Archive for October, 2011

How to Catch a Cold

October 22, 2011

Seventeen months of experience often makes me feel like a crusty sea-hardy captain navigating the waves of living in Armenia without breaking a sweat. Nothing phases me anymore. Nothing surprises me anymore. And I am harder pressed to find the learning experiences that were so abundant for so long. But, 17 months is 17 months, not 17 years, so there are still some days that kick my ass.

I recently had one of these days. It started out with a slight twinge in the stomach. Not cramping, not bloating, not pain, not nausea, not anything I can describe. Just a little feeling of “all is not well”. While not particularly hungry, I forced down some cream of wheat* for breakfast to get me started off right. I then laid down for 10 minutes before heading off to the Y.

*I recently learned the Armenians consider cream of wheat to be baby food. It’s one of my 2 go-to breakfasts in country. I can only imagine what the store clerks must be thinking when the giant male American constantly patronizes their stores for baby food.

At the Y things went from weird to worse. Already decked out in a button down and brown sweater (which doesn’t match anything in my wardrobe but I’d rather be warm, sorry fashionistas), I found myself colder than usual. I resorted to putting on my jacket. I was also quite sleepy and a bit achey. I wasn’t sure if these symptoms were from illness or just from other things (waking up early, working out, cold weather).

After a couple hours it became obvious that I had a fever. I went from cold to hot and back again over and over. The achiness continued and all of the sudden I felt like it was the onset of flu. On top of this, I had no appetite, which was the first sign of something wrong to my coworkers. It was also the first in a long series of volleys back and forth with them about my new illness.

Kevin, eat cake!
No, I don’t want any thanks.
No, come on, it’s really good.
No, seriously.
(Sets a plate of cake on my computer)


Why didn’t you eat the cake?
I don’t have an appetite.
Maybe I’m sick?
Eat the cake!!

They are notoriously pushy when it comes to anything hospitality-related. They wanted me to eat that cake as if their reputations were staked on it. That led to more questioning.

You’re red Kevin! You’re sick.
Yeah, maybe.
Is your nose runny?
Does your throat hurt?
What’s wrong?
I have a temperature I think.

3 women come feel my cheeks and forehead simultaneously, including 1 of my English club students.

Wow, you really are sick Kevin. Take some cake and go home.
I don’t want the cake.
Why are you sick?
I don’t know.
It’s because you wore a polo shirt this week.

According to Armenians there are many ways to get sick. The common theme amongst all, besides lunacy, is coldness. Okay, sure you can get sick from being cold perhaps. But I would like to suggest viruses as the primary cause of a cold! There is something called science that can back me up.

Were your feet cold?
If your feet are cold, you will get sick.
I haven’t heard that.
But why are you sick?
Maybe I ate something bad.
Onion maybe.
No, onion makes you healthy, not sick.

Did you throw up? (asked in front of the whole office)

There is always the “cultural sensitivity” to worry about. What does that mean in non-Peace Corps parlance? It means tiptoeing on eggshells at almost all times and resisting the urge to revert to what you would do back home, which in this case would be to go berserk at the madness they were offering.

Kevin, eat a wafer!
No, I don’t want it.
Eat the wafer!!!
I’m being serious, I don’t want the (f’ing) wafer.
HE DOESN’T WANT THE WAFER. (Varditer’s husband, the only other man in the room, aka The Boss)

Usually I am more than patient. But that day I couldn’t handle much more. It was a mistake to stay there. I should have left right away. To endure their badgering was almost worse than being sick. Finally, after turning red in the face a few more times (not from fever but from embarrassment at more fussing over me) I left to go home. I learned my lesson.

Although at home I just wanted to escape and not be bothered, I knew they wanted to help me. Varditer wanted to make me food. I told her 10 times that I didn’t want it. But I knew to leave my phone on, even though all I wanted to do was sleep, so that she could call me and give me the food. Sure enough, 3 hours later she had her son bring over food. And then another coworker called to check in. And another texted. And Varditer called the next morning to see if I was okay. And she told me she couldn’t sleep and was looking across the street at my windows to see if my lights were on or off during the night. I’m glad I didn’t let the American independent streak offend them, because it’s obvious that they care, even if sometimes it’s hard to handle.


Stupid Things and Redemption

October 17, 2011

We all do stupid things. Let’s face it. I try to learn from mine and not repeat them. What better way to do that than share with my readers some of my recent FAILS??

A Spicy Fail
After cooking a nice dinner that included pasta (who would have guessed) and a sauce that was kickin’ with some hot green pepper, I passed out while awaiting the landlord who never came. Upon awakening and not being sure of what was going on, the only thing I did know was that my contacts needed to come out. Nothing worse than dry, spot-welded-on contacts upon awaking from a surprise nap. So I stumbled into the bathroom and proceeded to touch my eyeball with unwashed spicy fingers, bringing on a nice wholesome burning sensation. I then washed my hands quickly before flushing the eye with warm water. Okay, all better. I then went to take the other one out and it also burned quite nicely despite the hand washing. I couldn’t help but feel like the guy my dad always told us about at work who, while showing the officials how he lost his finger in some machinery, lost another finger mimicking the motion.

A Stinky Fail
No, this has nothing to do with the infamous PCV GI tract. I was cooking some beans and skyping, which is something I often do (since the beans take so long to cook). But for some reason the water evaporated faster than normal and a terrible smell filled the whole apartment. Beans kind of stink anyway when you cook them, but when you burn them they smell really bad! So not only did I waste a good pot of beans that I had nurtured all day soaking and then cooking, I was also a hungry dude feeling the pangs of failure in between stomach growls.

My contacts are back to normal and feel great, Evelyn invited me over for a delicious dinner right after the bean incident, and the Cardinals are going to the World Series. Life is good!

Installing a Heater as a Microcosm of Life in Armenia

October 16, 2011

There are times when I wonder if I am really giving you the accurate picture of life in Armenia. I’m not sure what your impression is at this point other than you know it’s somehow different and that there are some weird Americans living there.

Well, as I type there is a little uninstalled Persian heater taunting me from my peripheral vision. This guy is gonna provide the perfect opportunity to give you a taste of how things go down here.

Heater, or representation of my lack of independence?

Last winter I moved into my apartment. Since I was moving from a room that my host family used as their refrigerator before I lived there, the apartment felt relatively warm. I was content with my little PC electric radiator thingy. Who cares if I can see my own breath still?

That attitude persisted for a month or two, but I finally did admit that it was pretty cold in my apartment. This observation was made more obvious by Aga’s constant mockery of my freezing apartment. She had a Persian heater which made her place very comfortable. “That would be nice,” I thought, but it was already late in the winter and didn’t seem to be that important. What I didn’t realize is that Cold Inside lasts until like early May. If I could do it over again I would not go through being cold like that.

So, that brings us to Fall 2011. Suddenly the weather changes and I know it’s time to act on getting a heater. The Y had an extra one that they said I could use. Perfect.

Somewhere in the middle of September I mentioned to my counterpart that I needed the heater. She agreed and suggested I ask someone at the Y to help me take it to my apartment in a car. Deal!

It was a few days until I had a chance to ask the guy. He agreed that we could do it that day after work. But when I left he wasn’t there, so we weren’t able to hook up.

Then, he didn’t show up for 2 more weeks. This is normal. I didn’t sweat it, but just kept telling myself in a calm voice, “It’s Armenia – we’ll get it figured out before New Year’s hopefully.” After all, I could keep warm with the heater I already have for a while.

Finally, this past Thursday we were able to haul the thing and its exhaust pipes up to my apartment. Victory! Sweet, sweet victory.

But that was like winning 1 game of a 5 game divisional series (just like when the Cardinals beat the “best” team in baseball last week, no big deal). I still need a couple more victories, and thus the heater mocks me and my permanently cold fingers as I type this.

The next step is getting the landlord to come over and help cut a hole in the concrete wall to my bathroom in order to run the exhaust pipes through. I planned to make some progress on this yesterday, which also happened to be the day I always pay rent. Money is a good reason for someone to come to your house, right? I thought so. But after calling him in the afternoon and then waiting to hear a knock on the door the rest of the day, I finally gave up at 11:00 and went to bed. I haven’t heard from him today so no telling what is up. Maybe he forgot, maybe he was too busy, or maybe he is now a migrant worker in Russia. And this is one of the more reliable guys, who asked me once why I was 2 days late on paying my rent.

But wait, there are 2 more hurdles. I need a couple more exhaust pipes to make it all the way to the exhaust vent in the bathroom. I’m not sure where I can get those. We also need the gas company to come and unlock the gas line that will be used for the heater.

All things considered, I will be happy if the heater is installed and working before I leave for America in early November. And so a task that would take 1, maybe 2 days back home to accomplish ends up taking weeks and months. It demonstrates also the hurdles that make me dependent on the locals and the way they do things. Language barriers, lack of a vehicle, lack of power tools, and lack of ability to deal with the gas company…

A Dream Deferred (But Not Really)

October 9, 2011

I hesitated in publishing this post. I still am not sure if it’s something I should be sharing or not. For some reason it feels more intimate than any of the other stuff I put on here. However, I do have a newfound respect for putting yourself out there on the internet. People like to read one’s inner secrets. I feel exposed. I feel naked. But this is my life.

Have you ever had a personal dream that is kind of silly, but which you wanted to accomplish nonetheless? A goal that if you tell someone about it, even if it’s a close friend, they might look at you strangely or laugh.

I had a dream of being a dram millionaire. Saving, over the course of 27 months of Peace Corps service, a MILLION dram. I liked the goal for several reasons. It meant living life in a smart way. It was slightly ridiculous in that you could even dream to save such an amount while supposedly living on a stipend that puts you on par with the locals in your community. And it was just funny too – to be a millionaire, but in a currency where that doesn’t exactly translate into a high-tax bracket existence. But most of all, I liked this idea because I knew it was possible. My sitemate and mentor Wayne was able to do this after 2 years of hard work.

So, as soon as I came to Vardenis I got to work. I set up a spreadsheet to track my expenses. I carefully monitored my bank balance. Got a receipt before and after using the ATM. Entered in the little receipt balances every now and then whenever the receipts started making my wallet a bit too fat. That was the due diligence, data gathering part.

But most of the work was in making decisions and living a certain way. Choosing to take a local marshrutka instead of a taxi in Yerevan. Avoiding staying overnight in Yerevan whenever possible. Smart food shopping. Limiting the alcohol. Using the phone and internet as a limited resource. Basically, a lot of it was accepting life as it is here instead of paying to get rid of a lot of the inconveniences we face.

Anyway, I found myself with a bank balance hovering around the 600,000 mark lately. I was averaging 40,000 dram in savings a month since moving out of my host family. I was on track to hit the 1,000,000 milestone in July 2012, right before the end of my service. I was pretty proud of that, especially looking around and seeing a bunch of people in my group in disbelief that you could do such a thing and still enjoy yourself, see the country, go to Yerevan, and meet with other volunteers.

Over my months here I have often wondered what to do with my future 1,000,000. Besides taking a photo of the ATM and sending it to my friend who also likes to dream about the same thing, I wasn’t sure what I would do. That amount is more than a couple thousand dollars. So it is enticing to take that money to do some traveling on the way home. Or to just save it (after all, 2 years of almost no income does hurt the personal savings rate back home). But I also thought about giving some of it to my host family or to other people who could use it to buy something nice for themselves. After all, this money is given to us as volunteers to be spent in the country, right? Armenia probably needs the money more than America does.

So these 2 thoughts, saving a million dram and what to do with it, were always floating around in the back of my mind guiding my actions. What to do with my mil always seemed like an issue to deal with on a distant day in the future.

Then, the other day I was helping my friend harvest the potatoes from her garden. She is a person whose character shines through in the way she lives her life. A genuine, happy-with-what-she-has, sweet, nice, caring 60-something year old widow. She is the kind of person that you are happy to help just because of who she is. So when I learned that she was going to sell her cow to pay for an operation, the gears started slowly grinding in my head.

It wasn’t immediate. I didn’t see the big picture until the next morning. After breakfast I sat there reading Season of Life, which is a book that my mom sent me. It’s about being a man for others. Its main character works at redefining what it is to be a man. No false masculinity. Being a man is not based on athletic accomplishment, sexual conquest, or paycheck.

“Masculinity ought to be defined in terms of relationships. It ought to be taught in terms of the capacity to love and to be loved. If you look over your life at the end of it…life wouldn’t be measured in terms of success based on what you’ve acquired or achieved or what you own. The only thing that’s really going to matter is the relationships that you had. It’s gonna come down to this: What kind of father were you? What kind of husband were you? What kind of coach or teammate were you? What kind of son were you? What kind of brother were you? What kind of friend were you? Success comes in terms of relationships. And I think the second criterion – the only other criterion for masculinity – is that all of us ought to have some kind of cause, some kind of purpose in our lives that’s bigger than our own individual hopes, dreams, wants, and desires. At the end of our life, we ought to be able to look back over it from our deathbed and know that somehow the world was a better place because we lived, we loved, we were other-centered, other-focused.” – Joe Ehrmann Season of Life

Finally the idea precipitated out of the quite random clouds of ideas that float around in my brain at any given moment. I have money. I don’t need it. She doesn’t have money. She needs it. Boom.

There were some questions swirling in my head when I first thought about it. Will people think I am a bank? I wonder if it’s possible to withdraw so much money? Will she accept the money? Is this bad for the legacy of other volunteers? Am I really gonna do this?

But there was also a warm confidence with this decision that quickly extinguished all those worries.

I know that if it wasn’t for reading that book at that time, I might not have thought of it. If I didn’t see Wayne generously giving away his million before he left, I might not have thought about it. If I wasn’t harvesting potatoes with her, I definitely wouldn’t have thought about it. It was a culmination of a lot of things, some which I can identify and others that I can’t, which led to me handing over the majority of my little fortune yesterday.

So, now I won’t be a dram millionaire. In that way, my dream is deferred. But more importantly I realized that it’s not important to have my bank account be a certain number. What I’m grateful for is that a.) I am in a situation to save that much money and b.) this opportunity presented itself. Now I know that money is going to a person who really needs it.

Actually, I don’t miss the money one bit. And last night I slept like a rock for 10 hours after thanking God for everyone and everything I have in my life.

Why the hesitation in publishing? Mainly I don’t want to brag about a good deed. I don’t want to put this out here just to hear praise. But, if I am completely honest, I am proud of myself for doing it. After considering the repercussions of posting these thoughts, I decided that it’s worth it. It’s worth it to make it known that this happened in hopes that it may one day inspire another person (sharing something so that you can be an inspiration for others – [sarcasm]now that is the most modest thing I’ve done in a while[/sarcasm]). I am not going to go around talking about this with people in the community or even my other friends in Peace Corps. Maybe they will find this blog and find out that way, which is fine. But I did want to share it directly with you, my readers, who are also my main supporters here. I guess it is a way of saying thanks. Thanks for supporting me.

The Weather and Other Topical Things

October 3, 2011

The first day of Fall was September 23rd I think. However, that doesn’t mean much in Armenia as the calendar could easily consist of just 2 seasons: Cold Inside and Not Cold Inside. Please see the graph below (presented to the A-19s during a session on Vardenis):

Pie Chart. Pumpkin Pie. Soon.

Cold Inside started last week. I am now typing this through fingerless gloves while wearing a hat and the hood of my sweatshirt. I look like a homeless rapper from the future with bad style.

Last year when Cold Inside started it was kind of neat. It meant that time was passing. It was the first thing that made it feel as if time was passing since I arrived. There was also a curiosity factor. How cold will it be? How much snow? How long will it last?

Now I know the answers to those questions already: Cold, a lot (but not a ton), and forever. Actually 8 months. But that is 67% of the year, so it might as well be forever when it’s early October. Knowing these answers makes the change of seasons come with a bit more dread this year. I am still pumped and quite capable of conquering another winter in Armenia, but I’m also glad it will be my last. This year should be a lot better since I will soon have a gas heater in my apartment. No more seeing my breath in here business.

With Cold Inside comes other things that are nice. Snow on the mountains happens. It happened a few days ago for the first time and elicited the same gasp from me that it did last year. Something about it is so striking and beautiful. The nearby mountains will probably go through a few melt cycles before the snow settles in for good. But the distant peaks are already drenched in white and will stay that way until May or June.

Snow in Vardenis: The Cute Puppy Stage

Besides the change in weather, things are plugging along like usual. I go to the Y everyday and get an amount of work done that is proportional to the mixture of my motivation, ability to self-start, outside distractions, and special sauce. My language learning has dipped off a bit as I am not going to lessons as often now that my teacher has 2 more PCVs. That’s okay with me as I know my own motivation has waned a bit and studying at home happens almost never now.

Still, I have had fun learning some barbar (dialect) from people at work. I let it slip a few weeks ago that I know some, which they found very entertaining. You see, each area of Armenia has its own dialect. The dialects vary in proximity to “clean” Armenian that is spoken in Yerevan. Without knowing what it’s like in the rest of the outer regions, I feel safe venturing a guess that Vardenis is on the extreme edge of that range. The dialects are something that make the regions unique and individual. Armenians can distinguish where someone is from fairly quickly based on how they speak (similar to us with US accents but remember Armenia is the size of Maryland and has more diversity in a dialect’s vocabulary and less in actual intonation/pronunciation). Actually, I pulled this off successfully for the first time recently in a marshrutka when I heard a guy use some Gyumri barbar. Anyway, the uniqueness of the dialect combined with almost no foreigners speaking their language makes it pretty funny for Armenians to hear me say something in their local dialect. Today the girls in my English club asked me to make up a dialogue in barbar. I obliged and they were nearly on the floor laughing. But the interesting thing for me was after I finished one said, “You say it so sweetly. To have a true Vardenis dialect you need to say it rudely.”* Yes, they use rude to describe languages. French is a “rude” language to them. I think it means rough.

*Unfortunately, this was said in Armenian and not English (English club fail). Fortunately, I understood her (language learning/cultural integration win). A small taste of the confusing-sense-of-self-worth sandwich that is Peace Corps.

In a couple days I will have a CouchSurfer at my place. I’ve only hosted one, but it was an interesting experience. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s worth a read. Basically it’s a service that lets people connect online and find free places to stay while traveling. It’s completely free and works on a referral system. I know the guy coming is not going to kill me because he’s gotten really good feedback from everyone he’s stayed with.

I am also starting to think a lot about my trip to America in November. While it will be a much appreciated reprieve, I think it will also be a whirlwind. I’m starting to make a list of things I need to get done to be prepared for that. The implications of going home for a while aren’t really hitting me yet, but of course it will and you’ll likely read about it here in another post.

Overall, I’m in a good spot in my service right now. I’ve got some cool stuff to look forward to as far as vacations go. And there’s the big New Year around the corner too. I am enjoying myself for the most part. The urge to get something substantial done is lighting a fire under my butt a bit, but the pace of life and lackadaisical attitude here are a squirt bottle to my flame. The fear and temptation of thinking about life after Peace Corps is enough to confuse me. The fact is, over 16 months in and I still can’t say I have a passion I wish to pursue. But maybe the other fact is that that’s okay. I know I’m in the middle of a passion and need to enjoy it as much as I can. That’s enough for now.

On that ending note, please go check out Mr. Money Moustache. He wrote a great article on Stoicism today. But his blog is all about personal finance and making smart choices in your life. I guarantee you’ll learn something useful. It’s my favorite site on the web.