Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Long and Winding Road

This past week, I completed the first (annual?) Peace Corps Armenia Border 2 Border walk. It was tough, it was tiring, we had some hiccups along the way but from my perspective it was a great success. We held 11 health seminars for (mostly) children, handed out a lot of pamphlets and had conversations with a lot of people in places between seminar sites, and we taught a few dozen people lesson plans so that they can do similar classes in the future. We also got to see a large swath of the country at a very slow pace, allowing us to take in a lot of what the country has to offer.

So here is a summary of what it was all about and an album of pictures.


The Walk

We covered a total of about 290 kilometers over a fifteen day period, with four days of no walking because we did presentations and one full rest day without walking or a presentation. The shortest walk was five km (from the border itself to the first presentation site on the day of that presentation) and the longest was 42 km. We climbed a few mountains, traveled through two tunnels (one on foot) and got a lot of curious stares from drivers and others we passed.

We were very lucky with weather and started early almost every morning to avoid late afternoon rain in most areas and the climbing temperatures. We only got caught in real rain one day and sat out part of the storm in a guardsman’s house while he offered us tea and snacks. A few minutes after we reached Stepanavan, a freakish hail storm started but we were lucky to be in shelter by then. It was cloudy and somewhat cool most days except for the day we reached Sevan and the last two days as we approached Yeghegnadzor, where the temperature is typically very hot.

All of the people we passed were curious about what we were doing, incredulous about the distance we were walking (we chuckled when someone told us a destination was VERY far as it was 10 km distant) and very supportive of the project.

We passed through cities, towns and villages. We walked through or past herds of cows, sheep and goats. We saw a lot of horses and quite a few dogs who made a show of being tough but didn’t do a very good job of it. We passed many abandoned factories and working farms. We were passed by everything from Ladas to Mercedes to horse carts. And a truck transporting a tank.

And we saw lots of gorgeous scenery. The timing of the walk couldn’t have been better in that respect as the countryside is covered with purple, red, yellow and white wildflowers and the green pastures haven't yet turned brown with summer heat. The days are long and the air is mostly clear in the morning and early afternoon.

The only day that we hiked instead of following a road all day started with an hour-long climb that took us past a reconstructed 700-year-old church and up to a hilltop that overlooked Lake Sevan. We descended into a village where I had previously been hosted for lunch by a local family from whom I had asked directions. They hosted us again, treating us to home-made cheese, bread and jam as well as fresh vegetables from their garden. (We were also given a load of lavash and cheese to take on the road and another invitation to return for a khorovats.)

While we accepted that invitation, we turned down dozens of others as we walked since we normally had a lot of distance to cover each day. It still amazes me that people we had never met would invite six (somewhat unwashed) complete strangers into their homes immediately upon meeting us. One man literally blocked the sidewalk and it took some convincing that we didn't have time to come it. Yet more examples of the hospitality this country is known for.

The Presentations

We did five presentations before reaching Yeghegnadzor and a final one with the Southern team after we all arrived there. While the programs were the same (lessons about nutrition, exercise and the effects of drinking and smoking) the audiences were different depending on where we were. Kids in a small village like Dzoramut can be expected to be very attentive as the whole idea of Americans visiting is a novelty to them. We had heard the morning we arrived that there had been a death in the village and, since it was a small one, we might not have many children attend since everyone would be paying respects to the family. Nonetheless, we had more than 40 kids and teens turn out – about 10 percent of the total village population. After the classes, we played Frisbee and soccer with them.

Kids in the larger towns and villages brought along different life experiences that affected how they heard the information. In Vanadzor, some of the kids’ teachers also attended and I (helping with the class about the effects of alcohol) had to respond to questions such as whether a glass of wine in the morning is beneficial (a doctor told one woman it is) and I responded that, at least for me, wine in the morning would not be compatible with getting work done. A group from the YMCA did a dance routine afterward – including to the song “YMCA” - and they expressed surprise that the Americans present knew about dance steps that has been around since before they were born.

But in every case, the impact of some of the lessons could be seen on their faces. To the extent that even one kid doesn’t start smoking or get in a car with a drunk driver, we can say we were successful.

Our Accommodations

For the most part we stayed with fellow volunteers in their apartments or with their host families. This involved a lot of sleeping bag coordination and/or sleeping on couches and extra mattresses. At each place some of us lucked out and got a real bed. And as we arrived in each spot we were greeted with warmth and welcome and in one case ice cream and tubs of cool water to soak our feet in.

But three nights’ lodgings were out of the ordinary.

On the first night, in Dzoramut, the director of the village school had invited us to stay at her house and we had a very pleasant dinner and conversation with her and her family. Her husband, a veteran of the Red Army who served in Russia – Afghanistan war in the early 1980’s shared his army photo album with us. Apparently, such albums are very common and feature cartoons with a wolf character representing a soldier. The album gave fascinating insights as to the other side of the "evil empire" I had always been taught about.

Our shortest day without a presentation took us through three small villages and we stayed in the third, Gegharkunik. On the way into that village, we came upon a group of men at the local cemetery and we joined them at the graveside to honor the recently departed, including food and vodka shots. Even though we did not do a seminar in the village, we attracted attention as foreigners are bound to. We started playing Frisbee in the yard of the youth center which attracted a group of guys to watch, followed by younger kids after which we moved to the local soccer field. After more Frisbee, a soccer game and various games with the smaller kids, the day ended with some volleyball practice with the older boys. We camped out in a game room in the youth center.

We had decided to split the 60+ km trip from Martuni to Yegegnadzor into two sections and there is an ancient way-station about halfway that was used in the days that the Silk Road ran through Armenia. The caravanserai is a bit of a tourist spot and we encountered a Russian couple, various Armenian families passing by and a former PC volunteer on a visit with his Armenian wife and her family. Sleeping outside seemed like a good idea until the wind and moisture put our sleeping bags to the test and a group showed up at 11 PM for a barbecue (they seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see them). Those of us who woke up declined the invitation to eat although I did take a shot to be polite. And to help keep warm.

As we reached each destination, we generally petered out after a short while until food was introduced. I think our fellow volunteer / host on the first long day was at a bit of a loss as to what to do with us as we quickly became quiet and either napped or read until eating and heading to bed. We soon settled into a pattern of relaxing upon arriving, inhaling whatever food we had and going to bed as early at 8:30 PM. In Martuni, we didn’t manage to stay awake long enough to see the eclipse that night but the pictures we saw were very nice.

In Vanadzor, dinner one night was at a Georgian restaurant where the waitress thought we couldn’t possibly eat all the food we ordered – this became a pattern for the rest of the trip as we proved her wrong. In Dilijan we stayed with a fellow volunteer and her host family and inhaled a platter of grilled cheese sandwiches in about six minutes. On the road, we ate variations on the Armenian staples of sausage, cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes as well as healthy doses of nuts, raisins, oranges and bananas. And Snickers bars and ice cream – but don’t tell the kids that.

The Aftermath

A few of us had knee problems along the way, most of us had blisters and we were all beaten down by the heat on the last day. We all managed to stay moderately hydrated and only one of us had a bad day due to eating something (luckily not a walking day). I managed to avoid any real physical problems so I suppose I was in better shape than I gave myself credit for. And we all completed every kilometer which is an achievement in itself.

We met up with the Southern team in Yeghegnadzor (they had walked an equivalent distance) and had a rest day before our final presentation. After that, we all celebrated with the others who assisted with the presentation and took time to relax before heading home or to other destinations. [For posts from both teams during the walk see this link.]

So – would I do this again next year if there is a second annual walk? Probably not as it would more rightly be a project for the next batch of volunteers and I have already had my experience. But I am glad that I did this one.