Friday, December 4, 2009

Things I will rarely buy again in the US

One of the good and bad things about living in a developing country is the lack of premade products that can be bought for ease of use. In terms of health, it's obvious why this is a good thing, since we eat far too much manufactured/processed foods in the US, to an absurd level that I don't think I fully realized until I got here. But I think less obvious in terms of bad is that that means that more time must be spent on creating meals or even preserving foods yourself for the winter time, which is a clear drain on time for people. Of course, in a country in which most people don't have jobs it's not so much a concern that people (women) could be using their time more productively, because if they weren't spending time preparing things and preserving things it's not like most would be in a job.

But that lack of manufactured/processed foods has had an enormous effect on my own ability to cook. I've long been a good cook, something imparted on me by my mom. I spent a lot of time with my mom in or around the kitchen when I was young. For many years my parents managed a fishing resort in Canada, and my mom was the head chef at the resort. Because of this, I learned a great deal about how to cook from her and gained my love of and passion for cooking by her influence. But the number of things that I've learned to cook since I've been here has vastly increased largely because I've been forced to learn how to cook things that I simply can't buy here. Over the years the PCVs here have collected a large amount of recipes based on the locally available ingredients (and in some cases a few things we'd have to get from either America or Yerevan). So here are the things that I've learned to make that I will likely never buy again pre-packaged in America:

1. Applesauce
2. Granola
3. Granola bars
4. Pie, entirely from scratch, including crust and filling
5. Roasted pumpkin for either bread or pie or soup
6. Chicken noodle soup
7. Salsa
8. Pancakes
9. Hummus
10. Sorting and soaking my own beans from dried beans

This list just happens to top out at 10 right now as that's all I can think of. I mean, I made a lot of stuff in America from scratch anyway, so there's a significant amount that I make here that I already made in America. But a lot of the things above I feel are real basics that I always just bought instead of making. But let me tell you, every one of the things that I listed (excluding the beans--I mean, soaked beans are soaked beans) is twice or more as good homemade as when bought from a store. This is another thing that I can think Armenia for, among the long list of ways that it's changed my life.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Illogic of Narrow Thinking

I want to relate a story that is occurring in an area of Armenia that I think is rather indicative of how things often tend to operate in this country.

During Soviet times, Lake Sevan was planned to be drained in order to provide a greater area for farming, an idiotic notion in and of itself. Though the plan was never carried out, the lake was at least partially drained. You can still clearly see where the banks of the lake used to be, and it's not an insignificant level. It was drained so much that a small island with a church on it near the shore became a peninsula.

Now, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia has decided that it wants to raise the level of the lake in an attempt to both restore its former glory and solve some of the massive ecological problems the lake faces (regardless of the fact that raising the lake isn't going to really do much to solve those problems, whereas cleaning it would). Actually, this has been going on for a few years now, and one of the primary roads around the lake that connects the surrounding towns and villages has finally been nearly overtaken by the lake. So, of course, they've decided to raise the level of the road, a seemingly worthy goal right? Guess how long this road is expected to last before the lake overtakes it again?

5 years.

When asked what will happen after 5 years, people will simply answer that they'll just raise the road again. Instead of, you know, nipping the problem in the bud and changing the road's route or building it high enough to begin with.

But that's not all. During Soviet times, and even after the end of the USSR, many businesses were built up around the lake at its lowered level, from small restaurants to a large Best Western hotel. As of this point, there's no plan that I've been able to discern as to what will happen to these businesses except that they'll be swallowed up by the lake, displacing the owners (I'm sure the Best Western has enough pull to prevent this happening to it, or may simply not be in danger as much as I think it is). But that's irrelevant, right? Because now the glorious Lake Sevan will be back!


Oh Armenia, I love you but you're so silly sometimes.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Today was a bit disappointing for me.

A fellow volunteer and I have set up a Model United Nations project as a joint venture between our NGOs. We got the idea from the International Student Forum camp that I participated in this last summer in Armenia, which culminated in a MUN simulation. I figured, why not take that and create a whole program around it that includes a culminating trip to an actual MUN conference, in particular the one held in NYC every year that allows participants a day at the UN building for the General Assembly session?

So, we assembled a group of 8 Armenian students and have spent the last 2 weeks teaching the basics of the UN system, its rules and procedures, and how MUN works. As part of this, the students are expected to each write a position paper on the topic for the country they are representing in the simulation this semester. I realize that it's difficult for them, so the expectation was that it would not have to be particularly long, perhaps a half a page to a page--an actual position paper, in any case, is only a maximum of 2 pages anyway and usually only 1.

I received three of them so far this week (they're due on Monday) and so far every single one of them has been grossly and blatantly plagiarized. A couple were at least from reputable sources (one was from a Wiki page), but they straight up copied and pasted the information from a couple different pages to try to make one whole position paper. I am so incredibly disappointed in them and sent an email to all the group reinforcing the plagiarism policy we had discussed (not singling anyone out, of course) and also sent emails to the individuals noting that this was not an acceptable practice and that they would need to rewrite their papers using their own words and ideas.

It makes me wonder how prevalent this is in Armenian universities. I mean, these are university age students, after all, and they're pulling shit like this. I would guess that this thing happens a lot in Armenia (it rarely if ever happened at my own college in America; I don't know how prevalent it is at other universities) and that the idea of plagiarism is simply not instilled in them. I wonder if that comes along with the fact that the education system here is not focused around critical thinking in the first place, so that this is not an issue for classrooms usually, or if it's just not checked.

I tell you, I was so angry when I saw it. Plagiarism is among the most despicable forms of academic dishonesty and I have no patience for it. I am giving them a bit of leeway in terms of my anger if only because I think this is not something that is instilled in them well here, but I'm certainly not accepting any paper of theirs that has been plagiarized.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Snow in September

Looking outside this morning seems to bode ill for what's possibly to come this winter. It's only the end of September, and already there's a snow storm blowing outside my apartment here in Vanadzor. Granted, it's clearly a very heavy and wet snow and it's not going to stick at all--especially considering that it rained for a while last night until it got cold enough for snow--but I fear what that means for what this winter's going to be like. The last group of volunteers had told us any number of horror stories about nasty winters here, but they didn't bear out in the mildness of this last winter. The current group has not had to experience the kind of winter we've heard tales about; but then, in conversations with Armenians it seems that particular winter was a bit of an aberration in terms of its extremity. I hope that this early cold snap and snow storm doesn't end up being bringing with it a terrible winter, but I suppose it's possible.

Actually, perhaps I wouldn't mind so much if it meant a lot of snow. One of the problems I had last year--and I why I was so terribly unhappy--was that I wasn't prepared for the depression that would set in with winter. Coming from Idaho I'm quite used to both long winters and extreme cold, and so thought I'd have no problems with any of that here. And it really wasn't either of those things in and of themselves that caused my depression--what I wasn't used to was the extreme inactivity that came along with winter here. I'm used to being very active during the winter. Winter brings with it several of my favorite things: snowboarding and winter camping/snowshoeing. Unfortunately, I could do neither of those things last winter outside of the one time I went up snowboarding at Tsaghadzor, and so I fell into a funk.

This winter, however, I'm hoping to avoid those things. One of the departing volunteers bequeathed on me his snowshoes, and I plan on making good use of them. While I likely won't do any winter camping (it's just not something I want to try here since I don't have some needed equipment) I do plan on doing plenty of snowshoeing on day trips. I've also heard tell that the Marine embassy guards here are willing to let PCVs borrow their snowboards so I'm going to try to get in on that. There are some mountains near me with potential to be really good boarding if the snow gets deep enough. I also plan on taking my kite and a board out on the high plains that get lots of snow near Mt. Aragats, assuming good wind conditions that is.

I'm actually looking forward to winter this year, under the assumption that I'll actually get myself out and about instead of being lazy (always a danger). I've got a comfortable and warm setup in my own apartment so the cold isn't too great a fear for me so long as pipes don't freeze; let's hope this early snow doesn't forebode that.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Late post is late

Really, third week of coming back to blogging and I'm already late? Shame on me; shame. So here's the post, 4 days late.

As you should all know by now, I've been working with an organization for the last 8 months called Peace Dialogue whose work focuses exactly one what it sounds like. In that time we've managed to do a couple of research projects that were quite interesting (check out our activities page to see them if you're interested). But the perpetual source of frustration for me is our inability to come up with funding for our major projects that go beyond mere research. One of the major problems we have is a funding trap in which we can't start projects until we get funding for them, but organizations won't fund us unless we have past evidence of successful projects--this regardless of the fact that my director previously worked on projects for the past many years in another organization before starting Peace Dialogue. I suppose this is the bane of any new NGO, so we're likely not unique in this, but it is incredibly irritating regardless. If any of you out there happen to know organizations funding conflict resolution or peace building work, please pipe up and let me know (or have some experience in starting an organization and finding funding). It doesn't help that most of the current funding in the Caucasus is going towards the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, but I think that's actually the least of our problems right now.

More to the moment, we had another earthquake here the other day (I say another, but I didn't hear about the one that happened a couple months ago). Actually, the epicenter was in Georgia but we did feel it down here in Armenia. It was extremely light by the time it hit here, and I'm actually surprised that I even woke up and felt it. I think it's perhaps because I haven't been sleeping well, but I awoke to my bed lightly shaking and then realizing that it was the whole apartment that was lightly shaking; it was really nothing to get terribly worked up about, but the fact that I live in a Soviet-era apartment building (though a friend told me that they're at least designed to handle these minor quakes), that it was 4 or 5 in the morning and I had just woken up, and that a large earthquake in 1988 decimated the nearby town of Spitak as well as parts of Vanadzor and Gyumri (also resulting in the shutting down of the nuclear power plant) all combined to make me right paranoid until I fell back asleep.

Goal for the next post: do it on time (ie: by Monday morning). See you then.

Monday, August 31, 2009

House Building and Addendum

Welcome to week 2 of me posting regularly again and sticking to a posting schedule (of a sort; I suppose a better schedule would have been to post this on Sunday).

First off, a bit of a clarification from the last post. I had a good discussion the other day about just what it means for me to say that I'm going to be living out in my community. To tell the truth, that's not entirely easy for even me to say; this is one of the problems with either being in or going back into the closet, is that it removes your ability to know or remember how you would act if you weren't living within it. I've had several situations present themselves in the past week that could have allowed me to tell someone about my sexuality, but in each case I realized that not even in the US would I say much. Each time was in a taxi riding with other people who asked me questions, including the requisite question about whether and why I'm not married, to which I replied simply that I don't want to get married (which is true in any context for me) and that I'm not interested in Armenian women. Those things are true regardless of the reasons why, and if some random taxi driver in the US asked me these questions I'd reply in the same way. In essence, the people to whom I will disclose are the people I'm regularly around, including friends, coworkers, and host family, but not random people who I'll never see again nor care to. I think that's what I would do in the US (though again, I can't be sure as it's been so long at this point since I lived outside of the closet).

Moving on, this last week several other volunteers and I joined a group of people from the Fuller Foundation on a house building project. This house is being built in phases by volunteers, and this week's involved laying as much of the concrete floor as possible. It largely consisted of a long bucket line from the cement mixing to the house. I got lucky and was inside the house near the end of the line, so I didn't have to sweat it outside. This is actually always more of what I saw myself doing in the Peace Corps than the work that I normally do here. I think that, if anything, says more about the Peace Corps' advertising of itself than it does either about my satisfaction with my work (which is actually pretty high these days since I'm just working at Peace Dialogue and trying to get a couple projects with other organizations off the ground; no more teaching of children) or about whether that's of more use than what Peace Corps does now versus when it started (I'd argue that what it does now is much more advanced than when it started and its focus on capacity building is stronger, regardless of the critiques I've made in the past).

Beyond that, there wasn't a whole lot. I had a meeting in Yerevan with an openly gay guy who's been living here for a number of years now; that was really refreshing and enjoyable, and I'm glad Peace Corps helped set that meeting up.

Until next time.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Lengthy Absence

As is quite clear, I am an incredibly lazy blogger. I've always found it difficult to keep any sort of lengthy record of my life, whether in an electronic format or on paper. I've let my private, paper journal lapse as well during this time and I think that's a shame. To tell the truth, this inability to keep a regular journal is not an isolated phenomenon; I have found it difficult to keep up anything regularly in the last 6 months. I've not been going to the gym; I've not been studying Armenian; I've not been studying for the GRE. The list could probably go on for a while of the things I've not been doing regularly that I should be. So, I'm going to make a commitment here to being more regular and dedicated to things, beginning with this blog. I'll be updating it at least once a week, if all goes well. That will probably mean a bit of inanity here and there if there's not much to tell about, but at least I will be keeping it up.


There have been so many things that have happened in the last 4 months since I've written a journal, so I'm just going to throw out a list of some of them and not go into any really in depth, because I have something else I want to talk about:


--Finally made my way down south and visited a friend in his incredibly beautiful area around Halidzor

--Ended my debate club for the summer break

--Stopped working with my primary NGO because things just weren't working out well

--Planned several projects with the peace NGO I work with

--Searched endlessly for funding for the projects; applied for a number of grants; received none

--Participated in the International Student Forum in Armenia and had a blast (my team was 1 point away from winning the weeklong competition we were having)

--Went on vacation to the UK, Spain, and France for 3 weeks (which was glorious and necessary and I got to see my good Tiger friend)

--Acquired a banjo from a departing volunteer and have begun learning


So those are just some of the bigger things I can think of right now. As you see, there's a lot in there that--had I been keeping a regular journal--I could have expanded on. C'est la vie.


Now to the thing I really want to talk about.


While I was in the UK and visiting my friend Tim we had a conversation--short though it was--about being closeted or not displaying affection out of fear because of where you are (in a really rural area or in a developing country, for instance). He made the case that for him it was an absolute necessity that whoever he's with would have to be willing to hold hands with him in public, wherever they are (though I'm certain he'd make some exceptions if he was, for instance, in Iran or somewhere; but I'm not entirely sure). I made the case that in the developed world I would completely agree with that; I could not be with someone who wasn't comfortable being out or showing affection wherever we were, even if that's in some rural American community. Living in a developing country, however, would be a totally different story. I argued that I can understand why one would be closeted while living in an incredibly conservative country like Armenia, for instance; social exclusion is practically a guarantee for the openly gay here.


But the more I've thought about it, the less I can justify it.


I really couldn't get it out of my head while I was on vacation, because I realized how easy it had become for me to keep myself closeted, and how my first instinct even in Europe was to not say anything that could reveal my sexuality. I find that to be incredibly damaging to my sense of self, because I consider my sexuality to be so important to me and to have given me a great deal of perspective on life that I possibly wouldn't have had otherwise. Both my willingness and ability to "pass" or to be "discreet" bother the hell out of me, because that's not the way I used to live. I used to express my sexuality and myself as I saw fit regardless of any sort of homophobia or discrimination I might encounter; that served me quite well, because I've always been able to be comfortable with myself that way. But here it just presses on me sometimes; it's tied very strongly into the feeling I get that I need to conform or worry about my "reputation" in my community, even though I think people should be more bold here and stop worry so much about what others think of them.


And that comes to another major problem with closeting myself. I often want to tell queer Armenians that their continuing status in the closet is incredibly damaging to themselves and to the queer population at large in Armenia. LGBTQ populations wherever they are are stripped of power when they are forced to closet themselves or when they choose to not stand up and be out; a queer population simply can not move forward and demand its place in society until people know that it's there and know of individual queers around them. I constantly want to tell LGBTQ Armenians that things are never going to change for the better for them until they start to stand up and be counted and refuse to live in the closet anymore; but how hypocritical is that? How can I make the argument that queer Armenians need to be courageous and accept the possible consequences that come with being out when I myself am living a closeted life in my community?


I've made the excuse that because I'm foreign and only living here for 2 years that it doesn't make sense for me to endanger the work I'm doing by being out; that I'm somehow an exception and that my living in the closet is reasonably given my circumstances. I've also made the excuse that because I live in Vanadzor--which is a much smaller place at 100,000 than Yerevan at 1.5 million--it makes it unwise for me to be out. But really, these are poorly justified excuses, which is why I had yet to make the case to Armenians that they need to be out and accept the consequences if they ever have any shot of moving forward in acceptance.


I've decided that I'm just not going to do it anymore--I'm not going to live in the closet in Armenia anymore. Starting from now (actually, starting for a couple weeks ago when I made this decision) I'm not longer going to closet myself and am going to live openly here, consequences be damned. I accept that this puts me at a greater risk of social exclusion; I accept that this puts me potentially in greater physical danger; I accept that this may make my work more difficult. But I accept all of these things in America, and it's too damaging to my sense of self to not accept these things in Armenia. If I think that queer Armenians should accept the risks, then I will too. While I am not going to get out my hotpants (damnit; I left those back in America! :-P) I'm also not going to let people think I'm straight if the topic comes up. If somebody asks me why I don't have a girlfriend or am not married I'm going to tell them exactly the reason why; when someone at work makes a comment or asks a question about attraction to women to me I'm going to tell them why it's pretty irrelevant to me; I'm not going to hide pictures of past boyfriends or pictures from queer events. Essentially, I'm just going to live my life as I did back in the states and ensure that people don't have misconceptions about me, including my sexuality.


I'm still working through questions in my head about how this is going to play out. I've been doing the closet thing for so long now (a year) that I've frankly forgotten how I would react to the US in certain situations: if a taxi driver asks why I'm not married, do I tell him? If some random person that I'm talking about asks whether I like Armenian women, do I tell him? Do I break it to my host family back in my training village (actually, that one seems an obvious yes to me, but you get the picture). Regardless, it's an incredibly liberating feeling to realize that I'm done hiding anymore. Maybe my out status can give someone else the impetus to out themselves to their family and community; it's got to happen more often in this country, of that I'm certain.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Will post

This is a placeholder post more than anything. I will update soon, but I need to make at least this one post just to push myself to make an actual post.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Vacation is Good; Cheap Vacation in Tbilisi Doubly So

I've been here a good 11 months at this point, through good and bad. So it was about time that I got out of Armenia for a bit to see another place. It just so happened that several other volunteers were planning a trip to Tbilisi, and they invited me to tag along.

In no way was that a bad decision.

The strange thing about traveling to Tbilisi by train is that even though it's incredibly close to Yerevan (all things considered) it still takes 13-14 hours to get there. The train is incredibly antiquated, having been built during Soviet times. In addition, it stops a ridiculous amount of times along the way, and the border checks take upwards of 2 hours. You can tell that neither country has had the money it would take to upgrade the train, as it's often tilting to one side or another due to the amount of time it's been since they've been able to do work on the tracks (which would, I assume, require either stopping the train or having a diversion route, neither of which Armenia at least can afford to do). Regardless of that--and regardless of the incident we had on the train traveling to Georgia, which I'll write about in a moment--taking the train was great fun. It's the first time I've traveled anywhere by train, and I actually quite enjoyed the experience.

Alas, not all was well on the trip. We managed to get several things stolen from us, because we were far too trusting, one of those things that you learn from being in this culture. This Armenian guy came up and started talking to us--let's call him Fox Sneakertonyan--and, having learned that the best way to react in Armenia to new people is to chat it up with them and drink with them, we started taking shots of vodka, and then cognac (well, technically brandy, but they call it cognac). He seemed to be a nice enough guy, and eventually we were all buzzed and tired, so we agreed to lay down for a while, stupidly letting him stay in the same compartment with us. Luckily I grabbed my iPod because I'm totally paranoid about losing it but my phone and the two girls' cameras were sitting out. Now, we weren't that drunk, but enough so to let our guard down in this situation. One of the guys was half awake and noticed Fox Sneakertonyan up and looking around in the place where we had put our stuff, and then suddenly leave. By the time we were all able to get woken up he was gone. Fortunately for us, the guy was an idiot and the train folks had his passport number so it's possible we'll get our shit back, but perhaps not.

We finally got into Tbilisi Tuesday morning (having left Monday evening), got set up in a hostel, and explored the city. Tbilisi is an incredibly beautiful city and such a stark contrast to any other place in Armenia, Yerevan included. Many of the buildings are rather old and have been restored, making for a city that feels like you're in Europe and not just a couple hours north of Armenia. The people are incredibly friendly (and the men decent looking), the food is phenomenal, and the sights are lovely. The main Georgian national dish is khatchapuri, which is essentially just bread, butter, egg, and cheese; but damned if it isn't delicious! It comes in a ton of different shapes, flavors, styles, and extra ingredients, but I have not had khatchapuri yet that wasn't delicious. And they make it so much better in Georgia than in Armenia.

I also managed to make it to the gay bar with a couple other people and had a great time there. I just discovered a gay friendly bar in Yerevan, but this one in Tbilisi was more open about it and so was a great ton of fun. I tell you, there is no more welcoming environment for a boy than a gay bar in a small country. All the Georgian homos were so happy to see us there, buying us drinks and chatting like there was no tomorrow.

If there's one place that you ever want to visit in the Caucasus, make it Tbilisi. You will not regret it.

Hopefully I'll be able to post some pictures in the next few days.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Landlords everywhere suck

There isn't much difference between this country and America in that department.

My current state is best summed up as follows: homeless and mooching.

I had been living in a really fabulous apartment (relatively speaking), and was extremely happy. I had a good amount of space, an awesome stove and refrigerator, and a good location close to my main work sites. It was good.

But my landlord up and decided that he wanted to try to charge me an exorbitant amount of money for the place. I was paying 40,000 AMD a month for January, March, and April. One of the problems was that I was paying him in dollars, and because the exchange rate here recently shot up (they stopped pegging the currency and it's no free-floating on the market) from 300 AMD to 370 AMD, I was already going to have to pay more. But he wanted even more money in dollars, so I was now going to be paying 65,000 AMD a month. To give you perspective, PC gives me a max of 30,000 AMD a month for my rent.

Fuck. That. Noise.

The landlord wouldn't really come down much. He came down to 50,000, as that's what I would be paying now at the current exchange rate if we kept the dollar amount I was paying him the same, but that was way too much for me to pay. Screw that guy; he was a racist and a jerk to begin with.

Now, I did find an apartment to move into. Unfortunately, it needed cleaning and renovation, so until they finish it I'm just basically homeless. All my stuff is at the other PCV's apartment here in my city, and I'm staying on his couch until they finish things. I'm hoping that should be done this week soon, as I hate to have to be mooching off my friend and invading his space.

Besides that one sore point, everything else is basically still good. Work's good, the weather's starting to get really nice, and I'm having a good time with people. I feel that at this point my language has come along so far from before. I still feel woefully inadequate next to a lot of the volunteers from villages when they are speaking, and even the other volunteer here in Vanadzor, but I feel pretty confident. I teach all my English classes to kids in Armenian, minus the words I'm teaching of course. I bought a couple new English-Armenian and Armenian-English dictionaries the other day to replace the crappy one PC gives us, and I really enjoy looking up words I want to use and trying to learn them. I'm confident that my language skills are going to be pretty damn good by the time I leave.

Enjoy spring, y'all; huzzah for warmth and sunshine!

Friday, March 13, 2009

I'm a terrible blogger

It has been far, far too long since I made a post. For a while I was just really busy, and then I started putting it off because I knew how long it was going to end up considering the time between posts. Regardless, I'll try to cover the most important things over the last two months, and keep it short.

First off, I'm still in Armenia. As I think I noted in my last post, I'm beyond the point where leaving would do any good--but that's no longer the main driving force behind staying. I realized, after several comments I received, just how much bitching I was doing. While no one said that in so many words, in actuality that was the truth of the matter. I was being such a whiny bitch that I was missing out on the possibilities around me for real enjoyment.

Many people in Peace Corps--both volunteers and staff--have told us that Peace Corps is what we make of it; though I'd heard it umpteen times already, it really didn't sink in until after making the last blog post and getting some of the comments I did. So, I decided to stop the bitching and try to start seeing the positive in life around me. Since then, I have been so much happier. I've stopped being so bitter towards this country, its culture, and some of its people and am really starting to love where I am and what I'm doing. Finally, the entirety of the slogan "The hardest job you'll ever love" is starting to be true for me, instead of just the "hardest job" part.

A significant part of the reason I'm so much happier now, of course, is that I've started working with a new NGO that is entirely within my sphere of interest. It's really strange, the times when life decides to throw something your way. Not more than a week after making my last post, in which I complained about the inability of PCVs to do work that may be considered controversial, and noting specifically the areas of peace and corruption, a guy approached me in my organization about working on a new NGO he was starting called Peace Dialogue. The main focus of the NGO is to increase the amount of information that is passed between the government of Armenia and society on the state of the peace process in the region. The goal is basically to build grassroots support for an understanding of the peace process, for government to become more sensitive to the needs of society in this sphere, and for society to understand what the realistic options are for peace in the region. The project that we're working on is both huge and incredibly important.

Just as important, it has been incredibly intellectually stimulating for me, professionally rewarding, and has greatly increased the amount of time I'm actually spending doing work. I'm now actually able to work on a project that I feel is beneficial to Armenian society at large, and that is related to my academic and professional interests (I want to work in DC on Capitol Hill, and it will be of great benefit to have experiential as well as academic knowledge of peace and international relations issues).

I am, of course, still working at my primary organization, though I am in no way doing things related to environmental education there--which is fine with me, as I've found that it just isn't something that interests me. I have 5 English classes a week there, which are fine. I don't love doing them, but neither do I hate it. The kids are good, though this experience certainly hasn't given me any greater desire to work with children nor much more fondness for them. And, of course, still have my debate club at European Academy (no more theater club, just debate club, which makes me happy).

I think that finishes with the work side of things.

I've been having a hell of a good time enjoying the outdoors here the last couple months as well, and just enjoying spending time with new friends. I went snowboarding a while back on the one mountain in Armenia, which made me utterly and completely happy. Had I not been able to go boarding this year, it would have been the first time in six years that I hadn't been boarding at least once during the winter, so it was a relief to not break that chain. I really do love snowboarding with all my heart, and while the mountain was not that great, nor was the snow, it was just so good to be carving around on snow and barreling down a mountain at high speeds. And I managed to get my video of me boarding, instead of just pictures (though it's not terribly exciting).

I've also been making a ton of new acquaintances and friends through CouchSurfing. Being in Vanadzor gives me a great opportunity to host people, as this is one of the places people come to when traveling through Armenia. I've hosted people from France, Lithuania, Sweden, Germany, Ukraine, and Poland. Which is great, because now if I ever visit any of those countries (and I am at least visiting France this summer) I have a place to stay in any of them. Here's a picture of me with a couple of them.

And then here's just a couple other random pictures from hiking.

So, to summarize things, life is pretty fantastic these days. My outlook on life is far brighter, and I've got real, meaningful work. I continue to enjoy greatly the people I'm meeting and the experiences I'm having. It's really an incredible opportunity and experience.

Until next time.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mistakes and Critiques

It's inevitable to go through periods where you question your service, what the hell you're doing in Peace Corps, whether you should have gone somewhere else…but after going through that several times a month (and sometimes several times a week) I have come to the realization that this venture was, in no uncertain terms, a mistake. Alas, it's a mistake that I can't really do much about now, but it's been a mistake nonetheless.

I was particularly in a funk several weeks ago about the whole thing. I had just moved into my new apartment and was no longer living with a host family. Like all materialists, I had hoped desperately that living on my own again would be the catalyst I needed to start feeling a lot better about my service--i.e. hoping that some material change would make me happy again.

"Well that was stupid," you say. Okay, yeah it was; but I've never claimed I'm beyond stupidity.

So, there I was, sitting in my new apartment, still just as pissed off about things as before; actually, now I was more pissed off because my new situation hadn't really changed anything. The reality of the situation is that it's not my material conditions that were making me unhappy--hell, compared to many of the other PCVs I've got it pretty damned good in Vanadzor. Instead, I come back to the complaint I've made before, which is that the work that I do here is absolutely unsatisfying to me, in every way, shape, and form. Well, in my pissed off state I decided to send off a few emails to some people, and start seriously considering my options for early termination. In particular, I sent off an email to my former field director from when I was working for HRC and Indiana Equality, asking for his advice.

You see, I've begun fearing that not only was this a mistake in terms of me being unhappy with my work, but that I may have screwed myself in the former career that I was working on as a campaign and political operative (the title "operative" is perhaps being generous, but I was moving in that direction). By the time I get back to the US, it will have been four years since I was last on a campaign, in part because of Peace Corps and in part because I decided to finish up a second Bachelor's degree in political economy. The field director I speak of had given me several pieces of advice and opportunities that I had decided against in the past, but in retrospect were spot on. He told me that I shouldn't go back for that second degree, considering I already had one, and instead should continue working with IE if possible, or if not he'd help me find something. He gave me the opportunity to work on the Clinton campaign, not once but twice (yes, I realize she didn't get the nod, but I probably could have transitioned into the Obama campaign). He was right, every time, and had I taken him up I wouldn't be here right now.

I think if he had responded to my email with some options, I very likely would have early terminated at that point; unfortunately, he didn't respond (which worries me even more, but now is not the time for that), and so I've reconciled myself to being here for another year and a half. It's strange, some days, like today, that doesn't really even phase me because I'm in an extraordinarily good mood--I realize it doesn't sound like that from this post, but I am in a good mood today. In all honesty, time does fly here pretty fast. I mean, hell I'm already going on month eight of service, and 25% of my service is finished. But regardless of that, I am certain that I will always look back on this as a mistake. That's not to say there haven't been some extraordinarily good things to come out of it: the friends I've made that I am certain will be there throughout my life; the awesome stories that I have now; the beautiful pictures I've been able to take; the acquisition of a new language; among the most fun and memorable Christmases I've ever had. But that doesn't make it any less of a mistake--at the best a distraction.


Part of what's got me down on Peace Corps is the sense I have that what I'm doing is not really what will make this country better. Armenia's problems go far beyond environmental pollution, health issues, a lack of English speakers; I almost included a lack of businesses, but I actually think the Community Business Development sector does the most good here, in large part because I think what really helps development in most countries is greater access to the benefits of capitalism. The real problems here stem not from these other things so much as they do from severe geo-political problems in the region and endemic corruption (I have the feeling Peace Corps may ask me to redact that last sentence, which is part of my next criticism of this process, but I don't feel it's that controversial of a statement). These are problems I'm not able to have any part in solving, though they are among the most pressing here.

Now here comes my criticism of Peace Corps, or at least my criticism of part of its mission. There are three primary goals of the Peace Corps, as per the Peace Corps Act (taken from the website with my own categorization in bold).

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women. (Development)

  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. (Cross-cultural exchange)

  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. (Cross-cultural exchange)
Now, these are worthy goals, without any doubt, and theoretically I agree practically in full with them. The problem is with the reality of the situation, which is that Peace Corps is a risk-averse organization. Now, I mean "risk-averse" in a very specific way. Peace Corps is definitely a risk-taking organization when it comes to the implementation of new and different ways of thinking about development. The organization has been at the forefront of implementing teaching strategies for its education volunteers that align with the more radical thinking of people such as Paulo Freire; it's implementing business creation as a primary way of going about development; it understands that successful efforts come from integrating into communities, not flying in, putting people on the ground for six months in the capital city, and then expecting major results (this last has been a part of Peace Corps' uniqueness since its creation). Where it's risk-averse is in terms of coming into conflict with the local political and government conditions that exist, however contrary those are to development.

Now, one can argue that this risk-averse condition is necessary for Peace Corps to function. Peace Corps does, after all, maintain a long-term presence in countries that necessitates working with host-country governments and government officials, and its volunteers are working within communities. Perhaps it doesn't have the same capacity for risk as the US State Department has in a country, whose nationals are working out of the embassy and are, in many cases, more important to the host country government than are Peace Corps volunteers. But then, should it necessarily maintain its status as a development organization if its risk-averse attitude makes it so unable to challenge the counterproductive forces that exist in countries? Some people would argue that no, in fact, Peace Corps should not maintain its status as a development organization (though perhaps they don't make the argument on the same basis as I've laid out).

I would, however, argue that Peace Corps is a uniquely situated organization with great potential for developing countries, but in order for it to be truly successful it has to be more open to taking risks. The problem comes in part, however, in how the US government has traditionally distributed its aid throughout the world. Until recently--and still to some degree--the US government has distributed its aid without regard to how well it would be spent, under the auspices of maintaining friendly relations with countries so as to advance the national interest. While Peace Corps has been somewhat outside of this process, in that its goal is not so seemingly utilitarian, it has suffered in some ways from this same sort of thinking. It has gone into underdeveloped nations without much regard for how the structures of those nations may be counterproductive to the work it seeks to do. That would be fine, if its goals only related to the second and third ones I mentioned; after all, you don't need to be an incredibly effective development organization if you are merely trying to introduce other societies and Americans to different cultures and further cultural understanding.

But Peace Corps does--and I would argue should--view itself as, in part, a development organization. Here's what I argue that Peace Corps needs.

  1. Peace Corps needs to follow in the footsteps of the US Millennium Challenge Corporation in demanding that the countries it goes into either follow, or begin the process of adopting, certain standards of transparency and ethics in government. The Challenge Corporation demands that, in exchange for aid, the country should be taking steps to improve its accountability to its citizens; that it moves towards a process in which elections are free and fair; that it puts in place and adheres to anti-corruption efforts throughout all levels of government and the private sector.

  2. Peace Corps should make a broad assessment of the countries it's working in to determine if they follow these standards, or are taking real, sustained efforts to adopt them. Peace Corps should strongly consider pulling out of those countries in which its work is hindered by counterproductive institutions unless it can prove, with econometric data, that its work is making a significant improvement on the ground regardless. It should then refocus its mission towards countries that are benefiting from the US Millennium Challenge Corporation's aid, as those countries are ostensibly in line with, or moving to align with, the requirements for that Corporation's aid.

  3. Peace Corps should allow its volunteers to help in implementing projects that are focused towards improving government accountability, stemming corruption, and promoting democratic structures in the country; not just these, but in general projects that are right now considered too controversial. Peace Corps volunteers should be able to take greater risk in relation to the possibly counterproductive structures that exist within their communities, whether those be political or social. Ostensibly, this would take some of the burden off Peace Corps' argument that its need to work with governments over the long-term prevents this type of work; after all, if a government were to complain about PCVs shedding light on corrupt structures, and threaten to expel Peace Corps from the country, this would simply expose the lie that the country in question was taking real steps to improve its accountability to citizens and the world.
This type of risk-taking nature is absolutely necessary for Peace Corps to be an effective organization, and for its volunteers to feel like the work they're doing isn't all going to naught. I tell you, most of the time I just feel like I'm teaching people English so that they can get jobs outside of Armenia and never come back. I'll grant, the money in remittances that are sent back would help families here, but that's been happening for a while now without any significant improvement in this country outside of Yerevan. I reject the argument that Peace Corps has to be risk-averse if it wants to be effective--I argue, in fact, that Peace Corps' risk-averse nature severely hampers its ability to be effective, as much of its money and effort is wasted by counterproductive forces. If Peace Corps wants to continue holding onto the goal of being an effective development organization, it can't continue to insist on working within structures that are inhibiting its effectiveness. It is an unconscionable waste of time, effort, and tax-payer money, and is absolutely disheartening to its volunteers (or, at least, this volunteer).