Sunday, December 21, 2008


It’s been a while since I made a post. For about two weeks I’ve been hoping to upload a video that I took from a hiking trip, but the internet connection at American Corner isn’t as good when it comes to uploading as it is for downloading so unfortunately the video will have to wait. Too bad for you, you’re missing out on Russian folk songs; I can feel your seething jealousy.
As I yelled out triumphantly a week and a half ago, dziun galees ey(snow is coming)! Winter has really set in, coating the ground in a nice bit of white powder. Most of it’s melted from the streets and sidewalks by now—except on the sidewalks of Tigran Metz, the main drag in town, where it’s made a nice sheet of ice that is rather dangerous to walk on if you’re not careful. I don’t know how all these women in their heels aren’t falling all over the place—but it still makes a nice cap on the mountains. Everything is really so much prettier when there’s snow on top of it. Of course, snow means frigid temperatures as well. Luckily, coming from Idaho and being an avid fan of winter hiking has prepared me for cold temperatures and snow, so I’m actually enjoying it. I have the feeling that some of my other PCV friends, on the other hand, are not happy in the least about it. Too bad for them; they’re missing out on just how glorious winter is.

My work has finally picked up, which makes me much happier, if much busier. I’ve got four different projects going on right now. First off, I’ve just started English clubs at Zangak, my primary organization. I know, you’re probably thinking “he’s been at site for four months now, and he’s just now starting to work with his primary organization?” And you’d be thinking rightly. I got a talking to from my program director about that, which is why I’ve started these clubs. Though I’m an Environmental Education volunteer, I’m starting out with English because that’s what the kids really want; and let’s be honest it’s probably what will really be of use to them. I still, however, don’t really like working with children, and unfortunately probably never will. I also really don’t much enjoy lesson planning, which tells me I’ll never be a school teacher.

My second project is that I’ve begun a theater/English club at the European Academy, which is a local institution of higher education. The kids in that club are anywhere from 16-19, and all are studying English. This is much better, because I don’t really have to plan lessons so much. I have found an American play for them to do, and we’ve started working on putting on a performance of it. Basically, this is learning English through reading and acting, helping them expand their vocabulary and get a feel for colloquial English.

My third project is a debate/English club, at the same Academy and with the same group of students; this I am really loving. I had so much fun planning my lesson for it, because I got to do a little bit of history teaching and a little bit of philosophy teaching, introducing them to Isocrates and Plato and Cicero. I really did love debate in my college days, so this is something I’ve got a passion for. My debate coach from college is helping me put together a curriculum for it, and I’ve got them split off into groups within the club that will eventually be debating each other. I slipped some EE stuff in there by giving them a topic on environmental law in Armenia that they’ll be working on creating cases for and debating.

My fourth project involves helping a girl from a nearby village create a career resource center. I met her one day at American Corner when she was working on an application for a grad school scholarship in the UK. Though she speaks English well, she asked me to help her review her essays and make suggestions about what kind of programs she should apply for. Well, after that we got to discussing what kinds of things I do here, and she broached the subject of doing something to help her village. I asked her what she thought her village needed, and after a few minutes of throwing things out there she finally settled on this career resource center. Basically, we are going to use a room in their House of Culture in the village and remodel it into a small library of English and Russian language books, a couple of computers with internet access, and a conference room. She and her friend want to eventually start having seminars on how to create a resume, how to be successful in an interview, how to research education and career opportunities online, computer training, and other things in that vein. She’s received permission from the village mayor to use the room, and now we’re looking for ways to fund it. I will being having a PC workshop in February called Project Design and Management (PDM), after which I’ll be able to apply for Small Project Assistance (SPA) grants. I may decide to go that route and so just wait for a couple months, or perhaps look at other avenues of funding right away.

So, I’ve finally got work. Because this has all just happened recently, I’m trying to kick my former laziness and start doing things more than a few hours beforehand. I’m thinking about cancelling my Armenian tutoring sessions to free up more time for work, because I’m doing a significant amount of homework as well as real work. I’ve got a really great Word file on my computer that is about 300 pages of Armenian language lessons, that includes almost everything. Ironically, it was my tutor who gave it to me, which may spell the end of her tutoring lessons. I just don’t have time for them anymore, and I’m not sure how much they’re helping me at this point.

I’m currently on the hunt for an apartment. The four months that we have to stay with out host families is up, and I want to move out ASAP. While I really like my host family, I’m just tired of being in a tiny little room with an uncomfortable bed, not cooking my own food, and never feeling like I can have alone time. I really like being on my own, and having a place to go back to where I can just shut myself off from everyone else. It’s been a bitch so far, however, to find a place; it seems like every time I find a place it’s already been taken. My friend Sergei has been working really hard to find me a place, and both of us have asked all our co-workers and friends about places, as well as checking the classifieds every week. But it’s tough. Hopefully I’ll be out soon. My site mate Davor has managed to get a really nice place because Sergei (who is his counterpart) has an uncle who just finished renovating an apartment, and gave it to Davor. So, until I find a place I’m spending a lot of time at Davor’s.

Lastly, I want to show you all some pictures that really struck me deep, and made me remember how desperate a situation some of the families are in whose children I’m working with at Zangak. My counterpart, my director at Zangak, and I all visited this family and brought them clothes and some food. These pictures don’t really do justice to how bad off these people are. For one thing, the flash on the camera was on, so the spaces are lighted. In actuality, this family has neither gas nor electricity, and subsequently the inside of their house is in a near constant state of darkness. This family has two little boys who most of the time don’t go to school, nor come to Zangak, as well as a little baby boy. I don’t really have anything profound or meaningful to say about this, and I think any comments I try to make on it wouldn’t do it justice, and would influence your thoughts about it. Really, I want you to make your own judgments and thoughts about the pictures, whatever they may be.

I hope you’re all enjoying your holidays, and hope you’re coping as well as you can in times of economic turmoil. Be well.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Not a Typical Family

Like almost all other Peace Corps volunteers, I've had two host families during my service. Some PCVs have more than two--mainly only if something is really bad with a host family and the PCV has to move, or a PCV has to switch sites for whatever reason--but I'm not sure there are any PCVs that have only one host family, at least not in this country. You see, PCVs are almost never--if ever--placed in their training villages as their primary site. This is for a couple reasons, that I know of. One is that the sites that are used for pre-service training (PST) are usually used multiple years in a row, after which Peace Corps chooses a different site to move PST to (in order, it's my understanding, to limit the possibility of a town becoming dependent on the money that flows in during PST). The second is that usually the sites, and their surrounding villages that we actually live in, that are chosen for PST are more developed than a typical site. Now, I don't know that I really buy into that second reason considering my own site and the sites of some other volunteers I've seen, but whatever.

My host family in my training village was much closer to what I would describe as a fairly typical Armenian family, in terms of the social roles and gender norms that they followed. I've mentioned it before, but Armenia is a fairly conservative society. Though this country was a part of the Soviet Union for about seven decades, the forced gender equality created only certain changes in the status of women, at least from my perception: girls go to school as many years as boys; girls go on to higher education in large numbers; girls and women are, by far, smarter and more ambitious than boys and men. But regardless of these things, within the home, gender norms don't seem to have changed much.

This paradox struck me particularly whenever I spoke to my host mom. I've described her before, with her sharp intelligence and wicked humor, her longing for an urban life, her keen perception. But after the end of the Soviet Union, during Armenia's particularly painful re-acquaintance with self-reliance, her role went back to the one that women have had in most conservative societies. She is responsible for all the housework, bringing up the children, tending the garden, and staying home most of the time, while her husband goes off to work in Russia and send money back home. My host sister was in a somewhat similar spot. When not in Yerevan at university, she is as much cook, maid, and gardener as her mom, while my host brother was really responsible for next to nothing except for occasionally helping when something needed fixed or some particularly strenuous task in the garden needed done. It was absolutely not out of the ordinary for him to tell his sister to go get him some coffee or candy, while he sat in the living room screwing around on his phone. While I liked the guy, and he was really funny and fun to hang out with, I wanted to slap him whenever he made his sister go do something that he was perfectly capable of doing himself; from most accounts, however, this is absolutely typical of Armenian households. Old-school, conservative gender norms are the rule, not the exception.

Which is why I continue to be amazed by what happens in my current host family.

For the first four months after moving to our permanent sites, we have to stay with a new host family. I've got just about a month left until I can move out, which I'm going to do just as soon as possible, simply because frankly, I miss the freedom to walk around my own apartment buck-naked. Tangent? Yes.

Back to the point, my host family here in Vanadzor is, for an Armenian household, quite progressive. My tateek ("ï³ïÇÏ" in the Armenian alphabet) isn't really all that different than any other in terms of her status within the family; by that, I mean she's ridiculously awesome. Really, tateeks rock. The rest of the family, however is much different. Yes, my host mom definitely still does a lot of cooking and cleaning; not really much different than my own mom in the states in that regard. But my host mom also has two jobs, even though my host father also has a job at the chemical plant. Speaking of my host dad, imagine my shock when, walking into the kitchen one evening, I saw him standing by the sink with his wife helping dry the dishes and put them away as she washed. Imagine my further shock when I saw him help cook breakfast the next morning and serve it to me and my host brother. After all I had seen in most first host family, and in other PCVs host families, this was not what I expected to see. In many ways, my host family here is every bit as progressive as my own family in the US. Bless my dad's heart, but I think my host dad here might actually help his wife more in the house than my real dad helps my real mom (granted, my dad in the US does a lot of work around our farm, but my mom helps with that sometimes while I don't usually see him helping with dishes). While the kids don't help a whole bunch (my oldest host brother is usually at university in Yerevan, so he gets just a tiny bit of slack on this), frankly, they're kids; it's not surprising that they're more than a little lazy.

I have a great amount of admiration for my host family here in Vanadzor, and especially for my host dad. It would be quite easy for him to not do anything to help out around the house; after all, most Armenian men aren't expected to and have no desire to--but yet, he does, and so he gets a great amount of respect from me, and so does my enormously hard-working host mom. Working full time with two jobs, and still doing so much of the housework and helping raise the kids, is no easy task, but she gets it all done. I have no doubt in my mind that even after I move out I will continue to come over and spend time chatting, drinking coffee, and enjoying the company of this family.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Bittersweet End

It's no secret that I am thoroughly a Democrat, and have been advocating for Barack Obama ever since the end of the primaries. By all means, today should be, and is, a happy one for me and all people who realized that our country needed change. But unfortunately, this day is all too bittersweet for me, and for many others.


The reason has nothing to do with the fact that I've lived and breathed news from this campaign for the last two years. I watched from the beginning as a set of candidates emerged to make their case for the nominations of their respective parties. I watched as the Republicans fretted about a candidate, and then as the Democrats fretted about the comparably quick choice made by their opponents. I watched as the Democratic side's candidates dwindled down to two incredible, ground-breaking figures, and continued watching as the race between them stretched into the summer. I watched as Democrats across the land became shrill and frightened, and I argued--rightly, as it turns out--that we all just needed to calm down; whichever nominee came out ahead had plenty of time to heal the divisions. And now, I've watched America make a turn for the better, and elect a stunningly bright, charismatic, passionate, and, yes, historic man as its 44th president, shedding the idea that the color of a person's skin is a qualifier, or disqualifier, for the highest office in the land. But frankly, as incredibly engaging and ground-breaking as this campaign has been, I'm glad to see it finished. Our country needs to finally be able to start the difficult work of rebuilding; of reclaiming our innovative spirit; of healing. And as long as the election was still going that couldn't happen.


Nor does the reason have to do with my initial choice for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton. I have great admiration for Sen. Clinton, which is why I threw my support behind her during the nomination phase (moral support, as I wasn't able to get off work to go caucus for her in Idaho). I think she is, by far, one of the smartest, most passionate, and most understanding political figures in America; however, I have long proclaimed that I would support either Sen. Clinton or then Sen. Obama, because both of them were clearly excellent choices for America. I had no regrets about Sen. Clinton not winning the nomination, because I knew that both candidates had the character and wisdom to integrate each others' ideas into their own, even if not fully. And I was proud and exhilarated when I heard that then Sen. Obama won the nomination, because I knew how much good he would, and will, do for America.


Make no mistake, I am incredibly proud of President-Elect Obama. I am filled with hope for our country's future because of the choice we have made. And I am relieved to finally be able to say it--Yes We Can, and Yes We Did!


But there is one thing that has been tugging my emotions from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows: the passage of California's Proposition 8, which has spitefully pulled the rug from under the collective feet of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens of California, and has dealt a blow to the hopes of the LGBT community across the nation. On Tuesday, November 4th, 2008 the residents of California decided to reinforce the notion that its LGBT residents are indeed second-class citizens. After being given another taste of a future in America in which we're treated as equals, we have been shown, once again, that majorities of even some of the most liberal places in the country still view us as lesser, as unworthy of the same class of citizenship as straight Americans.


I realize that these amendments have been passing in states across the country, and that other amendments passed on Tuesday in other states as well; however, California was the hardest blow to date. In any other year than this one, if California had passed this measure it would have been surprising, but not quite so painful. But the cruelty of seeing our newfound equality suddenly stripped away, in one of the most supposedly tolerant places in the country, is indescribable. It's like watching a lighthouse in a stormy sea, and then seeing it suddenly disappear, leaving you only knowing there's something bad out there, but with little left to give you hope of avoiding it.


What does it say about a country in which, years after the Civil War, after universal suffrage, after Loving v. Virginia, after the Civil Rights Act, and the day we elect our first African-American president, we're still looking for someone to call less equal, someone whose rights we can take away, someone who we can offer the hope of equality to and then dash that hope on the rocks of spite, and of hate? In a country I love so much, I'm heart-broken to see this travesty, this mockery of my claim to be an equal member of society.


I have wept more than once today.


I wept as I watched President-Elect Obama's speech, and listened to his stirring plea for sacrifice; his touching portrait of Anne Nixon Cooper and the history she's been witness to; his clarion call for a future in which we can be proud of things we will see; and his inspirational message of hope.


And then I wept as I watched some of my own hopes crumble into the ground. I wept as I realized that Proposition 8 would pass, at just how swiftly equality, once extended, could be torn away. I wept for myself, and for the millions like me who had been so bold, and so foolish, to hope that our journey was a little shorter, our destination a little closer in sight.


Have no doubts: we will overcome, someday. But our path just became steeper, our toil longer. Today, for me, and many like me…for us, hope comes with pain.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fall pictures

As promised, here are some pictures of the Armenian Fall from my area. There were a couple more I wanted to post, but the connection where I get internet for free is really having problems on the upload side, and these were all I could manage to upload.

All the following were taken during a hike a couple weeks ago. You'll have to click on the pictures to see them in full, as my blog didn't resize them from Photobucket.







Sunday, October 19, 2008

Some things I hate and some things I love


  1. Most monopolies, but especially telecom monopolies. I'm looking at you, Beeline. Let me give you a little history of Beeline, to explain why I hate monopolies so much. Beeline, until a short time ago, was formerly called Armentel, and was the only game in town when it came to phone service in Armenia. Cell phone service, under Armentel, was outrageously expensive, so much so that almost no one had a cell phone and relied on the shoddy, archaic Armentel infrastructure. This also meant that almost no one had internet access, as the phone lines that were in existence were largely not equipped to handle data traffic. Granted, a lot of this was due simply to the legacy effect, and the general level of poverty in the country; however, it didn't help that Armentel, as a monopoly, also had no incentive to improve its infrastructure.
    Lo and behold, as soon as a new competitor—VivaCell—came into the picture, prices for cell phone service dropped dramatically. Now, practically everyone has a cell phone, because the cost is so incredibly cheap. Under a new plan for people living outside the Yerevan area—it's called the "barbar plan," after the word used for any local dialect—it costs somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 cents per minute to call someone else on the barbar plan. This actually makes it cheaper to call than to text. Of course, all this competition has forced Armentel, now called Beeline after it was bought by a Russian company, to play catch-up, and its prices for cell phone service have similarly dropped.
    However, this competition has not reached into the dial-up internet sphere. While prices are not horrendously expensive—due, I expect, largely to the fact that people mostly use internet in internet cafes or they use the mobile web via VivaCell's utterly cheap phone access—the quality of internet service is absolutely horrendous, even in my city of over 100,000 people. It doesn't bother me that my connection rate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 40.0-44.0 kbps; I expected that. What bothers the fuck out of me is that even though I'm connected at a reasonable speed, it almost never actually operates at that speed, and more than half the time pages simply time out. Now, in a country where a monopoly on dial-up service doesn't exist I could simply switch to another company, and Beeline would then improve their service, thanks to the beautiful mechanics of capitalism. But here, Beeline has essentially no incentive to improve their service, and simply doesn't, regardless of how much I complain to them about it. Again, I recognize that part of the problem owes to poverty in this country and its subsequent inability to improve telecom infrastructure. But that doesn't really fly as an all-encompassing excuse, since at those times that dial-up service is particularly shitty, I can always easily connect to the mobile web on my VivaCell service. Too bad most web pages aren't mobile, and so aren't subject to creating competition for Beeline.
  2. The sexual repressiveness that is so prevalent here, especially as regards homosexuality. This is by no means exclusive to Armenia; rather, it's a function of most developing countries, especially ones with such a long tradition of religious devotion. But what's so surprising is that it's even prevalent among many otherwise progressive people here. While my LCFs (language and cultural facilitators) during training were all very progressive and accepting—having worked with so many Peace Corps volunteers over the past 16 years—other people I've met here that I would consider progressive have decidedly not been.

    Mostly, I simply don't bring the issue up, since I'm not out to almost any Armenians except for the aforementioned LCFs. But I happened to get into a discussion about gays with a 23 year old Armenian girl that I've been tutoring. We were talking, and somehow gays came into the discussion (she brought up the issue, not me). Though it was in passing, she then went on to say that she simply couldn't accept gays or lesbians. Now, normally in this country that type of statement wouldn't shock me at all. But this girl is extremely cosmopolitan and educated, having lived in Yerevan for many years and having traveled a bit internationally (mostly to Russia, I believe). Her attitude about almost everything is decidedly different from most other Armenians', so I didn't expect her to have that opinion. Of course, I couldn't let it pass so we got into a discussion in which I explained that I believe that GLBT folk are equal members of society and that, contrary to her claim, there's not something mentally wrong with GLBT people—well, most of them at least.


  1. In general, my city. I'm one of the luckier volunteers, having been placed in Vanadzor. As I mentioned above, and in the past, this is, by Armenian standards, a large city; the third largest, actually. Almost anything I could possible need, I have. I have gas. I have regular hot water, which means I have regular access to a shower. I have shopping. I have good alcohol (gin, huzzah!). I have parks. I have restaurants. I have a place I can get a latte, even if it's not anywhere close to as good as I could make. I have internet in my home (even if, as described above, it blows). I have a gym, for heavens sake! While it means that I'm likelier to spend all my money than other volunteers, I'm a good saver of money, so I'm still managing to save about $100 a month so I can do some traveling next summer.
    There are also plenty of opportunities for me to do work outside of my assigned organization and outside of my assigned field. To be frank, I really don't have any passion for environmental education. I haven't yet started teaching, because I've been continuing my Armenian language education but don't yet have the language skills to teach yet, but I really don't relish the thought of it. I decidedly did not enjoy the little bit of teaching I did at the end of training to fulfill our practicum requirement, so I don't think I'll really enjoy it any more when I start teaching here. Thankfully, my options for other work are wide open. There are a multitude of NGOs in this city, so I've got plenty that I can do.
    Now, if I can get a boyfriend, I'll basically never need to leave this city. I'm not going to hold out hope on that one.
  2. The nature in my area. I don't include this as part of the reason I love my city, because I mean it in the sense of Lori Marz (a marz is like a province) in general. I did some hiking last weekend and the views were absolutely stunning. I took plenty of pictures, so I'll post some next time I get a chance. I had to make my own trail, since I don't know where any particular trails start, but that's okay since I actually prefer to do that. The underbrush was thick until I got into the tree line, but the work was worth it. Climbing the mountains around my city was catharsis that I badly needed.
    A couple of weeks ago, I also went to visit another volunteer in her village to the north of me. One of her big projects is that she has put together a harvest festival for all the surrounding villages. The ride in the taxi up to her place was stunningly beautiful. Huge patches of forest cover many of the mountains, with rugged rocky patches on others. The valleys are all filled with beautiful, expansive farmland and gorges in places, while the volunteer's village we continuously described as "magical." Yes, we in the north are lucky.
  3. My tateek (that's Armenian for grandmother, although it's only a transliteration; remember, they use an entirely different alphabet). I love this little old lady. She is so freaking nice and so funny. She's always bringing me fruit and sweets, and feeds me whenever I'm hungry. She's always concerned I'm going to be cold, or that if I take a shower when I have a cold I'm going to die; that does get on my nerves on occasion, but I deal with it. We constantly sit around and watch "Lost" together, and terrible Brazilian soap operas. Every time something dramatic happens she gets emotional and starts talking to the TV. Tateek and I, we love our stories.

There's a lot more that I love these days than hate. Frankly, I can't imagine being back in the states at this point. It's such a dramatic change from a few months ago, when practically every day I wanted to go home. But I'm so comfortable here now, that when I think about the prospect of going back to the US, with things the way they are right now that thought actually makes me far more apprehensive than the thought of being here for 22 more months. I'm definitely starting to get attached to this life I'm living, and once I get my own apartment I'll basically be as happy as can be…but I will miss my tateek.

Monday, September 29, 2008


I can't help but be reminded today of better days past. Not because I'm unhappy--in fact, quite the opposite. As I walked outside today I was reminded of just how good Fall days are in almost any climate that actually has a Fall: the cool crispness of the air tempered by the warmth of the sun; the light cool breeze slowly blowing the leaves from the trees; the clarity of the atmosphere that allows you to see farther than on a normal day; even the sounds of children playing in the schoolyard actually somehow sound more pleasant--and that coming from a guy who doesn't even like the little buggers.


But it's that very euphoria of a fall day that brings memories flooding back of a time when, I think, I could say I was truly happy. You see, two years ago this fall I was working with the Human Rights Campaign and Indiana Equality in Indianapolis, and Indiana at large. I was in the thick of the campaign season, organizing volunteers for weekend canvassing trips, organizing phone banks during the week, and constantly either on the phone with a union or campaign manager or else sending off emails to folks, or making sure that all the logistics for the weekend were ready.


And I was loving every minute of it.


I had really discovered my element, something that I was incredibly happy doing, both because of the work and, more importantly, because of all the people that I was working with. I don't presume to claim that I was the absolute best at doing it, or that there was nothing more that I could have done--there's certainly more that I could have done and could have done a better job at. But then, it was my first time as an organizer, and I got valuable experience from it--more importantly, I was passionate about it. Had I not, at the time, been so intent on going back to Idaho to finish up my Political Economy degree--I already had a Bachelors Degree, so one more was just icing on the cake--I surely would have stayed in Indiana.


When Fall comes, those memories are the ones that have been imprinted in my mind, and they're what I associate the season with: walking through Ft. Wayne with my walk list and candidate materials in hand; grabbing a $5 lunch from the Cajun place; driving around Indiana with a van full of volunteers; the day spent with my friend and boss Mark in Nashville and Bloomington--and my befuddlement until I realized we were going to Nashville, Indiana, not Tennessee. The memories come unbidden, but they're never unwelcome.


It may be that I will form memories of Fall that I will associate with this place. Probably not this year, but perhaps next year. But I don't think they'll ever be as strong as the ones I have of Indiana. After all, I also have wonderful and intense memories of my Fall trips to Stanley, Idaho and into the Sawtooths that I made last year, but they're never the first on my mind when the season comes. Indiana was good to me, and so on this Fall day I remember it well, and treasure the season that's upon me.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Starting to understand

There are a great many things in this country that I have had trouble understanding. I don't simply mean the language. While difficult, and constantly a problem in the past, it shared a place with a number of others. I've had trouble understanding why volunteers come to feel great affection for the country; I've had trouble understanding how to interact with Armenians; I've had trouble understanding how any work gets done in this country and how to not give into despair.

But I'm beginning to get it after this weekend, which has been a watershed for my ability to feel a sense of place in this country.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've started up language lessons again. I've been far more studious now than I was in the last three weeks of PST, and that—combined with a more frequent use of the language in everyday activities—has begun to really pay off. I certainly don't understand everything people are saying. But my ability to quickly pick out enough words that I know, in order to patch together the idea being presented, has grown dramatically. I often understand what it is people are asking me, or saying to me, and can respond fairly well. I still often have to have things repeated, but it's not nearly as bad as it used to be. Paradoxically, my own knowledge of the English language has grown phenomenally as well, in large part because I'm teaching a couple of English classes a week and have to be able to explain structure and terminology (infinitives, conjugations, definite articles, participles, etc.).

This weekend especially, however, really went a long way in dissolving my last two difficulties, if not yet entirely by any means.

In Armenia there is an environmental NGO called Sunchild that does a lot of environmental education work with kids, as well as national public education campaigns. This weekend they kicked off a new campaign called "Save the Nature" (yes, I know it's a bit odd of a structure for a name, using nature instead of environment) and needed help setting up and running the event. The purpose of the event was to get a couple hundred tables from kindergartens in Yerevan and paint them with environmental themes to give the kindergarteners something prettier to use, and to instill in them an appreciation for nature through constant visuals. About ten of us decided to go into Yerevan and help. Four of us from my marz (similar to a state but more equivalent to a county in terms of their power to act independently; perhaps even less so) and an adjacent marz went in on Saturday with a bunch of kids that they bussed in to help paint the tables (they bussed in well over a hundred kids total from all over). We were up until about 1:30 in the morning setting up tables in the park that the event was held at, while hanging out with Armenians from the organization and just bullshitting a lot of the time. I very much felt like a Peace Corps volunteer at one point as I was sitting in the back of a truck full of tables in the middle of the night, with just enough room for me, driving through Yerevan with just a view out the flap covering the truck. I know that isn't a great description, but it was an absolutely surreal moment that I can't describe well.

After staying up even later at our extremely old-school Soviet hotel, drinking a bit and just talking a bunch, we got up very early in the morning, had breakfast with the kids, and headed back to the park to finish setting up. By about 10 or 11 in the morning the park was packed with hundreds of kids, drawing on and painting the tables as we dished out paint, helped move stuff (including an absurdly heavy helium tank for balloons), and watching the kids paint. And I have to tell you, a lot of those kids were absolutely amazingly talented. Some of the pictures they painted were stunningly cool. A woman from the US embassy mentioned to us that if they were selling them, there were some tables that she easily would have paid good money for. I was blown away by how well the event turned out, and it really lifted my spirits that, if there is a will and drive, big events can be done in this country and progress can be made. Does painting a bunch of tables necessarily fix the environmental education problem here? No, but when it's accompanied by a really entertaining and informative show during the painting (as it was), it sure is a good start.

To make the weekend even more incredible, a guy, and his wife, from the US embassy bought all of us lunch and brought us into the place he lives directly attached to the park. It definitely was a gated community, which normally I'm not a big fan of, but we had a great time talking to him and his wife, eating, and relaxing. What was so incredible was that he didn't even have anything to do with the event whatsoever. He merely saw it going on, walked around with his wife and daughter checking everything out, and then after meeting us straight up went out and bought us all of this stuff on a whim. The generosity and hospitality that he showed us, totally out of the blue, was such a phenomenal thing. We all had a wonderful time talking with him and his wife and his brother, who was visiting from the US, and I just couldn't have even imagined how great a day it would be.

Topping things off, in the evening we finished up by going out with some Armenians that one of the volunteers had met previously and went to a really cool pub. We all sat down and drank some beer, having wonderful conversation. We talked about Armenia and America—both the women we were with were around our age and had studied in America through an exchange program—told jokes and stories, and just relaxed. These women both really have it together. They are professional, hard-working, ambitious, and intelligent and have clearly done a lot to get themselves in the position they're in now. They are the perfect people to know, with such great insights into Armenian culture that only someone who's lived in both America and Armenia could get across to us.

I am indeed finally starting to understand.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Reminders make things harder

It was suggested at one point during training that we have things to remind us of home, in order to keep us sane.  I thought it was a sensible suggestion, so I have a bunch of movies on my computer and, when I can, I manage to download the podcasts I used to listen to daily, stuff like Fresh Air, A Prairie Home Companion, This American Life, Savage Lovecast, and a couple others.

Unfortunately, I find that they just remind me of the things I'm missing out on at home.  They make me miss having access to them whenever I want; having reasonable access, in fact, to practically anything I want or need.  They even remind me, for instance, that I haven't been hiking or camping since I got here and that even when I do get a chance to go, it's not going to be nearly as good as I can get in Idaho.

But then, it doesn't help to just not have those things at all, because I do miss them when they're not there.  That may be a bit different now, though, because the last time that I didn't have things and was really missing them was about three weeks in, when all of that was still very fresh in my mind.  

I find it strange that it's not the obviously material things that I miss most:  a comfortable bed, good food, restaurants, shopping.  It's actually the experientials I miss most.  Listening to NPR or hiking through the mountains of Idaho have little to do with tangible, material possessions.  They're actually more of regular experiences that I valued that cost me little to nothing beyond a tank of gas or time.

And maybe that's why it's still so hard; I'm not really having enjoyable experiences yet.  Right now I'm just bored out of my mind because my NGO is on vacation for another week, and I have nothing to do except for sit around and study and read.  I've been enjoying reading in the park, which is my substitute for reading at a coffee shop, but that's about the only thing I've really enjoyed and been content with in the last week.  I need to actually start doing something, or I'm going to go out of my mind with boredom.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Here's the benefit to being in a large city (well, large for Armenia at somewhere around 120,000): I get to update my blog far more often.

As I promised, I've finally edited and uploaded pictures. The pictures are necessarily small because the internet connections in this country, outside of Yerevan, are terrible; they're akin to perhaps a 28.8 kbs connection most of the time. It's better when there aren't a lot of people in the internet cafe, but unfortunately there are always people here. C'est la vie.

All of today's pictures are going to be of my PST village, with an emphasis on my host family's house. A friend wanted me to post pictures of the garden, so those will be the first.

This has been my bathroom for the last two and a half months. I know, you're seething with jealousy.

Here's a picture of my house from the outside.

This was my room. Small (though bigger than my current room in my permanent site), but I loved it; it was rather comfortable.

This was my absolute favorite place in all of my village. My host mom had set up a little glass table and stools where she liked to read and write. It became my study, reading, and writing area, and my sanctuary when I just needed someplace to sit. It was always the perfect temperature, and it was nice and quiet; and, as a bonus, it was right beneath the cherry trees so once they were ripe I could just reach out and have a tasty treat.

This is a picture of the area at sunset. It looked like this at least three days out of the week. There was little better than going for a run through the wheat fields as the sun was setting and enjoying the view.

That's all for now. Expect more pictures soon.

Friday, August 15, 2008


I am now, officially, a Peace Corps volunteer.

Let me repeat that.

I am now, officially, a Peace Corps volunteer.

That's a damned good feeling, for a number of reasons, the first of which being that it means that PST is finally over. I have so, so much more freedom now than I did as a trainee; freedom to set my own schedule; freedom to learn the language as I want to learn it; freedom to create my own work.

It's also a damned good feeling because taking the oath to serve my country by spreading American goodwill and development assistance gives me a great sense of pride; pride in my country, for creating a program that seeks to lift others out of poverty in a sustainable way; pride in myself for slogging through some very hard and stressful work so far. It sounds cliche to talk about pride in country, certainly, but I don't think there's a better expression for how I feel about it.

Lastly, it feels so good to know that I will now have access to a shower again, instead of a bucket bath. Something minor, perhaps, but good nonetheless.

So, now I'm at my permanent site and I've settled in with a new host family. The only downside to completing PST is a sense that I'm right back where I started at. I have to get to know my new host family, continue learning the language, start an entirely new job, make new acquaintances in a new place...I've somehow come full circle and it's only been a little over two months.

But oh well. I'm free to do my thing and make good things happen. Here's to the next two years!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Life is more pleasant

I managed to survive the last three days, so life is much better now.

Our community project went fairly well. We decided to train counselors on how to run a "green camp." After soliciting about 60 or so folks for their opinions on the village--its strengths and its weaknesses--we noticed several things that we wanted to partly try to address. One was that the villagers were very proud of their natural environment; and rightly so, as the village really is quite nice aside from the persistent trash problem. The other was that there was a distinct lack of jobs in the village. Now, this particular complaint is quite common in Armenia, since unemployment is very high here (as in many other developing countries). While we couldn't address the complaint in the fullness that it really needs, we did decide--after the wonderful suggestion by our Language and Cultural Facilitator--that the idea of training young adults to be camp counselors for an environmental camp would help address this problem at least in a small way, since we suggested that they charge a small fee for this camp.

Anyway, it went off well, though after the initial training and interest section we only had a couple people interested. Better a couple than none. We came back several hours later and had a mock camp session, and then went and cleaned a section of stream. That was quite disgusting, but that section looked so much better after we finished.

The Armenian practicum was okay. Happily, we're not really expected to be full on teaching as soon as we get to site, so this practicum was just to demonstrate our coping strategies and to prove how hard it would be if we don't eventually have the language. Didn't really need that to be demonstrated, but it went off okay anyway. It's done, and that's the important part.

Alas, another person decided to Early Terminate. That brings us down to 45, from an original 50. I hope that we won't have many other people ET, since I really like almost everyone, but I guess we'll see.

Here's to one more week of PST before moving to my new site!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

I'm tired of being constantly angry

So, PST (pre-service training) really, really sucks these days. I am not exaggerating when I say that, right now, I really hate PST. We are so overloaded with stuff to do right now, and it's driving me crazy. We have language lessons every day but Sunday, we have been planning our community project and doing a stupid amount of translation for it (we really overextended ourselves in what we decided to do; I am now regretting that we picked an ambitious project), and creating lesson plans and translating them into Armenian. Plus, we have had a couple central days and tech days each week, giving us even less time to get done what we need to. In addition to all of this, I've had unhappy news coming from home (though I won't detail it on this blog), adding to my general stress. This is absolutely one of the most stressful times I've ever been in.

Because of all of this, I just constantly feel angry. I wake up every day and dread the day to come, knowing how much we have to do. As the day progresses I just get angrier and angrier, wanting to lash out at people for the simplest annoyances. Then, when I'm at home and take a short break I get frustrated by the fact that half the time I still can't understand what people are saying when they're talking to me. Every single day for about a week now I've just wanted to punch someone, or yell at them, or just scream at the top of my lungs. I go to bed at night and toss and turn for an hour and a half because I can't stop thinking about all the shit I still have to do, and I don't really want to sleep because I know I have to get up the next day and start all over again. I feel like I'm going crazy.

Things should get better after the next three days, since we're finishing our community project tomorrow, and our lesson plans will be finished as of Tuesday. I just need to hold out and hopefully I'll begin having a bit of free time again, and feeling better.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Too much time between posts

As I told a friend whom I emailed recently, I won't apologize for my blog posts being so far apart; I would waste far too much time if I did. I may, however, start blogging more. I just found out that Blogspot has a mobile blogging service. This is extremely handy, because I now have a cellphone and can easily access the internet, though only the mobile web. Life has become considerably better since I got my phone.

I am just going to make a general post about what's been going on the last month or so instead of focusing on a specific topic. I won't be making a post with pictures for another month or so, unfortunately, because PST (pre-service training) has become even busier than it was before.

We all recently visited our permanent sites and stayed with our new host families for a few days. I love my new site. It's a large city (at least, what's considered a large city in Armenia, meaning about 100,000) with tons of stuff to do. While there, I visited a large church and watched the service (Armenia is home to the oldest Christian state church in the world, the Armenian Apostolic Church), went shopping at the supermarket and finally bought good chocolate, got decorating ideas for my eventual apartment from the home furnishings store, went to an art gallery, and went to a rock concert--a fucking rock concert, y'all. I know that's nothing in America, but here it's a pretty big treat to be able to live somewhere with easy access to something like that. My permanent site is also incredibly beautiful, nestled between mountains that actually have trees. That's fairly significant, as deforestation is a major problem in Armenia. After the energy crisis of 1988, the country went from about 10-11% forested to around 4%. It used to be 25% forest long ago.

We recently visited Dlijan National Park, which is incredibly gorgeous. It's set in somewhat rugged mountains (though not nearly so rugged as Idaho's) and is completely covered with trees. It looks a little like the Appalachians, but a bit more rugged than most parts of that particular range. It was so nice to just go hiking again for the first time since I've been here. I had missed it greatly.

In the coming weeks we'll be doing our nine practicums for Armenian school children. Six will be in English, but 3 will have to be fully in Armenian. I don't in any way feel comfortable enough with my Armenian yet for that not to be a huge deal. I think most of us feel that way. I'm incredibly anxious about the whole process. Frankly, I don't like kids that much to begin with, but I've been assigned to an educational NGO so I'll be teaching kids for the next two years. I'm sure I'll adjust, but it will be a challenge. It's made slighly better because I'm working with disadvantaged and at-risk youth, so at least the work is much more rewarding, if maybe even more difficult.

By chance, I stumbled upon the town muscle head and have begun working out with him, which is just fantastic. I was going out for a short run before my body weight/water-filled buckets workout that I've devised, when a fellow volunteer stopped me on the street. He was talking to this guy and told me that he had a workout bench with barbell, weights, and dumbells, and the guy invited me to come workout with him. Even better, the guy seems to really know his stuff, so he's acting as a trainer for me. He's a really nice guy, and I'm so glad to have run into him.

Lastly, I'm happy to be able to say that I have less than a month left of PST (pre-service training). It has been an incredibly stressful time, but from all accounts life becomes much simpler afterwards. It will be nice to slow down a bit. I am, however, going to miss my host family in my PST site incredibly. They have become family to me, and they are dear to me. I am going to miss them, I'm going to miss my room, the wonderful garden, my little piece of heaven in Armenia (it's a fabulous little spot under the cherry trees where my host mom has a little glass table and a stump for a chair where she and I both read and write), and all my Armenian friends that I've made. Such is life, I suppose, but I will be keeping in contact with them for sure.

Friday, June 20, 2008

There will be, pictures

But unfortunately, not right now. I'm spending some free time today downloading some PortableApps utilities to my USB drive. PortableApps is just about the best invention ever for thumb drives, and especially for those of us who don't have our own regular internet access. It's nice to have all my customized bookmarks and settings back in Firefox.

I'm going to take some time today to actually describe my life over these past three weeks, so this will probably be a rather long post.

I think the first thing I have to talk about is my host family and my new home for the next couple months. My host family is quite small. I have a host mom, a host brother, who is 19, and a host sister, who is 17. My host dad is away working in Russia, which is quite common for Armenians. It's unlikely I'll ever actually meet him, as he usually only comes home in the winter. My host family is very intelligent. My host brother is an engineering student in Yerevan and my host sister is a linguistics student, also in Yerevan. Apparently, at one time my host mom was an "economist" (which I think meant accountant) at the old Soviet factory on the hill before it closed. I got quite lucky, in that my host sister speaks quite good English. In one way, however, I think that may be a bad thing, since it's hindering my learning process a bit because I'm not forced to constantly speak Armenian.

Regardless, I really like my host family. They're all extremely nice and very hospitable. I don't have experience in other developing countries, but hospitality is extremely important for Armenians. Even though I've been here three weeks, they still wait for me to start eating before they will eat; they regularly stop everything they're doing to sit down and talk to me; they won't let me help pick up the table after dinner (though I often insist and just start helping anyway). While it's all really nice and I greatly appreciate it, there are times when I feel it's a bit vexing. I'd rather they treat me as a part of the family, with attending responsibilities. But, I'm not really going to complain about it.

The house is nice. It's two stories, though the first story is primarily used as storage and for the bathing area (which is just a little sketchy). Note, that's not the bathroom, but the bathing area. It's in what is clearly the smallest room in the entire house, and consists of a part cement, part dirt floor. There's a tub, but there's also a couple buckets next to the tub with water, one of which I heat up and add cold water to, and then commence pouring it over myself to have a bath. The bathroom is a glorified hole in the ground. Yes, my bathroom is, in fact, an outhouse. But not, you know, an outhouse with a seat and all. It's four walls, a wooden floor with a hole, and a ceiling, all situated over a deep hole in the ground. I was a bit...put off, at first, but have since become quite used to the whole setup. I wasn't really expecting any better, and I actually don't mind either of these things.

The rest of the house is quite nice. The second floor is really the main floor. I have a room to myself, with a lock, that is really quite nice. There's a living room, small kitchen/dining room, my host brother's room, and my host mom/sister's room. It's really cozy, and the walls of the house are so thick that the temperature stays nice and cool, but not cold, regardless of the temperature outside.

My typical day consists of the following.

I wake up at 7:00 and do one of two things. I either hit snooze for a good hour or so, or go out and do some running and working out. Unfortunately, it's been more of the former than the latter. Every couple of days I bathe (because I am not willing to do the bucket bath thing every single day, and because it's not really necessary), I have breakfast, and then I'm off to language class at 9:00. We have 4.5 hours of language class (in small groups; by this time we've all been divided into surrounding villages. There are 7 other trainees in my village), so we get out at around 1:30. I go home, have lunch, and then spend some time--read, a lot of time--studying the language. At this point, I've basically got the alphabet down so I can read almost anything put in front of me. That doesn't, however, mean I can understand it all. In fact, there's a lot that I don't understand. I'm having an incredibly hard time with the verbal language, which is really the most important at this point. I usually have dinner with the family around 7:00, and then lately I've been watching the Eurocup with my host brother, one of my fellow trainees, and his host brother. That's been a ton of fun. On occasion I'll venture into Charentsevan to get some internet access, and one day of the week we have 8 hours of class in Charentsevan with all the rest of the volunteers, going over PC policy, cross-cultural issues, safety and security, and health. About 3 hours or so on one day a week we have technical training for our various jobs.

The process has been extremely exhausting at times. We have only one day a week off (Sunday), and even that is filled with a lot of the studying. As I mentioned, the verbal language is really coming very slowly for me. I still have a lot of trouble picking out individual words when people are talking around me. I relish the days that we don't have language training, just so I can get a break from it. It's really quite frustrating. It's almost exclusively frustrations with the language that makes me homesick at times. Not because I actually miss things like regular access to internet, NPR, comfort, and friends and family so greatly (though I do miss all of those), but because the language makes me so damned fed up sometimes. Luckily, writing in my journal and in this blog has been of enormous help in easing that homesickness.

My fellow volunteers are an incredible group of people. The depth of personalities and experiences contained within this group of (now) 47 is vast. We have many different ages represented, many different socio-economic backgrounds, educational levels, some different ethnic backgrounds, work experiences, and other categories. The one thing that we all seem to share is a very positive personality, which is, I think, really the most necessary trait of all. There's a sense that we're all here to do something good. Why the hell else would we leave the comforts of home, after all. I've made friendships here that I'm already quite certain will last well into the future, and of that I'm extremely grateful.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I arrive!

Barev! (Hello in Armenian--I'm sure you could have figured that out)

Actually, I arrived about a week ago. Internet access, however, is available only in the central town, and our Language and Cultural Facilitators (LCFs) haven't yet showed us how to use the bus system on our own.

Right now I'm blogging from Charentsavan, a town of about 40,000. It's about a 45 minute bus ride from Yerevan, the capital city. It's not, however, where I live. I actually won't be disclosing that particular information, for safety's sake.

So far, Armenia is a beautiful country. The mountains are beautiful, and the villages are full of trees. My host family has a wonderful place. The house is nice inside, though it's very blocky from the outside; the garden, however, is incredible. Cherry trees, apricot trees, pear trees, and apple trees are everywhere, as well as tons of vegetables.

I apologize for the shortness of this post, but I have little time today. I wanted to let you all know that I'm here, I'm safe, and I'm having a great time.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Playing the expectations game

Playing with hoops and sticks; using a sheep's bladder as a soccer ball; being a concubine to an Armenian prince. These are a few of the more ridiculous expectations that friends and I have come up with in jest. But even after joking about it, the question remains: what am I to expect?

In some ways this isn't a question that pertains simply to the matter of my Peace Corps service--it isn't even a question that pertains solely to my individual experiences and work. What can I, and what can we all, expect from the kind of work that is being done by Peace Corps volunteers, by well-meaning NGOs, by governmental aid organizations across the board?

So often, it seems, the improvements that occur in the lives of those in the developing world are marginal. A villager builds a fish pond to diversify his food supply; a child makes it one more grade into school than she otherwise would have; an acre of forest is stopped from being burned. The simple answer I often hear is that all these little things "add up." It's always seemed like little more than a platitude to me, however, because it doesn't address what happens when these things don't add up; it doesn't address what happens when it really is only that one villager or that one acre.

But expectations of anything else are often little more than grandiose gestures by those of us hoping to convince ourselves that our small contributions are greater than they are. I've been complicit in this myself. I often tell myself that my life goal is to create positive change in whatever way I can, while simultaneously expecting that "whatever way I can" means something very large, affecting millions. Perhaps that will someday come true, but in the meantime, a different understanding of expectations is necessary. Because those marginal improvements are still exactly that: improvements. They're positive changes that help a select few improve their lives, even just a tiny bit.

The reality for the vast majority is that improvements in life are only ever small--they're often not life changing. But they are still a good that can be felt, regardless of whether they add up to something bigger and greater.

Which brings me back to my expectations. I have few, except that I expect to create positive change for someone, somewhere. I'm not going into the Peace Corps so that I can be a part of something, the efforts of which add up to a huge difference. Leaving aside the personal benefit that I will receive in my career and my life from this--and I would be remiss if I tried to convince anyone that I don't expect to benefit from this--I'm going into the Peace Corps to help someone, because there is a good to be created by positively impacting even one person's life, and even in a marginal way. This is my expectation: smallness, not grandiosity.