Archive for October, 2010

Birthdays, Goodbyes, Snow?

October 31, 2010

Happy birthday to my sister and my grandpa! I hope you guys are having great birthdays. I can taste the pumpkin pie from here. Not really, but I wish.

Happy Halloween everyone! It’s not a holiday here, unfortunately. No costumes, pumpkins, or candy for me I’m afraid.

I awoke this morning in Shatvan, a neighboring PCV’s village, to exclamations of snow from other volunteers. I groggily rose from my sleeping bag and was indeed greeted with sights of snow. Part of me was thinking, “Whoa this is cool,” but another part was thinking, “Snow in October? Uh oh.”

The view from my window


It actually snowed quite a bit too, maybe half a foot. About an hour ago it got sunny and lumps of snow started falling off the roof, but now the horizon is a mix of blue sky and an ominous gray color. My guess is that the mountains will be white now for the next 6 months. Is fall over already?

The snow has been a distraction from the sad event of my good friend Morten leaving Armenia. He is now probably enjoying high speed internet, fresh milk, and Danish women. Before he departed, I was invited along with him and his parents to Yerevan for a couple days.

The Yerevan excursion marked my first 2 vacation days in PC. I will have 46 more over the next 2 years. It was a nice opportunity to get out into the capital city and explore some more. It feels like lately I’ve been there a lot, but in some way it always felt rushed. These 2 days allowed me to sit and observe a little more. We got to see a lot, including the Genocide Memorial, the National History Museum, the Cascade (and it’s ripoff museum of crappy modern art), and the outside of Matanadaran (archive of ancient literature). We walked a lot, which made all of us pretty tired by the end.

There were a couple off-the-beaten-path goals that Morten had for the Yerevan trip. The first was to feast on ponchik (poan-cheek) in the Grand Candy store. Ponchik is the closest thing Armenia has to a donut (that I’ve discovered so far). It’s a fried bread ball with icing inside. We eat them here in Vardenis for a cool 70 dram apiece. My counterpart told us about this place in Yerevan that is famous for ponchik, so we had to go. The store was very cool with a big appeal for kids. It was, dare I say, almost American. The ponchiks there were different than what we have here, more fried and with different icing. It was delicious of course.

The other goal was to find a mythical statue of old Armenian men performing Morten’s favorite Armenian hand gesture. Hand gestures are very much a part of the culture here, and to outsiders like us, are quite interesting and entertaining. I’ll leave it up to you to guess what this gesture might mean:

Morten's favorite

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The Armenian Wedding

October 26, 2010

On Sunday I attended an Armenian wedding party. It was a crazy experience in several ways.

The party was at the groom’s parents’ house. He was a 28 year old guy marrying a 26 year old girl. The men here tend to get married in their late 20s, and often they marry women who are several years younger. The groom was the son of my host father’s sister.

We arrived to the house early, which was cool because I got to see all the tables loaded up with food and drinks before any guests arrived. It was quite a spectacle to see 8 picnic tables in the family room covered in dinnerware, food, and beverages. My first thought was how much work and money it must take to do this. I guess the same holds true for America, but here there is no catering; the family does everything.

I was quickly designated as the cameraman for the evening. I had my own camera and was handed a camcorder as well. Part of me was glad to have a purpose there since I can’t really communicate that well. But when I was sitting down to eat and people were telling me to film something, it got a little old. But the camcorder only had 60 minutes and my camera doesn’t’ have a lot of memory so I was off duty after those things were full.

It didn’t take long for the eating and drinking to begin. In fact, some of the first drinking was happening outside as the men were preparing the khorovats (separate post on that soon, I promise). As guests were arriving I was constantly amazed that there was room for more people. Soon I was dragged into a bedroom where the hars (bride) was. I was told to film as her future mother-in-law sang to her and a bunch of other ladies in the room. I felt like an invader, the only male in the room, filming some tradition I didn’t understand.

There is a lot I could say here, but basically there were a ton of Armenians and me in this house, with loud live music, lots of food, lots of alcohol, and lots of dancing. There was also lots of claustrophobia.

Before the Main Event

Later the groom walked to the bride’s room and met her in full wedding attire. They kissed and then walked through the house to the main room with all the seating to take their places. Then there were some toasts. A while later some lady opened a suitcase that had some presents in it. The bride and groom also danced together while people came up and put money in their hands.

There were a couple cakes too. They have the same tradition of cutting the cake and then smudging some on each other’s faces. A waste of good cake if you ask me.

The food included mayonnaise salads, cold cuts, cheese, lavash, khorovats, kyufta (a dense meat product), fruits, fish, candy, and cakes. There was probably more that I’m forgetting right now.

Need to pee? Either hold it or climb over 50 people!

Vodka and cognac were flowing the whole time. After last week’s episode, I wasn’t too keen to drink much at all. I took the polite sips when toasted, but mostly watched as everyone around me was whisked away in a river of vodka.

That leads me to the climax of the story. As the night grew old, many of the guests had left. Still, there were about 30-40 core family members left dancing away. I thought the party was close to being over when a huge fight erupted. I was being summoned for a vodka toast when I heard shouting coming from the main room. The house mother then burst through the door crying and screaming. Then half of the family entered the room we were in and shut the door (I slipped out right before). Everyone was on high alert and there was a lot of commotion. I had no idea what was going on, so I just stood in the hallway by myself as people fluttered around. After 5 minutes or so things had calmed down a tiny bit. My host brother looked at me and just said, “Vardenis!” He made the drinking gesture and I told him I understood that sometimes drinking leads to interfamily battles on a wedding night. Okay, I just told him I understood, but that’s what I was thinking.

Then the next thing I knew there was a round 2, with even more shouting and screaming. This time it was mainly the men. My host father was going crazy and yelling at the father of the groom. The groom’s father wasn’t holding anything back either, shouting from the front door back at my father. Then my host brother started going nuts. He looked like he wanted to put the groom’s father in the sharpshooter for a quick tap-out. But his special meter wasn’t full, so he had to resort to taunting. Whatever my brother did, it must have been offensive, because my host mom and a bunch of other people pushed him out into the street. At this point it was clear that we weren’t welcome anymore. So I joined the family out in the street where the chaos continued. My father’s brother pushed his wife, who fell into a parked truck and remained down on the ground. I was completely shocked and went over to help her up. Keep in mind she is shaped like Bob Murray (for those not from Decatur, she was shaped like a pear. An obese pear.). She wanted none of my help. In fact, it was almost like I wasn’t even there. So I backed up and just kept watching the craziness unfold. There was more shouting. My host mom told me to sit in the car with my host sister. Okay. I sit in the car and am frantically looking out the window. At many times in Armenia I feel like a pet dog that is along for the ride but completely oblivious to what is going on or what anything means. This was one of those times. The only thing missing was me getting my wet nose all over the car window. Then they open the door and throw the pear lady in, who is apparently injured. She keeps saying “Vay mama jan”, which is something like “Oh dear mother”.

Then we went to the military hospital. But on every bump of the incredibly craggy roads here, there was a “VAY MAMA JAN!!!” coming out of the pear lady. I have to admit I wasn’t fond of her in the first place because she has an annoying voice and is really loud. But now she was really squeezing every drop of drama out of this injury. I wanted someone to shoot her just to put her out of her misery and give us some quiet(I know that’s bad but it’s the truth). We spent a bit at the military hospital and then moved her next door to the normal hospital for some sort of crude x ray. I could not believe the state of the hospital there. It shouldn’t surprise me, since everything here is in a certain state of disrepair, but it did nonetheless. It did not look like a place where you should be working on people. I wish my hospital-working friends could see it because it truly was out of this world.

So yeah, that’s about it. It was a surreal experience. I felt bad for the married couple because a.) they didn’t look like they even wanted the party in the first place and b.) it was ruined by a huge interfamily royal rumble. And despite the humor of much of the situation, there is a very ugly undertone. For instance, the husband who pushed his wife and broke/dislocated her shoulder showed absolutely no remorse. That bothered me. And then the aspect that the same guys who were toasting each other for peace a couple hours before were enraged at each other a bit later. It doesn’t make sense to me.

With all that said, I have to give a huge congratulations to my friends Ross and Sarah on their engagement. I meant to do it earlier but wanted to make sure it was public news first. I am so proud of you guys and happy for you. Please don’t have a crazy family fight at your wedding (I know you won’t)!

How to be Awkward

October 21, 2010

Since the last time we met, dear reader, I have fought a fire, cleaned barf with barf, and more. I’m not sure what to think of myself at this point.

My whole life I have succeeded in making simple tasks either awkward or challenging. Learning to tie my shoes was a nightmare, I thought I’d never figure out subtraction, and I still am not sure what to do with my arms/hands/upper body 30% of the time. Naturally, I found myself struggling again at my colleague’s house one night during dinner. As the only male present, I was asked to open a bottle of wine. Simple enough right? Not for Kevin. I kind of knew as soon as they handed me the bottle that I had a good chance of messing this up. With my emasculation imminent, I took the corkscrew and plunged it into the cork. After twisting it all the way in, I took the two handles and began to push down to draw out the cork. Snap. There goes the left handle. Okay, maybe I can salvage this situation. I’ll just grab the nubbin that is left and continue on. Snap. Shit, there goes the right one. Now the hostess is scrambling to find another wine opener, while my face is redder than the wine. She came back with a different one, which I was able to open the wine with after a few more awkward minutes of struggle.

The sunset from our camp building

There is so much to observe here too. My normal rule is that I watch what other people are doing and try to respond to things like they do. I didn’t realize how many social norms exist until suddenly the rules for every occasion were switched from American to Armenian. So I was staring out the window at our camp building on the final day of our weeklong workshop. The view alone is normally enough to entertain me, but at this moment there were also some small fires burning through the overgrown grass. That type of burning is pretty common here, so I thought nothing of it. Then the giant bush thing next to the grass caught fire. As the flames soared skyward and released a thick cloud of white smoke, I just kept watching and wondered if it was normal. A couple of other nearby Armenians seemed mesmerized, but not overly concerned. As the fire grew, one of my Armenian colleagues saw it and frantically started running around. I took that as my clue that it wasn’t normal for large things to burn along with the grass. But I have to say I was a bit surprised at how I was content just to watch the flames engulf the tree/bush. I jumped in to help the scrambling Armenian quell the fire. I started running down the hill to throw buckets of water on the bush. It was definitely a surreal moment to be fighting a fire, even if it wasn’t life threatening or that dangerous.

To cap off the random observations, I must share the embarrassing tale of a crazy night. Last night I got a phone call at 8:30 from my counterpart’s husband. He was with Morten, Morten’s host brother (and our colleague at the Y), and the Polish girls at a restaurant. After only understanding the word “restaurant”, he handed the phone to Morten. They wanted me to join and Morten thought they might have called a taxi for me, but he wasn’t sure. So I moved from my room to the family room in case a car appeared. Sure enough we heard a honk. After explaining to my taxi-driving host father that the taxi was for me, I hopped in. When I arrived at the restaurant, the vodka had been flowing for a while. We had a dance party in between vodka toasts and food. As I lost count of the vodka, we moved into a nearby room that had some other Armenians who are friends with Morten’s host brother. They wanted us to drink more, more, more. The next thing I knew it was 2:30 a.m. and I was in a taxi heading back home. I got home only to find the door locked, so I had to call the dad and ask him to let me in. Oops. Then I crashed into bed. I awoke in the morning to discover that I had somehow thrown up all over the floor next to the bed. I was shocked because I have never done anything like that before. Then I realized I had to clean it up. But then I was kind of happy because I hadn’t ralfed on the bed, and I also miraculously missed my cell phone, which was sitting unscathed on the floor next to the mess. I cleaned it up as best I could and went to work. This afternoon I realized that I used Barf to clean up my barf. Despite the shame/embarrassment of sharing this tale, I figured it was so odd that I had to share it. Hopefully I learned my lesson and it won’t happen again!

Love the Barf family

The Bus that Saved My Life

October 11, 2010

“I think the rain has stopped,” my Armenian tutor remarked as she peered out the window.

“Yeah, it looks okay,” I replied.

I hoisted my backpack to my shoulders and zipped up my jacket all the way, even if it meant it would poke me in the Adam’s apple.

As we said our goodbyes at the door, I slipped on my black leather shoes. These Merrells had a doomed fate from the day we laid eyes on them in Von Maur. They had already persevered through Water Day, cow poo, and countless miles on the craggy Armenian roads. But if they were to last for the whole 2 years, it would indeed be a feat to be reckoned with.

I strode out of my teacher’s home and immediately felt the sporadic rain drops. Upon further investigation, there was an ominous dark cloud heading my way. “Okay, I’ll just walk as fast as I can,” I thought, while considering the 15 minute journey ahead.
After scurrying past the tiny store where I normally fortify my cookie stash, I veered right off the main road. The pavement turned to gravel and dirt, which would take me all the way to the first school, near my house. I could see the raindrops tickling the puddles in the road. Now the wind was picking up. The “uh oh” feeling was just beginning to gain critical mass when an alarming lightening strike and corresponding sonic boom sealed the deal. This was not a good situation.

At this point I still had hope I could make it back in time. There were maybe 10 minutes left before I reached the safety of my house. Suddenly, that hope was dashed by a peculiar noise from afar. I heard what sounded like a large wind gusting through leaves in the distance. The noise grew stronger and stronger, until I saw, and then felt, the hail enveloping everything around me.

I was too far from my tutor’s house to go back, yet I was equally far from my own house. After a quick survey of my surroundings, I barreled through a large mud puddle into the only refuge in sight: the frame of a 40 year old bus. I climbed inside just as the hail reached its crescendo. The hail battered the broken windows of the bus and quickly accumulated on the various cardboard beer boxes that accompanied me.

The wind was fierce and the sky dark. As the hail turned into torrential rain, I wondered how I would get back. “What should I do?” I pondered, while stooping inside. I could go for it, but my backpack was full of books and a laptop. At the same time, the sky looked as if it could rain for hours.

I looked around and realized what a ridiculous situation I found myself in. Here I was, in Armenia, hunching over in the middle of a dilapidated soviet-era bus that had been completely stripped of all its components and filled with garbage, while a serious storm was taking place. As various Ladas plowed through the massive lakes that were forming on the road outside, I wondered if they could see the American hiding inside the bus.

My rock, my temple, my...bus

Then the rain began to break. My trust had been damaged, and I hesitated to exit my newfound fortress. A moment later a new round of hail stormed down. I had a moment of internal triumph for staying inside this glorious bus.

I looked at my watch. It had been 10 minutes of waiting. The wind and water were beginning to cut through my jacket. It was cold. The raindrops still pummeled the puddles in an intimidating fashion. It was quite a predicament, to be stuck in a bus neither here nor there in a storm that would last all night. I knew I had to make a break for it soon.

After 5 more minutes of waiting, the rain tapered to a moderate tempo. “This is it,” I thought, as I burst through the bus door like Kramer.

Running with a backpack is never easy. Running with a stuffed backpack in business casual while trying to avoid mud puddles is less easy, but funnier. Doing this in a foreign country during a downpour is possibly the funniest situation. The locals gave me an odd look as I jogged by. But when the rain resumed its monsoon quality a moment later, dignity seemed a small price to pay for dryness. The only thing left here was to sprint all the way home to safety. Despite burning lungs and tight legs, the imminent saturation was motivation enough to push me all the way down the road, through the school yard, and to the end of the alley where my host family lives.

As I scrambled inside the door, I explained to my dry family in terrible Armenian what just happened. All they could do was laugh. All I could do was wonder how odd they must think I am.

Fall in the Caucasus

October 5, 2010

The weather has taken a sudden swing for the disgusting. Since Armenia is roughly the same latitude as St. Louis and Decatur, it experiences the same seasons and roughly the same temperatures. That is where the comparisons end though.

About to swear in, with Madame Ambassador in the foreground

Armenia is much drier than the Midwest (although not as dry as the Southwest). The entire country is at least 350m above sea level as well. Actually, most of the country is mountainous, existing far above the 350 mark. Yerevan is around 900m, and Vardenis is 2000m (roughly 6500 feet, or over 1000 feet above Denver). The altitude and location of Vardenis in a mountain range mean that it gets cold here faster, and stays cold longer, than it does in the Midwest. For example, the days here might reach the high 60s or 70s, but the evenings are around 40 or lower. The other big difference is the housing. The houses here are all constructed of stone with no insulation. The rooms are big, the ceilings are high, and the floors are uncarpeted. Windows and doors often look like they’ve missed a generation of maintenance. So the buildings here are much colder than those in the states. Basically, what I’m trying to say is I’ve been sleeping in my sleeping bag inside my bed to stay warm. It happened a little earlier than I anticipated.

Other weather challenges include the combination of rain and the dusty, potholed roads. We have had several days of rain. The roads quickly become saturated. It makes walking home a game of avoiding puddles, Lake Vardenises (big puddles), and mud spots, all the while dodging the usual cow pies. Another aspect of the game is scurrying to avoid the spray from the Kamats dump truck that is barreling in behind you.

So the weather change has been one of the foremost things on my mind. The switching seasons provide another reminder of the passage of time here. When you are somewhere for 2 months but it’s summer the whole time, the passage of time is not obvious. But now that autumn is kicking our asses, there is a sense of “I’ve been here a while now” (the power just went out) that is setting in.

What else has been happening? Last week we had several visitors. One was a PCV from the A-14 group (2006) who stayed in Armenia for 3 years. I was invited to her old host family’s house for a great dinner. It was very insightful to chat with someone who was here for 3 years and really integrated into the community. Also an A-17 volunteer, my mentor, came to visit. Her visit was quite helpful because she went through a lot of the same things I’m going through now. She was also able to give me some tips for the workplace. And it’s always great to talk to someone who can relate to your current situation.

Saturday morning I went to Yerevan for the PC Initiatives weekend. Initiatives are basically extracurricular clubs we can join to become more involved. Normally I am a don’t-get-involved kind of guy, but I told myself I would do this, even if part of me is quite resistant. So I attended the HIV/AIDS meeting, and as a result have a little mini-project to work on. I think eventually I might be giving a presentation or something on AIDS to the local community.

With then-Country Director and US Ambassador. I'm a little bummed this one did not turn out better, but vochinch.

Besides that, the weekend was an excuse to get together with all the other volunteers and have a good time. I stayed in a hostel for the first time in my life. The building was nice, but I wasn’t a big fan of sleeping in a big room with a bunch of other drunkards (who happen to be PCVs). Unfortunately, the weather didn’t co-operate, so we weren’t able to get out and explore too much. The silver lining is that the bad weather forced me to use the local marshrutka system to get back to the bus stop that has marshrutkas to Vardenis. I had been scared to use this local system because I had no idea where any of the vans go. All they have is a little sign with a number (1-120) and a bunch of street names in Armenian. I read Armenian at the pace of a 3-toed tree sloth, so there is no way I can tell where one is going in the time it is stopped to excrete a few Armenians and envelop a few more. At times like these I tend to clam up and just go about my business. But on this very rainy day, I was forced to poke my head out of my shell and use my Armenian to figure out which number went to my bus station. As is the case with most things you psych yourself out on, it was actually much easier than I thought. One more piece of confidence in the back pocket for living in this country.

Monday my program director made a visit. It was a good meeting where we talked with my counterpart about the upcoming months and expectations. I now have a better feeling about my role there and what I will be doing in the future.

Today was a cool day because we went to the camp building to host some partners. Three Americans, 2 from LA and 1 from Chicago, and a Dutchman showed up to tour the facility. They all had ties to YMCA. The National Y here is exploring a partnership with LA area YMCAs, which I whole-heartedly agree with. There are 1 million Armenians living in LA, so it makes sense that they would partner with Armenian YMCAs. They had to leave early, which meant that the rest of us gorged ourselves on the delicious pig khorovats (barbecue). I promise to do a post dedicated to the art of khorovats.

I just called my first host family because it’s the dad’s birthday. Talking on the phone in Armenian is always an awkward, nervous experience for me. But at the same time it’s kind of cool to think of the progress, that I can actually have a 3-year old conversation on the phone. It’s always interesting to see how excited they are when I call. It drives home the observation I’ve had many times here: Armenians really value their guests and become attached quickly. One of my language teachers told me that after we said goodbyes and left Solak, my host dad could barely control his emotions. In an attempt to salvage his manhood, he tried to smoke, but he lit the cigarette at the wrong end. All this from a guy I thought maybe didn’t even like me!

Finally, you may be wondering about the pictures. I just got these from the PC Office. They are from our swearing-in ceremony on August 6th. Aveli lav ush e kan yerpek (Better late than never).