Monday, August 31, 2009

All Roads Lead to Yerevan

Yesterday my host family took me to Lake Sevan. Lake Sevan is a popular destination for many Armenians; it is a very large lake with crisp clear blue water that laps up at the base of these tall mountains robed in mist and clouds. It got its name when during WWI the Armenians were forced to flee the town of Van for the eastern reaches of their homeland. Once there they named the lake in the region Sev meaning black and Van the town so Sevan means black town after the heartache of having to leave their homeland behind. But anyways the whole family including me was very excited about this trip so yesterday we loaded a six passenger van with nine people and all of our stuff including a ton of food and set off for the lake. Now if you look at a map you see that it isn’t a very big country and you can drag your finger from one city in a line to the city of your choice and imagine a convenient road connecting the two places. But in Armenia such a system does not exist literally all roads lead to Yerevan where you then switch over to the road that will take you to your desired destination. I have spent much time trying to figure out which marshutnies (mini busses used for public transportation) I should take to get to friends villages in a descent amount of time, but since all roads lead to Yerevan I don’t think convenience will be a factor. But anyways after about 2.5 hours of travel we got to Lake Sevan. We set up our tables and began cooking a horavats (Armenian barbeque) it was very tasty and the scenery made it even better. My host family wanted me to swim but I have yet to convince myself that jumping in cold water is something that I want to do so I did not swim. After a few hours of relaxing, eating a lot and conversation we escaped the approaching rain and got back in the van for what seemed like a much longer and more uncomfortable return trip (remember this is a six passenger van with nine people in it). On the drive though we passed my training village, Solak, which was really nice as I much miss Solak.
Also, yesterday before we were to leave I saw two neighbors wheeling in a wheel barrow an entire discarded cow digestive system. I’m talking the stomach all the way to the intestines and it was not pretty. Then they brought it to the backyard for the three huge dogs that my host father has to eat. I guess the dogs were satisfied because in the middle of the night when everybody and thing should be asleep they were only barking a little instead of their incessant constant bark! I also was in the market the other day when an entire cart like you would use at Lowe’s was wheeled through the market loaded full of hacked off cow legs and cow heads with tong and eyes still exposed. Now that was gross! But what’s even crazier is that in this region cows head is a delicacy and a popular Armenian dish is to shave the cows leg and boil it until it’s so tender it falls of the bone then you mix it with other stuff and eat it! So these were not discards but I guess the prize parts of the cow. But don’t worry your not missing out because at my welcome home party we will try all these dishes.
For those of you at school have fun and study hard. I start teaching next week.

Love, Me

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Through the Looking Glass

Before I go too far into this post I would like to post a retraction from last week. I meant to refer to Armenian Officials as high hat-ed not high hated officials.
I’ve now been at my permanent site for nearly two weeks. I guess that being away from my usual entourage I have been able to more keenly observe the things around me. When I first got to site two Friday’s ago I found it to be rather boring and a little lonely. The feeling existed for a few days but it dried up and now I am actually having a pretty good time. I start my teaching assignment next week on September first which I am very eager about. But in the mean time I’ve been getting acquainted with my new home. The people of Armenia all seem to be very kind. When I go to someone’s house they do not allow me to simply sit down. Instead I am offered an array of fruits, drinks, coffee, candy and sometimes even dinner. They are a very social culture and for the most part they are a very homogeneous society which means that when someone looks different they tend to stare. I don’t think that I have ever been started at so unabashedly before in my life. I guess it’s nice to feel like a celebrity every now and then but when its everyday all day everywhere you go it gets a little awkward and frustrating and it even begins to rub off. For example, the other day I saw two people with fair skin like my own and blond hair. The lady had her nose buried in a travel book and the man was walking beside her. And all though I don’t like it myself I stared them down completely stopping in the street to gawk and then as they walked by me my head followed them, I guess I’m trying to adopt the Armenian culture in every way.
My new host family is nice I enjoy spending time with the host mother because I make her laugh a lot. Not usually on purpose but because I seem to say every sentence wrong or to miss interpret things that are hilarious to her, for example the other day I wanted to tell her I was going to brush my teeth, but instead I told her I was going to brush my eyes (the words sound similar). I also have a habit of if I don’t understand something I make a goofy face and say huh? As if that helps which again she finds hilarious. And my host brothers are nice but I think they’ve spent too much time together this summer as they are constantly bickering. The other day my older host brother invited me to go swimming. I was a little hesitant but I knew he would appreciate it so I went with him. We got to the pool which was at an indoor recreation facility. I put on my swim suit in this unmarked “locker room” which the female employees moved in and out of freely. Then I went up to the pool to see that it was completely green. Immediately I regretted coming but I didn’t want to be rude so I stuck my toe in to test the temperature and it was freezing! Finally after ten minutes of trying to convince myself that it wouldn’t kill me I prepared to jump in. I said on the count of three but the longer I stood there the more brown stuff I noticed floating on the top, so I said I’m sorry it’s too cold I can’t do it. I felt bad but I think I prolonged my life by not jumping in. The other day we made tsingali, for those who’ve been on the Russia mission trip you know it as palmini, which is this really tasty ravioli like pasta but instead of marinara sauce you use butter. We made it completely from scratch starting with the actual pasta dough. I think I can remember how to do it so we’ll make it when I get home. There is also an aunt who lives nearby who visits often. We all went back to school shopping the other day and this aunt reminded me a lot about my own Aunt Bobbye because one time we all went to London on a family vacation. My sister, mom, grandmother, Aunt Bobbye and I were riding the Tube when this man got on with a bald head covered in tattoos. He didn’t look like the kind of guy you wanted to hassle, but Aunt Bobbye made a point of pointing him out as if we could some how miss him and in this loud whisper as if he couldn’t hear us. So this aunt here in Armenia was nice enough to explain to me on the train in her very loud whisper and finger pointing why we don’t eat the food sold on the train as all the people around us ate the food and the vendors moved up and down the aisle. I just nodded quickly trying to get her to stop explaining.
Also, a friend from Gyumri came to visit me last week. As we were walking down the street this lady asked us “are you speaking English” of course we were and so we had a quick conversation. She invited us over for later so while my friend had to go back home I went over and visited with her for a few minutes. This lady spoke almost fluent English that she taught herself by reading books and reading magazines until she knew the language! I complimented the many beautiful rugs she had all over her house and furniture and she asked what we (Americans) put on our furniture. I said we don’t put anything on it because its furniture it already had protective coverings. I think it’s funny how everybody puts rugs on their tables, chairs, walls, couches, and floors. Well that’s all for now. Stay in touch.

Love Me

Monday, August 17, 2009

We Did It

Well, we’ve done it. Forty-seven of us left JFK airport for Armenia back in May and now forty-four of us have been sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers. I can definitely say it’s a good feeling to finally be done with an eight month application process and a three month training process that at times felt like college exam week times 100. I was excited for the day when I would get to go to site and start putting together ideas for a successful two years of service, but now I’m out of my training site of Solak living with a new family. And I’m in a town by myself and for the next four weeks I’ll have limited opportunities to see other Americans, and I new that my village mates and myself were particularly close, but I had now idea I would miss them this much or my Solak host family to such a degree. I guess because it had become the familiar and now I have to do it all over again it just seems daunting. But this is all a new experience and like the first three months I’ll learn to adopt and I hope that in no time this new community will feel like home. So now to describe my past three months experience. I guess if you’ve been reading my blogs this might seem repetitive but I think its worth recounting. So back in May I left for an orientation in Philadelphia. I met forty seven unique and interesting people. Some of them I can vividly remember meeting and talking to for the first time and it is them who have become my best friends. I guess because we’re all in a unique experience together we bound quicker then you might in other circumstances because some of these people I feel really close to. Anyways, the next day we flew out of New York City for Vienna before catching our last leg into Yerevan. We arrived in Armenia early the next morning a few days later we moved to our host villages were for three months we learned the Armenian language, culture, traditions, and way of life as well as the purpose, fundamentals, and expectations of our particular assignments (remember I’m a CHE so I learned about different health initiatives and education methods). We also learned how to live as a group of Americans abroad and how to rely on each other when times got hard and get hard, which they do but with a good group of friends to fall back on (which I have made) then you can make it through just fine. After all of this we were deemed ready and able for a two year post as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV’s) by our country director. So last Thursday we got sworn in as the 17th group of PCV’s in Armenia. I guess there isn’t a lot of news worthy things in Armenia because the entire Armenian press corps showed up in mass as well as a lot of high hatted officials and other dignitaries and most interesting the American Ambassador who swore us in as volunteers and when I took the oath I could definitely feel the goose bumps. Then we had a nice celebration with A-16’s. That evening the Solak seven took our sleeping bags and on top of the hill behind my house we enjoyed about three hours of uninterrupted meteor shower a pretty cool way to sum up a hell of a three month bonding experience. The next day we loaded a van with our luggage (which has grown exponentially) and then crammed in next to it and drove down the road watching through the window as our host families waved us off (most of them tearfully). When we got to Cherantsavan, we unloaded our luggage and reloaded into different vans before heading to our new sites all around the country, now that was a sad day! But I think in just a few weeks we will find our way again and be excited about the opportunities and chance we have to make some impact.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Solak Seven

PST is now drawing to an end. I’ve been building up to this moment in my last few blogs and after Thursday I will know longer be considered a Peace Corps Trainee but instead a Peace Corps Volunteer. I will move to my permanent site on Friday and begin my twenty four months of Peace Corps Service. We finished our practicum teaching last Thursday and after three weeks of teaching I think I got pretty good at expressing my message to my students and I think they had a good time as well, but my last lesson I didn’t prepare with my partner as well as I should have and it was embarrassing! Because for forty five minutes we stood in front of the classroom and basically didn’t make sense in Armenian or English, but it was a good thing to experience because from now on I’m definitely going to prepare and practice my lessons before I teach them, but at least the other nine lessons went well. And yesterday we all went to Garni and Geghart two historical sites in Armenia. One was an old Pagan temple which had a beautiful view of the surrounding gorge and the other was a medieval monastery partially carved out of the side of a mountain. A few of us, about 15-20, are singing a song in Armenian for our swearing in on Thursday and we got to sing it in the sanctuary at Geghart which was really cool because of the echo it made. But I’ve been told I don’t sing so well so I mostly just move my lips and leave the talent to the others. And after visiting these two cultural sites my friend Dave invited us, Danny and I, to his home for dinner. After dinner Danny, Liz and I had to return to our village Solak and Liz on to Charnetsavan. During the drive there was a really cool lighting storm that was lighting up the sky all around our taxi as we sped down the road, but then we heard a loud crack and a bright light on the left side of the car. Our taxi actually got struck by lighting! Which was both scary for the reality of it and cool because who can say they’ve been struck by lighting? Don’t worry Gimme I will never go out in a lighting storm again. And one final thing to add so that you know I’m healthy. For those who remember I’m not a big fruit and vegetable fan, but Armenians all grow their own veggies and fruits so every day I have at least some kind of fruit and vegetable. And mom, believe it or not, at least once a week I eat sautéed eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers I even go back for seconds usually, its really tasty and I’m probably eating healthier then I have in the last couple of years. Cheers!
(This picture is of the Solak 7 and our two LCF (language teachers in the middle)
Love, Michael

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Tonight I sat with two new good friends, Victoria and Paul, on the hill behind my house staring up at the sky dotted by clouds and stars as they lit up the surrounding mountains and valleys beyond which are a great view from my back yard. But what stood out in particular was the moon in its almost fool phase lighting up the hills and mountains for miles around. As I laid on the ground gazing up at such an incredible sight listening to my friends talked and reflected on our past two months I couldn’t help but marvel at how incredible it is that something so far away could make us here on earth feel so close. As Peace Corps Training draws to a close it is inevitable that we as a village would begin to reflect on our experiences and how incredible it is that in just two months our friendships have grown to bonds that run so deep. I can honestly say that the people who I spend my days with, all seven of them, are people who I care about, who in the next two years I will stay in touch with and take an honest interest in what they manage to achieve. Tonight was also a chance to look at what we as Peace Corps members think we have an opportunity in obtaining. For me I am thankful because I have a sight of my own. At first this was a point of consternation for me because I wanted very much to be near my new friends, but I now see it as the opportunity to help impact a community on my own and not on the merits or constant reminder of other Peace Corps Volunteers work. I also have the opportunity to serve a special school. Special in two ways, one that kids are all special because they are impressionable and I can impart what I think is wisdom and healthy lifestyles upon them. And two because they are mentally and physically handicapped and many of them actually live at the school during the school year so they do not get the one on one family attention that every child needs. So already without meeting the kids and by using my past experience of serving in orphanages I have brainstormed many ideas of how I am going to help not only serve the kids but work along side them to make life happier, more fulfilling, and more impactful then perhaps they expected it could be. What an opportunity that lies ahead of me and all of us Peace Corps Volunteers. I am excited and thankful for the opportunities and I look forward to in two weeks taking an oath to serve my country abroad in a way that will better the lives of people namely children abroad in this fascinating, ancient yet ever modernizing country of Armenia.
Also this week, we celebrated my host mother’s birthday. She turned 43 but already she has 3 grandchildren. It was a lot of fun we had horavots (Armenian barbeque) and the un-escapable toasts (Armenians toast with a lot of Vodka which is all but in-escapable) and I got to invite my best friend Danny and my neighbor Lisa both Peace Corps trainees in Solak. I’ve grown close with my host family. They are great people who work hard for what they have and each of them puts in a lot of hard work everyday. Every morning my host mother wakes at seven and she doesn’t go to bed until late. She is a nurse by profession, but being a woman in Armenia also means that you are the house keeper, cook, laundry doer and in charge of the garden. That is a lot of work and my host mother does it with wiliness and a good attitude which I have to appreciate. It will be difficult to leave such a great group of people behind but in just one week I will be doing just that. I will say goodbye to the people of Solak as I am sworn in as a member of the seventeenth group of Armenian Peace Corps Volunteers.