Thursday, August 2, 2012

Time To Say Goodbye

Me being pensive (thanks for the pic Kevin)
Tomorrow I will end my Peace Corps service in Armenia.  I have written many times before that the time has gone by very quickly for me and it is still hard for me to believe that I have been in Armenia 26 months already.

So now the focus is on wrapping things up, passing things on and, most importantly, saying goodbye to many people.  As I have told several people, this is similar to when I left the US, but without all the shopping.

The goodbye process has been taking places over the course of the time I have been here.  Last year, it was the group that arrived the year before I did.  During the time my group was here, people left for medical reasons, for personal reasons or because a job came by that was too good to pass on.

But it really started to accelerate in April when the group I arrived with had our Close of Service conference.  Over several days, we talked about reverse culture shock, the paperwork that we need to complete as we finish up, how we feel about our accomplishments and practical matters such as medical insurance after service.We also talked a lot about our "Post-COS" plans, that included graduate school, jobs or (as in my case) travel. 

At that point things really sank in.

Peace Corps A-18 Group the day we arrived

Peace Corps Armenia A-18 COS Conference

During training in Solak with our teachers

Remaining Solakians at the COS Conference
In June, I paid a visit to Solak with most of the other volunteers who were there the same time as I.  I stayed with my first host family and had the opportunity to observe changes from two years ago.  Water now runs into the house (albeit on the same two-hours-per-day schedule that I remember). There is a new computer purchased by my host brother who had been away in the army while I was there. The kids are bigger. The entry to the property has been evened out and set with paving stones.  But the peculiar smell of the house - which I had forgotten - hit me as soon as I entered and gave me a comforting feeling of welcome.  Gohar made dinner and, after too many dolma, I had a goodbye toast with Rasmik who would be gone to work before I got up the next morning. 

With Gevorg, Tatik and Gohar
Some of the village kids who used to follow us around
I also visited with some of the other host families and shop owners I remembered.  The kids were playing in the schoolyard as also and we said goodbye to them also.  I met up with the others who had stayed overnight and we got in a taxi, with me not knowing when or if I would ever be in the village again.

Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to say goodbye to my Gyumri host family.  Over the past two years, they have been spending more and more time with their children and grandchildren in Russia and I think they may move there permanently.  I went by their house to learn that I had missed them by a week.  

And then more volunteers started to leave. Peace Corps has an option of taking an early close of service and a sizable number from our group took the option. We had a get-together in Yerevan just before their departure and it was a nice chance to see many of them before they headed out. When we have gatherings like this, it makes me thankful for one aspect of Peace Corps that is sort of under the surface - and that is, the chance to work with people very different from yourself and with whom you might never have otherwise come in contact.   I don't know if or when our paths will cross again, but I can say that this diverse group has made my service more meaningful and my life a little brighter.

A picture I took in Vienna on our way to Armenia - still in the "getting to know one another" phase
Two years later - after Austin and I had worked a lot together
The Northern team for the Border 2 Border walk in 2011
Half of Team North
The most difficult part is to say goodbye to the various people I have met and/or worked with in Gyumri.  Living there for two years was not just about my co-workers at the Social-Educational Centre and the participants at my English club.

With some of my co-workers at the Social Educational Centre and the bishop
It was also the lady in the shop around the corner who always knows that I buy six eggs at a time, the cafe manager who waves at me every time I walk past, the kids on my block who chase me down the street wanting a hand slap, the lady I buy spices and tea from who always gives me extra, the taxi drivers I pass every day on my way to work, the marshutni drivers who know which seats I can and can't sit in, and on and on.  And there are also the friends I have made here - who have included me in their Nor Tari celebrations, a wedding, an arm-wrestling contest or just a meal in their houses.

A man from my neighborhood who I see everywhere.  He and his wife had me in for dinner one night for no reason other than because we see each other all the time.
In my favorite restaurant across from the brewery.  I coached him on the English pronunciations for his menu.

The ladies who always know that I want a Gyumri draft

My spice lady
At my favorite cafe on the main square
At my favorite bread store
At my local grocery store
I also made a trek out to one of the villages we walked through last year during the Border 2 Border walk.  As I was researching the route before the walk, I asked for directions in a village I was passing through.  Before getting directions, I was invited into the house and given lunch.  We were given lunch again (with food to go) during the actual walk and I have kept in touch with the father since.  As the 2012 walk was due to pass the same way, an introduction to the new group seemed a good excuse for a return visit.

With Rubik in Yeranos village
I am often asked if I am happy or sad to leave and the answer isn't an easy one because it is both.  There are some for whom Peace Corps service is more of a trial and they can't wait to leave.  Others (including five in my group) extend their service for one or two years.  I will miss the people here but I also miss the people at home.  I am proud of the fact that I managed fine with all the life differences from what I was used to but I also realize that the privations I have "suffered" are a way of life for the people here.  I feel more comfortable here than at any other point in my service, but I also recognize the signs in myself then it is starting to wear on me (I am getting cranky at times).  So, for me, it is time to go.

Leaving also forces you to think about what you have accomplished during your service.  As part of the closing paperwork with Peace Corps, we write a "Description of Service" listing the various projects and programs we have done.  While I don't have any concrete accomplishments (I didn't build a school or latrine systems, as some people think all PCVs do) but I can see small changes that I think I can take at least partial credit for.  There is a quote in a training session for new trainees I helped with recently that (while it may be cheesy) is apt.  "In your Peace Corps service, you will help plant trees whose shade you will not get to sit under."  The other question I get from everyone is when I will come back (not "if", mind you, but "when").  My answer is that I probably will come again for a visit but I don't know when.  This being the only place that I have lived outside the US, it is a part of my life that I will want to see again - if for no other reason than to see if any of those trees have grown.

In the meantime, I worked on spreading around all the stuff I accumulated in the past two years - to my sitemates, to new volunteers, to my neighbors or to the needy people in my neighborhood.  This last part added a heavy note of sadness to leaving - in my last few days in Gyumri, I saw quite a few people preparing for winter, foraging for things to burn and the cardboard boxes and clothes past the point of wearability serve well for that.  Anything that can be burned did not last long after I left it by a dumpster and some people asked me for the things I was carrying in that direction.   

I am spending these last couple of days in Yerevan to finalize all of my paperwork, close my bank account, arrange my post Peace Corps health care and to say goodbye to more people. I will then visit Karabagh (the disputed area that Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over forever and which we are not allowed to visit while we are in the Peace Corps) and then a few last days in Yerevan to see the new volunteers sworn in and for the last goodbyes.

Where did the time go?