- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.