Monday, May 31, 2010

Second birthday in Peace Corps, first in country and the new volunteers arrive

The last few days have been busy for a number of reasons. First of all on May 28th I went back to visit my family for the first time since September and it happened to be my birthday which they remembered without me telling them. They made grape leaf dolma, which is my favorite hykakon josh (Armenian meal). It’s always good to visit them because the way I see it they are my Armenian family. I don’t know if it’s because they were the first ones I met or what it is but they’re a great family and I really enjoy them. They also have a great home set on the side of a big canyon and a large hill in the backyard that is perfect for looking at the stars and Armenia has got some beautiful nights. Danny asked that I give him a special shout out for what he did so here it goes: last week I went to visit him on his birthday and ended up taking a taxi which wasn’t exactly in my budget. He had a teachers retreat planned for this weekend so he was going to miss being around for mine which I gave him a hard time about, but early that morning he called me to say that though he had just made a fool of himself he was going to come to Solak and skip the teachers retreat. That was exciting news and as a whole spending my birthday in Solak was a pretty good time. My host family gave my a stick of deodorant for my birthday which I hope isn’t them trying to give me a hint…but I’ll use it rigorously. I also made my first toast in Armenia I said “a year ago I left my home and my family in America and I came to Armenia and now y’all (my old host family) are my Armenian family”. I think they liked it because they said aprese. The next day we, the A-17 class, met the A-18 class for the first time. They had flown in early that morning and by the time we met them that afternoon they looked pretty exhausted. I couldn’t help but think of how I felt a year ago in the same situation, it was exciting, over whelming, I was clueless, and exhausted I think they felt a lot of the same things. They are starting a long summer of language learning, cultural emersion, sector training and a lot of other stuff. Someone described PST (pre-service training) to me as being like a baby taken home from the hospital for the first time. You don’t know any language so you can’t communicate and your family has to take complete care of you. I guess that is a pretty good description. Anyways they’ve got a lot of work to do but they’ll enjoy doing it. I did.
Well that’s all I can think of to say for now. Keep well.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

One year and still trucking...

Its hard to believe that in little less then twenty four hours I will have been gone from my home for an entire year. I remember the night before having a hard time sleeping dreading the moments when I would have to say goodbye to my home, my town and most importantly my family. Then the early hour came and we loaded my two suitcases and two carry-ons into my dad’s truck and headed to the airport. Both my bags were over by a few pounds and the desk attendant not wanting to bend the rules made me take some stuff out. Then it was time to say goodbye. A year ago August 2011 seemed like such a long way away and in May 2010 it doesn’t exactly seem close but then neither did this day a year ago and yet now I can’t believe how fast time flew by! I got on that plane not knowing what to expect. I couldn’t speak, read or even guess what an Armenian word meant. I didn’t know a single person I was about to meet, live with, work with, travel with all I knew that I was crazy enough to keep walking towards the steps to the airplane. Now looking back on the 365 days that have since passed its remarkable that a room of 47 strangers in Philadelphia, while a little smaller now, aren’t strangers at all now. Armenian isn’t an indecipherable code of letters and sounds but a real communicate-able language; teaching no longer comes from behind the desk but in front of the classroom. Stranger’s houses where I kept a room aren’t strangers anymore but “family” whom I can share a cup of coffee and a conversation with. In a year a lot has happened. I’ve learned a lot about what I can do and myself. How I can get past adversities that seem like they’ll never get surpassed. I took a community head-on by myself and still people stare and want to know what I’m doing here but that’s okay. I’m happy to be a part of this community.
I’ve gotten to travel all over Armenia, I got to go to India and Dubai with a guy who became my best friend I think on the second day in Peace Corps. And I’m just really glad that I have the chance to do this. Peace Corps has been quite an experience. It isn’t what I expected and it hasn’t been easy, but I will always appreciate the experience and everyday I’m learning what I can do to help out my school, my community and myself.
I don’t know what the next year will hold in store or what to expect but if it goes as fast as the first then I’ll be seeing y’all in no time at all. And I’ll have a lot of stories to tell. So thanks for the support. Getting encouraging notes and the occasional package, phone call, message and what ever else has meant a lot. And it goes with out saying I love my family…and my friends too.
And for those I spent my birthday with last year Jill, Katie, and Ian and the surprise phone call from Jinsun that was awesome. I’ll be thinking of y’all this year at my birthday horavots.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Last Bell

This past Saturday was the graduation ceremony at my school. Here they call it the “last bell” and it is a very big deal although I guess graduation is a big deal anywhere. So across the country girls put on their white blouses and black skirts while boys put on their black suits and gigantic bootanears and prepared for the long awaited last day of school. In most schools across the country it is the eleventh form that graduates, kids around the age of 16. However, next year they are implementing a twelfth form to be more like schools of the west so for many volunteers it was their first and last bell. For me though it was the first of two because my students, for a reason I don’t understand, graduate from the ninth form and range in age from 13 to 18. It was a small group of kids that I have grown close to in the last year. They were the first group I worked with and I really enjoyed getting to know them. For their last bell ceremony all 11 stood on stage and sang songs, acted out skits, gave flowers to their teachers and danced. It was a little cheesy for my taste but the ceremony was still nice and I know meaningful to the students and the few mothers who attended. Two of the students in my class and coincidentally the oldest and brother and sister even talked on stage for the first time. I’ve talked to them before one on one but they never talk in class and certainly not on a stage with a big audience. But this time they did and the whole audience erupted in laughter, applause and said aprese which means good job in Armenian and is said a lot. In the west we would silently applaud these kids for overcoming their shyness and learning difficulties but definitely not laugh out loud, but here where you call a person out for being crazy to their face it is no big deal to laugh at the middle of their ceremony. Their mother too is a character. She sells candles at the local church and often greats me as a rich American who came to Artik to “make it rain” like you’ve seen in the average rap video. She gets up in the middle of the ceremony with her film camera (which always take me by surprise because when was the last time in America you saw a film camera) and stands in front of everybody to snap a picture first of the stage then of the school director sitting behind a table smoking a cigarette applauding his students. This got a lot of laughter from the audience, which while it was kinda humorous probably wasn’t the best response for this formal ceremony. After the ceremony I got a picture with the two kids I mentioned above. Varton the boy held a gigantic stuffed blue rabbit, his graduation gift and the typical graduation gift at that, and his sister with a huge bouquet of roses sprinkled with glitter. It was nice to be considered important by these two kids. Then I headed to the cafeteria for the graduation luncheon which only the graduating students and teachers are invited to so the parents wait outside. Now this is where it takes a turn from different to out right unlike anything you would experience in America unless you wanted to be CNN’s next big story for the day. And my friend Will will particularly appreciate this because I was jut talking about this sort of thing to him the other day (I call Will to voice my complaints and disgruntlements about things and share my experiences and good times too, he’s a good listener. Thanks Will). We sit down at the table and the corks start popping but not just for the teachers but for the students too who it becomes quickly obvious are pretty drunk judging from the way they poured those glasses (usually missing the cup but saturating the table cloth). Probably reading this from home it seems absolutely unacceptable and irresponsible but this is a very different society where alcohol isn’t drunk for its relaxing effect but for its role as the proper toasting mechanism and graduation certainly deserves a toast. After a long meal and many congratulatory toasts I headed for Verin Getashen for my friend Danny’s birthday.
Danny has become a great friend to me over the last year so I felt that it was important to spend his birthday with him. I was hoping to take the bus to Yerevan and then onto his village but for some reason no bus came and I ended up taking a taxi. Which for dollar to Kilometer amounts is pretty cheap but Peace Corps salary amounts is a luxury that I probably won’t do it again but it was worth getting out there to spend his birthday with him. The taxi driver wasn’t quite certain where it was and it ended up being quite a bit further then he was expecting which I don’t think he was too happy about but we made it and then the neighbors insisted he stay for dinner. Also while I was in Verin Getashen we made American style pizza with a lot of cheese and tomato sauce that Danny and I liked but his neighbors and host grandma didn’t seem to care for, but like any good friend they said it was good they would just rather save it for breakfast.
I went to Yerevan on Monday where I got to dub a cartoon into English. It was a cool experience but way harder then I expected and I now know that I’m not a very good actor so aprese Tom Cruise. The studio was neat though, I stood in a booth with headphones on and a microphone to my face and watched my character on the screen and I spoke when his mouth moved. I’ll even get my name in the credits. Funny enough I was actually the main role of David of Sasun and for much of the cartoon I am a naked little boy with correct anatomy. My speaking parts though are of an older David properly dressed and my friend Danny plays David’s uncle.
Now I’m back in Artik where the weather is beautiful and warm. I met a bunch of my neighbors sitting outside yesterday for the first time. They were all very nice and invited me over for dinner whenever and said that they would help me out however they could. Its always nice to have people help you out.
I also bought my plane ticket home. I don’t yet have an invitation hopefully I’ll be invited or else I’ve made an expensive error. Happy Birthday Michelle and Becky Duncan and Happy Memorial Day. I hope everybody is well.

Monday, May 17, 2010

One More Week

The weather here is getting nicer everyday. Last week I broke a sweat for the first time in seven months. Granted I was climbing a mountain but after parts of that winter I wasn’t sure I’d ever be hot again and that winter was considered very mild, not by my standards. As I sit here writing this I can look out the window and see the expanse of blue sky and my laundry drying on the line. One of my worst habits is not staying up to date on washing laundry. Pants I will wear for a week and shirts usually only one day before retiring them to the bottom of the stack without ever actually washing them so to be honest I might wear a shirt ten or more times before I actually wash it and yeah I know that’s gross but you would do the same if washing meant two hours of scrubbing, ringing and rinsing only for the cloths to come back stiff and really wrinkled. But like I said I’m getting caught up so no more dirty cloths at least until I let them pile up again. In fact a lot of the ease and comfort has been taken out of everyday things I would have done in the US. For example, this morning I woke up and remembered I had to take a shower and I almost just got back into bed. But why would having to take a shower seem like such a hassle to me? Because my bathroom is probably the dampest coldest room possible to build and the hot water heater only warms the water so the average morning shower isn’t that invigorating feeling that prepares you for the day but instead something to be dreaded. Then again compared to many volunteers I have it pretty good at least I have a water heater even if it just warms the water at best. And when I first came to country I took bucket baths, which was fine for the summer, but never would I even venture to do it in the winter.
As my title illustrates I only have one more week of something, school. It’s hard to believe that nine months ago I started working at this school. I remember how boring the first day was and how daunting it all seemed and after so many months I wouldn’t say it’s the most exciting place to be but the dauntingness of it is over. Nine months ago I could hardly follow along with the teachers much less the students and judging by their puzzled looks they weren’t getting much of what I was trying to say. There are still divisions but to no small degree I can talk and be a part of everyday activities within the school. The weather has also seemed to better attitudes for most of the faculty there. The director of the school a usually grouchy guy with a cigarette dangling from his lips as he mumbles has been unusually friendly. I’m not quit sure how to take it but its nice while it lasts. But the assistant principle has gotten extra crabby. Again I don’t know why but I suppose she has her reasons. When school is out on Saturday I will have three months to work camps, see the country and help train new volunteers coming in just a little over two weeks. I think the summer will actually turn out to be busier the then school year but I’m still excited!
This is all the news I have from this side of the world. Congratulations to all those recent graduates, to Sara on her new baby and anybody else I missed. Until next time everybody stay well.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Going South

This past week was a lot of fun. I traveled south of Yerevan for the first time and it was so pretty. Its incredible that in such a small country you can have such a variation of climates and scenery. Where I live its sort of like a tundra with shrubby bushes and small trees over rolling hills, but in the south its big mountains covered in forest and rivers. It is also the oldest part of the country where the Armenian civilization really holds its most interesting roots (in my opinion). Throughout this country you can find old things for example across the street from me is an eleventh century church but down south all you have to do is walk to find something old. Anyways, so I set off in a seven-passenger van with eight people (all other volunteers). And for the next week I saw old fortresses, churches, abandoned towns and even a burial ground. My travel buddy and sidekick Danny along with another friend Sean walked to the ruin of an old 16th century church that had been destroyed in a landslide shortly after its construction. Since that time not many people have visited but the church all though partly submerged still stands deep in the forest upside a mountain. The cool thing about it was that here was this rarely visited church that probably only a handful of foreigners have ever seen and I’m drinking Gatorade on the roof of it! The nature to was pretty spectacular with a winding river through the gorge below and a waterfall that you could actually stand under which I didn’t do because it was freezing but if I go back in summer then I’m definitely going to stand under it. After that we hiked to an abandoned town that had been lived in for the past 1000 years and only abandoned in the 1970’s which was probably a perfect example of a mid-evil community. That’s where we also saw an exposed burial ground from the Bronze Age where there was actually exposed bone, which might sound gross, but I was seeing the skeleton of a man who died thousands of years ago. After a week of seeing plenty of historical sites I caught a ride back with our PTO(Peace Corps training officer) in his white Toyota land cruiser which probably doesn’t excite y’all back at home but in Armenia White Toyota land cruisers are the cars that diplomats, foreign aid workers and UN officials ride in so you always get looks. Not since I was a kid have I really felt important sitting in the back seat of a car but when I ride in one of those cars I get that feeling once again.
One and a half weeks of school left and then its on to a busy summer but I know its going to be a lot of fun!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Whats new

Today I made dirty rice from scratch and I think it was really good maybe a little too much pepper but still tasty.
Three times a week I go to my Armenian lesson and every time they make me dinner, so not wanting to feel like a mooch I always joke about washing the dishes or cooking dinner knowing I won’t ever actually have to do it. But I’ll be away from home this week and not wanting to waste the huge amount of dirty rice I’d made I brought it over to there house so they could taste Cajun food and prove that I a guy can actually cook. They all doloped a tiny amount on their plates and when each new person tried it I asked if they liked it. They all said yes but nobody went back for seconds and they all said it was too hot for them to handle, but I was still happy with my improving cooking skills and was glad that I’d have lunch and dinner for tomorrow. As I was getting ready to leave I went to get my pot of dirty rice excited to feel the weight of uneaten rice but to my surprise and disappointment I felt nothing. It was just a clean pot. Then they told me an Armenian proverb. Eat lunch by yourself, dinner with your friends and give your supper to the poor. Well, I would have loved another helping of the rice I had made but I was happy to have been able to share dinner with my friends and though they didn’t go back for seconds then I’m sure they will finish all of the rice I had made because this is a place where things don’t go to waste.
Since my writing a few weeks back about the teacher who stuck the pencil in the coil stove we’ve gotten a new “coffee maker” but I’ve noticed a few other things that might frighten a lawsuit conscious person. As days get warmer here in Armenia the need to trim trees becomes greater and this past week I noticed two boys scrambling up this tree to lop off dead branches with a pointed saw. They got to get out of class to do this but the way they teetered on thin branches and threw the saw to one another I wasn’t sure there would be another class in their future. Also, the other day on a bus ride we had a baby on board. Of course babies are cute anywhere but in Armenia everybody dotes on a little kid. So we’re driving down the road as fast as the old bus will take us around blind corners and big trucks carrying huge stones and the driver says pass the kid up here so here comes the baby crowd surfing the bus to the front where he sits next to the driver and the driver not wanting to seem rude, I guess, looks to the baby and starts talking not taking his eyes off of the kid but certainly taking his eyes off the road. Finally, on a last minute trip to Gyumri I had to take the early morning bus which would fit comfortably about 15 people, uncomfortably about 20 people and while I was on it there was at least 30 people, so bent in half with purses poking me in the face and the hood of my jacket getting caught in the sliding door more then once I endured the thirty minute ride to Gyumri but the good news is I found some fake Louis Vuitton socks on my trip and they look great with my fake Armani pants!