Saturday, August 6, 2011

Life In Technicolor

Today I leave my site where I’ve lived for two years. Over the last few days I’ve said my goodbyes, visited my favorite spots in the community, packed my things and tried to clean my house. Of course, after doing anything for two years it’s hard to say goodbye and saying goodbye to Artik or my Peace Corps service is no exception. I did not always enjoy my time here, frustrations, long days, road blocks, bitter cold, incredible heat are all part of the game. But I can say with no reservations that it’s something I’m very glad I did. More than two years ago as I sat with family and friends and they all asked was I nervous, how was I going to go two years being away from home? All of them questions I couldn’t answer except about being nervous because that much I knew, I was nervous. But now those two years are over. They flew by in fact and now it’s time for the next big thing whatever that will be.
I imagine the most defining part of nearly every volunteer’s service from the first group in 1961 to the groups training today is that we, Armenians, Americans, Mongols, Nigeriens people everywhere we are all in 100 ways the same but 100 ways different. Americans hold a privileged place in the world. We live a lifestyle like no others. And though many of us probably don’t think of ourselves as materially rich if I were to explain a typical day in American life to any Armenian neighbor where I wake up in my private bedroom, not too hot because of the air conditioning, I take a hot shower in just one of the bathrooms in my house, I take my food out of a refrigerator, heat it in a microwave while waiting for my shirt to dry in the dryer then I get in my own car and go down a wide, paved, pot hole free road. To many such an image would be impossible to conceive. Of course owning a dryer, microwave or air conditioning is not a necessity but we’ve come to think they’re indispensable. It is our American way and it’s unheard of to anybody else. Armenians on the other hand are not wealthy. There are not many jobs out there even for the educated. Modern appliances are a luxury few can afford although many still have their old soviet ones. And while Armenians recognize that their lifestyle is one of hardship and worse off than it was during Soviet days they still remain stoic.
People always ask me what I will go home and tell my parents and friends about Armenia and Armenians. Many things come to mind but there are a few things I will always define Armenians by. My favorite part about Armenian life is how genuinely generous they are. Like I said there is not a lot of money passing through hands here which means that sometimes it might be difficult to buy the food that their family needs. But if I’m invited over people don’t just offer me water or a bowl of peanuts. We have coffee, fruit, usually some sort of meal and occasionally homemade vodka, or at least what they claim is vodka but might actually be paint thinner. Being offered lots of food can be frustrating because I’m not always hungry but I am always honored that they want to share a meal with me. This is the characteristic I want to take home from Armenia the most and the one myself and Armenians would probably most define themselves by.
The people of Armenian have lived here for centuries there land has grown and contracted. They’ve had their moments of pride and tragedy. And yet in an area of the world plagued by aggressive neighbors, imperialism, and a distaste for tolerance the Armenians, continue to speak their unique language, written in their original alphabet, practicing their unique form of Christianity. They’ve been conquered before but they continue to help define this area of the world. Their role in history has been big even if you did first learn about Armenia from me.
My dad sent me an email today asking if “Peace Corps had been the greatest job I’ll ever love”. I have definitely not loved every moment of it. Cutting wood is not fun, walking in snow up to my knees, walking all over town looking for just one opened store, having calls dropped constantly, going outside to using the bathroom are all not fun things. Not things that I loved or will miss. But there is a unique bond made with hardship and Peace Corps probably because its expected but it also adds to the legacy of one’s service. The friendships I’ve made I’m positive will span a lifetime. For my fellow volunteer friends the issue of staying in touch will just be actually calling and writing. For my Armenian friends it will be difficult. I’m sure I’ll forget Armenian at some point, and the distance will be a hard one to travel, but I’ll always remember them and be happy for all the time we shared. Was the gray hair worth it? I think so, being a Peace Corps Volunteer is an honor and it’s an honor I will always be glad to have had.
Two years ago I thought this day would never come, but wow here it is.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Armenia being a poor country doesn’t just throw away what doesn’t work anymore. For example my host family has a space heater that was broken. It was old but that didn’t stop them from putting in a new electric cord and plug. Of course now it makes a terrible noise and shakes so much that I’m often afraid it’s going to knock the house down but a penny saved is a penny earned. I’ve put up some pictures of interesting things that have gotten a second use such as a bridge and storage room made out of an old bus spanning a river, a wall put together using the bodies of old cars, a gate that was once a car door, a mattress bed frame combo gate and an old truck with a missing panel replaced by an old coke machine front. Every day I see old things being put to new use. From radiators used as fences to railroad cars as room extensions my neighbors have a knack for using the old as new.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Description of pictures:

Stalin’s toilet in his private train car
Me on Stalin’s bed
Me looking stoic next to a statue of Stalin and behind me the mausoleum that incases the home where he grew up
Op’plis’eikay an ancient community of cave homes that had a church built on top of it. It was really windy here.
The Armenian Georgian border how many Mercedes and BMW’s can you count?
Met’sceta the old capital of Georgia and the second kingdom to accept Christianity as a state religion after Armenia making it the second oldest Christian country in the world
Fortress around a church
Church along the Georgian Military Highway in the lower Caucuses range
Kazbeghi the second highest mountain in Europe in the distance
Laoura Daniel and myself sporting typical Georgian shepherds wear. The hats are made of sheep’s wool and smell as bad as bad as they look.
The old fort built by the Persians overlooking the city of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital
Saint George slaying the dragon and the name sake for the country of Georgia


Two weeks ago I went on what will probably be my last vacation during my Peace Corps service which by the way will be finished in just 4 and a half more months. I went to Georgia with my friend Julianne (whose dad dated Martha Stewart). Georgia is the country right above Armenia on the map and the largest in the Caucuses. It might pop into memory because of its 2008 war with Russia.
Georgia was a pretty cool country. They have their own unique alphabet, really good food, great wine and mineral water and a fascinating group of over 10 nationalities woven into a small country. And if you’re a fan of Greek mythology Georgia is the place where Jason found the Golden Fleece and they still have a small Greek community in Georgia. Julianne and I went to a restaurant named Khengali House where they serve the Georgian national dish Khengali, a dumpling with meat, mushrooms, cheese or potatoes inside. My favorite was the potato. Anyways, as we were sitting at the restaurant three guys from the table next to us came over, two Mengrelians (a Georgian community on the Black Sea coast) and an Azeri. They told us a bit about their history and about Tbilisi the capital of Georgia and how to toast in Georgian. It’s easy; you make your speech and then drink a full wine glass of wine. So don’t toast too much otherwise you can’t enjoy your meal or get up the stairs later. And speaking of stairs I was walking up some when a gypsy girl grabbed my leg and wouldn’t let go. I didn’t know what to do so I kept walking awkwardly up the stairs.
We also met two nice girls one from Poland and one from Latvia and a guy from Germany who we traveled around with. We went up to Kazbeghi the second highest mountain in the Caucuses and coincidentally the second highest in Europe. Just across the border was Chechnya a place that was virtually destroyed by the Russians in the 1990’s and 2000’s in the Chechens bid for succession. We stopped at some beautiful and ancient churches along the way and saw some really beautiful mountain scenes. The snow was piled above the taxi at times.
The most interesting historical place we went was the home of Joseph Stalin who was a Georgian by birth, a Russian by choice and a son of a bitch by trade. The small cabin he grew up in was enshrined in a marble mausoleum and the museum dedicated to him was dark and cold, very Soviet I thought, and full of interesting gifts he had received over his nearly thirty year campaign of mass terror. The Georgians actually still revere him as a famous person from Georgia and some statues of him still stand around the country long after most other Soviet countries pulled them down.
The ride to Georgia and back was incredible. The north of Armenia is incredibly beautiful with winding mountains, rivers and forests along the entire route. We rode back with two nice Iranian men who were celebrating the Iranian New Year. Drinking in Iran is banned so many Iranians come north to the Caucus for that. And the streets of Yerevan were full of people from the Islamic Republic looking for a place to party. All of them were super friendly and nice, so don’t be fooled by what George W. tells you.
The weather here in Armenia has changed. After five months of bitter cold and darkness snow and ice the weather has warmed and the snow has melted. The sun stays up until 9 o’clock and people can be seen on the streets again. It is still a little cold but that will change soon. And in just a month and a half the school year will be over. Summers in Armenia are a lot of fun. The country is green and fresh fruit and vegetables are everywhere. You can get a kilo of tomatoes for less than fifty cents.
My Skype is working so if you want to add me look up Michael_T_Anderson I want to talk. And this weekend I’m going to see Aida at the opera house in Yerevan. Who would have thought you could do such things in Peace Corps?