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.