work in schools post pictures of their students on Facebook at some point, and virtually every picture I see shows kids in coats, scarves, hats and gloves in the classrooms.  

Darryn teaching technology
As a result of all of this, one might expect frustration from the inequality to eventually boil up.  And while I do hear people grumble about it, the same way people grumble about corruption, many seem to accept it as part of life.  I chalk this up to another byproduct of the Soviet era and I am reminded of a famous line from Animal Farm, which, as I pointed out in my last post, I recently re-read:  “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” 

But others take a different approach.  While the younger generation in the US is staging protests, this survey  seems to indicate that the younger generation here is simply planning to leave – maybe to go to the US.    

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

And the Strangest Things Seem Suddenly Routine

I suppose that it is an understatement that time adds perspective to things, yet with the quickening passage of time the change in your view can really surprise you with how sudden it seems. 

This phenomenon repeatedly comes into focus the longer the newer group of volunteers is here in Armenia.  As they go through their first experiences in country, my group goes through its second round.  As I try to give advice as winter approaches and about how to settle into living alone here (the newer volunteers are now able to move out from their host families’ homes if they wish) I often forget how surprising some things were this time last year.  When I recently advised someone “unless you are planning to take one in to live with you, don’t get too attached to the puppies here” it was later described as one of the saddest things that person had heard in a while. While I have no problem owning up to being cynical, I don’t think that is the reason why little makes me stop and do a double-take (although “TIA”, meaning “This is Armenia” does pop up as an explanation a lot).  

So here is a partial list of things that may still annoy me, make me laugh or make me sad but don’t really surprise me.  I can mention them casually in a conversation, forgetting that is was all news to me a short time ago:
  • ·         Electricity cutting off for no apparent reason.  This can mean having to read by candlelight or my coworkers not being able to work (I use my laptop so power failures don't normally stop me).
  • Scheduling laundry based on when the power is strong enough for the spinner in the machine to work sufficiently.
  • Scheduling showers around variations in water pressure or foregoing one entirely because I took one within the last three days.
  • Being unable to flush a toilet in someone’s apartment because the water schedule for that town (or street, or building) doesn’t allow it at that time of day. That is if the person even has a flush toilet.
  • Vegetables that can sit on the table unused for days and not spoil.
  • Having a room that can serve as a refrigerator.
  • Keeping one room in my home warm while I am able to see my breath in all of the others.
  • Sleeping in bed, inside a sleeping bag, along with several blankets on top.
  • People who cut into a line with no argument from anyone who has been waiting.
  • Seeing a guy wearing dress shoes with a track suit or a girl in church with cleavage-enhancing clothing.
  • Seeing guys in dress shoes walk easily across ice and snow [especially considering that is how I broke my leg a few years back].
  • Seeing women in spike heels walk easily across ice and snow [when asked, they will explain that the heels are safer since they act as ice picks].
  • Boys who appear to be 14 being served beer in a café.
  • Knowing a dentist with his own practice who is 22.
  • Weddings that take place any day of the week (and learning a coworker is not in the office because of he or she is attending one of those weddings).
  • Seeing someone buy a shotglass full of sunflower seeds and having them put in his back pocket (loose) for easier snacking access
  • A car covered in Dolce & Gabbana logos.
  • Seeing used Coke bottles being used as containers for benzene, homemade vodka and/or homemade wine.
  • Being waved down on the street by the postman since everyone in the neighborhood obviously knows the American in their midst.
  • Leaving letters at the post office and never knowing if they will be delivered.
  • Bottles of wine and vodka that are “expensive” if they cost more that the equivalent of $5.
  • My standard for wine declining from “good” to “drinkable”.
  • Seeing dogs, cats or cows eating out of trash bins or seeing cows in a road.
A fellow volunteer shared an experience when his girlfriend came to visit and they went to the training village where he had lived.  She was bothered by the sheer number of flies everywhere which he had stopped noticing.  While we in New York perceive flies as a sign of uncleanliness, in Armenia they are a natural byproduct of having livestock around.

Another point of evidence that my perspective has changed is that I am taking fewer photographs lately.  While I took hundreds of pictures in the first months I was here, the sight of a collapsed building, a rail car converted into a house, a cow eating trash, Soviet symbols and other things that were fascinating early on are not as noteworthy now.  But, as I have written before, some things are changing here so I find myself revisiting earlier photos to keep a record of the changes. 


And this next one only took a few weeks to change.

While I am impressed with myself that I have gotten used to the inconveniences here, I have decided not to visit the US during my service, partly because I fear having to get used to everything again.  My living circumstances have improved from my Solak house (no indoor plumbing, no running water) to my Gyumri host house (indoor plumbing, running cold water) to my apartment (running hot water and a very decent bathroom) so I am content.  But that is not to say that I wouldn't like to take showers more than once a day if the mood struck me.  If I were to visit the US now, I am not likely to be so acclimated to Armenian life as to not take a shower because I don’t expect running hot water there 24/7, but I don’t think that I would want to have to re-acclimate when returning. 

In the meantime, being an “experienced” volunteer doesn’t protect me from being caught off guard by the earlier onset of cold weather this year.  While we did not have a serious snowfall last winter until New Year, we got about six inches of snow in Gyumri last Friday – and we were late to the party since other areas had snow on the ground at Halloween.  But again, the perspective has changed – it is not how cold it is, just that it's come earlier.

The view from my kitchen on Saturday morning
Living here has also given me a new perspective in other areas.  I recently re-read Animal Farm by George Orwell, which I can appreciate much more now than I could when I was in high school.  Back then, I had no clue about what it was satirizing.  I don’t by any means consider myself an expert on the Russian Revolution, the socialist system or what life under Stalin was like, but I have now lived for a year and a half in a country that was one of the “neighboring farms” for 70 years.  And I think I can understand how people can be made to believe that their lives are better than they are since I often meet people nostalgic for the Soviet period.  

While 99.5% of votes were cast for Armenian independence in 1991, it is clear that nobody foresaw the economic consequences (particularly those caused by ancillary factors such as the subsequent war with Azerbaijan and Turkey closing its border in sympathy with Azerbaijan).  What people recall is that during the Soviet times, everyone had jobs, food and heat.  Few seem to care that there were drawbacks in the Soviet system as much as they do about not having sufficient money to live on now.  Never mind that the Soviet Union could probably not have survived much longer economically – the response is normally that things were better then.  

So, with all the talk lately about Russia forming a new Eurasian Union (including this article), I will be very curious to see how far Armenia will take its alliance with Russia. Maybe things will get better, maybe not.  I guess it all depends on how you look at it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How to Succeed in Business

When I received my Peace Corps invitation to Armenia, my assignment was described as a “Business Development Advisor”.  While my work so far has not really involved directly advising businesses, I have had some opportunity to observe how things are done here.  

As with most aspects of life, the business world is still affected by the remnants of the Soviet period.  I have written before about corruption which remains a fact of life here and influences how business is done and the cost of doing so.  I have also written about how the lack of trust interferes with making sensible business decisions that could result from working together.
Meanwhile, the education system as it is produces people that have limited entrepreneurial skills or direction about where to go.  There are business universities here and I have worked with students in two so far.  The universities here are different from the US in that the curriculum is set (with no electives) so everyone has the same classes without areas of specialty like marketing, accounting or economics.  But when asked about what the students want to do after graduation, the answer is often “I want to work in a bank”.  Follow up questions about why are met with silence – it seems the reason is that there are jobs there, with no thought given about what function the job would be or why the person is interested in banking.  But the students I spoke to this week gave even more surprising answers: kindergarten teacher, working with the elderly or orphans, child psychologist.  It is unclear why they are attending a business school.

It seems that the concept of a business plan is something foreign here.  I have seen several business owners spend months getting a place ready to open which then closes within a matter of weeks.  Most banks require a business plan to get a loan, but we were told in training that people are hesitant to supply them since they fear their ideas will be stolen [since many small businesses seem to duplicate existing ones the fear of copying seems to be self-reflective].  Combine the seeming lack of a plan with loans’ typical interest rates of 20% or more and it is easy to understand why many fail.  A person I have been working with at an NGO asked for my assistance in putting together a business plan for a venture to make money for the organization.  I asked a few basic questions to help get the plan started (Is there a market for what you are planning to sell? Will you be able to get the materials at a cost lower than you can sell for?) but I never got a response.  Nonetheless, a donor organization funded the purchase of new equipment and people are being trained to use it.  The source of materials and a market for the product are still open points but I have been asked for suggestions about how to advertise the venture.

The government is taking steps to make Armenia a more favorable business environment and it has moved from 61st place to 55th in the World Bank's "Doing Business" annual report about 183 countries.  In a similar Forbes ranking, Armenia moved from 96th to 89th of 130 countries.  For example, it used to take an average of 39 days to register a business, including multiple trips to multiple agency offices (all in Yerevan) to get approvals, etc.  An online process was initiated earlier this year, allowing a business to be registered in 15 minutes.  The tax system, though, is still seen as very unfriendly to small businesses. 

The prices of things tend to fluctuate more than I am used to.  As I mentioned early this year, the forces of supply and demand doubled the price of eggs in time for New Year.  Since then, the price came down to a level that was higher than the New Year spike but lately I have seen fluctuations up and down.  While in the US price hikes are rarely reversed (or announced very proudly if they are) here I never really know what to expect to pay.

Intellectual property presents another challenge to legitimate business.  Logos are very popular here as evidenced by the clothing people wear but trademarks mean nothing.  The logos are obviously fakes (unless Dolce & Gabbana are selling $5 sweaters and producing things in a joint venture with Versace and/or Armani) and many are misspelled (Adibas, Calvin Klaim).

I also think the newest restaurant in Gyumri is infringing on a trademark, although I can’t be sure.  

While there are movie theaters in some cities, hardly anyone goes to the one in Gyumri.  Instead, you can go to a video store and pay 500 dram (about $1.33) for a DVD with up to 10 movies on it, obviously pirated and badly dubbed into Russian.  I am told of computer stores where you can pay less than $10 for the full Microsoft Office suite.

In the Soviet era, Armenia was a sort of manufacturing and processing hub.  Raw materials were brought in from other countries (Armenia doesn’t have many) and finished goods were sold to the other countries.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, both the supplies and demand went away so most factories closed.  Since then, the search has been on for a replacement specialty beyond the brandy that Churchill helped to make famous.

The government believes that a viable tourism industry can be developed for Armenia and I agree that it should be – with the scenery, the historic landmarks, the food and the affordability of most things it is a good tourist destination (at least on paper).  When I was first coming here last year, a nationwide tourism campaign was winding down.  The theme was “Noah’s Journey” since Armenia reveres Mount Ararat where Noah’s Ark landed.  Too bad that the campaign inadvertently steered people to the other side of the border as Mount Ararat is in modern-day Turkey.  More recently, the main tourist office was closed (shortly before the government projection of a 20% increase in visitors).  It seems that the office was only drawing budget travelers and they weren’t seen as worth the expense of the office.

The projections of increased tourism seem to be coming true (although I am always wary of government statistics).  A recent article about the increase in tourists this year said that 580,000 people visits Armenia between January and September, an increase of 18% over the same period in 2010.  Most tourists to Armenia stay with friends or relatives though - the article mentions that the number of people staying in hotels between January and June 2011 was only 52,500 – so the impact on the economy is not what it could be if more non-diasporans were to visit.  Hotel occupancy rates are extremely low (I have heard a figure of 27%) but most hotels have restaurant and wedding businesses that they make their money from.  

I am working on a tourism project specific to Gyumri and, in connection with that, we tried to get information on all of the hotels in the city.  There is no complete directory of hotels here and most rely on tour operators for their business with no focus at all on individual travelers.  None have online reservations, and the prices are very high compared to the relative cost of everything else.  Most don’t accept credit cards.

We recently got space allocated for a Gyumri tourist office but no funding will be provided by the city to operate it.  That is the least of the issues I recently identified as hindering tourism here (unpaved streets, lack of sidewalks and street signs being some others) but the sense is that tourists will come anyway.  After all, the mayor just built a new hotel…. 

As to businesses that do exist, they have peculiarities that I don’t often see in the US.  One thing you have to get used to is the different names that a store can be called.  A grocery store may have a sign that says խանութ (khanut, meaning “shop” or “store”), մթերք (mterk, meaning “provisions”), վաճառատուն (vajaratun, meaning “sellinghouse”) or առեւտրիսրահ (arevtrisrah, meaning “commerce shop) or it may have no sign at all.  

The offerings in what I refer to as grocery stores can be quite broad – the one store may sell fresh fruits and vegetables, soap and detergents, clothing, notebooks and, of course, candy and vodka.  In a village that is to be expected, but I see the same thing in Gyumri, where there are more specialized shops for stationery, hardware and home goods.  But one of my favorites has three main offerings – housewares, clothing and fireworks.

The larger grocery stores have separate registers for separate sections (reminding me of Nathan’s in Coney Island).  You get a few items from one section, pay for it and move on to the next.  While most of what are labeled “supermarkets” have centralized registers, one that I go to often has two floors and you need to pay for anything you buy on the floor from which you got it.

Usually, if you see a shop selling something, there is at least one other (sometimes more) in the area or even immediately next door.  In these cases, they usually sell the same things at the same prices.  While you can expect that is a place like the main market, it also happens with stores in other parts of the city.  I normally see two, three or four khanuts in a row or clustered in a small area.  DVD stores, fabric shops, clothing stores and hardware businesses are likewise on top of one another.

The blue tarp toward the right is a grocery store like the one on the left.  There was another across the street behind me.
One trend that makes sense, given the increasing average age of the population, is the recent openings of a lot of drug stores.  Two chains seem to be everywhere and one near me recently expanded but its competitor is opening in the adjacent storefront.  Given that this is par for the course in Manhattan, I suppose I shouldn’t see this as noteworthy.

Many businesses don't post business hours and window displays may not make it clear what is even sold. When they do have business hours, they don’t necessarily mean the place will be open.  Many don't advertise (and as I said above, some don't even have a sign), or may have flyers that are only available in the store.  

My gym is a good example.  It took me more than six months to find out the place even existed and it seems to survive on word-of-mouth as there is no sign.  Officially, it is open from 10 – 9 Monday through Friday and 1 – 9 Saturday, except when it isn’t – the women who clean may come in at 11 and tell everyone to leave; the owner may decide to go somewhere at 7:30 and close.

When a business does have a sign, it does not necessarily mean that what you see is what you get.  As I discussed previously about gender roles, I can assure you that these are not representative of who is working in gas stations in Armenia.

Restaurants also have peculiarities.  More times than I can remember, I have gone to one that has an extensive menu but then learn that many things on it are not available.  Better yet, I went to a café once with a group of fellow volunteers and we were told there is no menu.  We asked what they had and we were told “everything!”  We then asked for at least five things that are staples of cafes (pizza, shawarma, kebabs, etc) and were told they did not have them.  We didn’t have the patience to try to figure out what they might actually have, so we left.

The merchandise in stores is also interesting.  In most stores, you buy eggs individually (although you can get cartons of 10).  Toilet paper is often sold in individual rolls, but not wrapped the way that Scott Tissue is.  While you can buy it packaged, butter is often sold in irregular sizes and you pay by the kilo.  Cereal, pasta, flour, sugar, rice and other staples are bought by the kilo – sometimes in pre-packaged amounts, sometimes not.  And every grocery store has a wall or aisle dedicated to vodka, wine and brandy and another devoted to candy and cookies.  

Many other small businesses I see are of a few types - beauty salons, internet cafes, cel phone retailers, auto parts and tire repair, bridal salons selling flowers and renting wedding dresses.  The larger businesses are foreign owned (the primary phone / internet companies) or owned by "oligarchs", the rich Armenians who have connections with or are part of the government.

Despite all of these issues, sometimes you see things that seem to be done in a well thought out manner.  Recently, a game arcade opened near the center of town.  It was remarkable because it was something the city did not already have, a lot of money was obviously put into it, the location is great and it seems to have been laid out in a way that is customer friendly with prices for the games that are not outrageous.  We wondered about how someone would be able to afford such a venture and this weekend I found out – it is owned by the mayor’s brother.
But it does have Skee-ball....

Monday, October 10, 2011

(500) Days of Armenia

Today is my 500th day in Armenia (officially at least – I am not subtracting the days I spent in Tbilisi this year).  As I am obsessive about time markers, I took this as another opportunity to reflect on my experience to date.  

While it is too early to summarize what I think of my accomplishments here (I will do that when I am finished next year) some things have changed since I arrived that are worth noting and I will also take the opportunity to update some of the things I have written about in earlier posts. 

In my first post, I answered some commonly asked questions so I will revisit those (modified in some cases since the passage of time has rendered some moot). 

Am I happy?  The answer to that depends on the day.  I have days that I just want to stay inside my apartment, but those are very infrequent. I have days when I need a mental health break from everything and sit in the park and read or hang out with other volunteers.  But mostly I am still happy. 

The honeymoon period here ended long ago but I am not itching to go home.  It is easy to get frustrated (as I have and other volunteers tell me they have also).  As you get settled into your assignment, get involved in secondary projects and go about living your day-to-day life, you have to acknowledge that you often don’t have the answer that people want, that they may not want what you want to give them, and that you may never get accustomed to why things are the way they are. I am not sure if it is the overall slower pace of life, getting more comfortable with my expectations here or what, but I am getting better at letting it go and not letting it drive me crazy.  There is only so much I can do.   

It also helps to realize that, no matter how hard you try, you will always be an outsider who does not have the history of the people you encounter daily – as much as I read or hear from people, I will never know what it was like to live in a Soviet regime, live through an earthquake or not be sure whether I can afford dinner or heat for my family.  As long as I accept that, I will probably be fine.  I chastise myself when I make a cultural error and try to rectify it, but knowing that I get a pass because I am a foreigner makes it easier.  

I still get “memory flashes” about things and places in New York and they are more frequent now.  But, similar to how I described them before, they are like things I am looking forward to seeing again as opposed to things I am homesick for.

Am I feeling OK?  The answer is most of the time.  I have gotten colds that are no worse than I normally get in New York - they seem to last less time but they tend to make me more tired.  I had the flu in January and am half expecting it again following my mandatory flu shot next month.  I have occasional GI problems, but much less often and severe than some of my fellow volunteers (I can count on one hand how often I have had unfiltered water and I think that is part of the reason).  I am exercising regularly and usually sleep well so no worries in this area.

How is life living alone in a strange place?  [The question was originally about life with my host family].  It has been great although the comments I get occasionally remind me of how odd it is for people to see me live alone.  I am often asked who cleans my house (I do), who cooks my food (I do), who washes my clothes (I do).  A coworker recently suggested that some of the volunteers from my work site (almost all are female) come over and clean for me.  The lady who owns a store I frequent was astonished when I said I was going to bake something.  Upon entering my apartment once, my landlady remarked about how clean it is, the surprise evident in her voice.  Since partaking in the Vardevar water fights, I have developed a fan club of kids in the neighborhood.  My landlady cautioned me after seeing me talking to some “bad men” on the corner.  Most of my neighboring mothers and grandmothers say hello to me when I walk past now.  It seems they are seeing me as a neighbor now.

What is my typical day?  I get up between 6:30 and 7:30 and do my morning exercises.  I visit my usual web sites and have breakfast (lots of eggs and oatmeal).  Assuming the water pressure is sufficient, I take showers most every day (and if not, I can get by without for a day or two).  I work at my primary site from 10 until 1 and have lunch then. I work on other projects in the afternoon (English club, Business English class, various other things such as HIV training seminars, editing English translations, reviewing grant proposals, tourism plans, helping other volunteers with grant proposals, etc, etc, etc).  Several days a week I go to my gym and or shopping for food.  I cook dinner somewhere between 6 and 8 and occasionally go out to eat or to another volunteer’s house for a group dinner.  I read, watch movies or write most nights until 11:30 or so.  On Saturdays I go on long walks while the weather permits and go to Yerevan maybe one weekend a month.  On some Sundays I go to a movie club (movies dubbed into Russian, discussion in Armenian so I only go when I have seen the movie before). 

Nothing overly exciting but not boring either.

How is the food?  Still good although different now.  As I detailed a few posts back, I am cooking a lot more and enjoying the experience but, as a result, I am not having as much Armenian food as I used to.  I still like dolma but don’t imagine myself making it, and I am not unhappy to no longer eat hot dogs and eggs for breakfast.  I am surprising myself with how much less meat I am eating and doing fine without it.  I have by no means become a vegetarian (I still love eating khorovats and any time I grab something quick it is normally a meat kebab or shawarma) but something like buckwheat can be very tasty and filling, as can vegetable soups and pizza.  While meat is pretty expensive given our living allowances, the cost is not a factor as much as realizing I like these other things that are full of protein and pretty tasty.

As far as cooking goes, my first attempts at bread were successful and I will start branching out to flavor it differently. And there are a lot of other recipes I am anxious to try (red wine chocolate cake?  why not?)

Unlike the first few months I was here, I don’t eat candy as much (maybe one Snickers every two or three weeks instead of daily), but I am baking sometimes so polishing off a plate of cookies is not unheard of.  I am back to rarely drinking soda but my alcohol consumption is more than in Solak (although still down from New York). 

How is the language coming?  At this point I have to say that it has plateaued but mostly for my lack of studying.  After my tutor got too busy to work with me last spring, I have not hired another and have tailed off on my self-studying.

Having said that, I can definitely speak better than I did last year and moved up a notch when we had our language proficiency tests in July. I can carry on a conversation and often surprise people who don’t expect me to be able to speak any Armenian.  I try to learn a few new words every week and absorb words by examining how they are constructed of parts that I already know and I have gotten pretty good at writing emails in transliterated Armenian.  But Armenians tend to speak very quickly and my listening comprehension is not really good enough to follow what is going on in a meeting, I still struggle with the longer words and the letters can still trip me up when I try to read something (again, especially the long ones of which there are plenty). 

I am pretty sure that I have not made any colossal blunders lately as I know I did early on, and have avoided some others that I have heard about (not too surprising, for example, when the words for “ice cream” and “condom” are very similar).  But one thing that I fail to understand is how sometimes people don’t understand when I do mispronounce something but the context would clearly indicate what I mean.  As an example, the words for “cold”, “mountain” and “tree” sound very similar, but one would think that if I ask for a “tree beer” when pointing at beer bottles, it should be obvious that I am asking for a cold one. 

Without having grown up with the language, I don’t know to what extent context plays a part in how people process what they hear since I am told that the words in a sentence can be moved around without changing the meaning.  It may be one of the things that you need years to understand the subtleties of, but it is hard to motivate myself to pursue that knowing that I may never speak the language again after I leave next year.

What is Gyumri like? I have written at length about different aspects of Gyumri but I would summarize it as a small town dressed up like a city.  By that I mean that the nights are very quiet, everyone seems to know everyone else and it is a very conservative place.  As I have said many times, Armenia strikes me as a pretty easy place to be sent with Peace Corps and Gyumri is a pretty easy place to be sent in Armenia.

So what else is new? Beyond revisiting the first post, here are a few updates to other things I have written about:
  • I am back to doing laundry by hand as my washing machine has proved much more work than it is worth in washing things.  I use the spinner part to get clothes ready for drying but the washing part is in the bathtub.
  •  I never made it to my Solak host brother’s party when he returned from the army as I was in the middle of the Border 2 Border walk in June.  Also, one member of my Gyumri host family moved to Russia and his brother won’t go in until at least next year since the draft age was increased, so I still haven’t been to an army party yet.  Still no wedding either but I hope to experience Nor Tari this coming year.
  • I now feel very comfortable getting around the country by public transportation although recent events have made it more difficult.  In an effort to improve the quality of life in Yerevan, the mayor abruptly changed the locations of most inter-city marshutnis [I now need to go to the “central” bus station which is anything but central].  At the same time the subway fare doubled.
Recently, there have been many days when there are no marshutnis running into Yerevan (and sometimes none leaving).  I am sure it is a mere coincidence that these days coincide with rallies that have been taking place to protest the governing party, since I can’t imagine anyone trying to undermine a protest by making it more difficult for people to attend or implying that the opposition parties are making life less convenient for ordinary citizens….  

I finally made it to the southern part of the country and the marshutni rides were quite an experience.  The region is beautiful and I tried to get a look at the scenery while also reading my book, but the roads are so bumpy and twisty that I also had to keep an eye on the kid next to me as his father had fashioned a vomit bag for him just in case (luckily it wasn’t needed).
  • I still have maddening conversations with women about their role in society and how they think men are more intelligent than they are.  It says a lot about the value placed on women when the Council of Europe raises an alarm about the rates of male and female births and starts to investigate whether selective abortions are taking place.
  • I have had conversations with people about the earthquake and the stories are hard to imagine.  One man was trapped for 21 hours until he was rescued.  A woman I know was in school and described how frantic her mother was trying to find her.  I heard a story about people coming from Yerevan to loot. And there are still something like 1,300 families waiting for permanent homes.
Today I was also asked about September 11 for the first time by an Armenian.  I have noticed that some people here are conspiracy theorists about various things but I was surprised when one guy asked me if Bush had arranged the attacks and whether bombs in the base of the towers really caused their collapse.  I explained what I know and he responded "Why would Bin Laden want to do that?".  He then tried to convince me that Bin Laden was killed in Libya.
  • I still hate how people treat dogs here but I must admit I now readily threaten a dog that is threatening me.  Unlike watchdogs I am accustomed to, I notice that many dogs here sit quietly and watch you pass and then make a move to attack after you have passed.  I still love dogs and don’t imagine myself harming one, but neither do I imagine myself going through another series of rabies shots.
So what now?  For me, this is now an odd point in the service period. The new group is still getting settled in, but most of my group will leave Armenia in nine or ten months.  I still have a second winter ahead of me but am starting to think about what I will do next summer.  I am comfortable with how to approach projects but have to start considering which of the new volunteers can take over for me if one needs to go on beyond next year.  I acquired a bunch of things from the volunteers who just left but am at the point where I don’t want to acquire anything else that can’t be worn, eaten or otherwise used up as I would have to get rid of it when I go.  

Many former volunteers have told me that the second year in Peace Corps goes much faster than the first.  I have gotten used to that phenomenon over the years as I have gotten older but already sense that the next ten months will speed past more than usual.  

The trick will be to keep an eye on the time to make sure I am not writing a post about all I didn't get done.