Archive for November, 2011

The Trip

November 30, 2011

Well, the fastest 2 weeks of my life are over.  I did so much, traveled so far, and ate everything.  I’m still having trouble processing the whole thing.  Maybe writing this will help me realize that it actually happened.

As I’ve done for past trips, I’ll give you the quick summary of what I did:

Nov 9:  Vardenis, Yerevan – Ran errands and went to airport

Nov 10:  Yerevan, Prague, Warsaw, Chicago, Decatur – How is that even possible?

Nov 11:  Decatur, St. Louis – Friends reunion

Nov 12:  St. Louis – Wedding

Nov 13:  St. Louis – St. Louis touristy stuff

Nov 14:  St. Louis, Decatur – School visit, AT&T visit, Family reunion

Nov 15:  Decatur – A day with the sister, ADM

Nov 16:  Decatur – Millikin

Nov 17:  Decatur – Grandparents, Illini game

Nov 18:  Decatur – Rest

Nov 19:  Decatur – 5K, Christmas parade

Nov 20:  Decatur – Fake Thanksgiving

Nov 21:  Decatur, Chicago – Peter, Pizza, Parents

Nov 22:  Chicago – Tour of the city

Nov 23:  Chicago – Get ready to leave

Nov 24:  Warsaw – This day barely existed due to time zone changes

Nov 25:  Warsaw, Prague – More airports

Nov 26:  Yerevan, Vardenis – Airports and marshrutkas

It was a lot of travel, especially at the end.  Trains, metros, buses, taxis, walking, planes, marshrutkas.  And in what seems like a slap in the face, at the end of the trip when you’re the most tired and in the worst mood, you have the least dignified form of transport (marshrutkas) with luggage.  That’s not fun.

So, the excuse to go home was Ross and Sarah’s wedding.  That happened at the very beginning and was a great way to see a large amount of people at once.  Their wedding was amazing of course.  I even prepared a little video for them that you can see here if you haven’t already.

But the real meat of the trip was just staying in Decatur to spend time with my parents and sister.  That part of the trip really flew by and 1 week felt like just a couple days.

Another focus of the trip was reconnecting with friends.  While most of my friends live in St. Louis, I had to get some time in with Peter as well.  That was a good excuse to spend some time in Chicago (which is always exciting for me).  Plus, I flew out of Chicago anyway, so it made sense to go there.

It seems to me that I planned the trip in the right way.  I spent time in 3 different places, got to see almost everyone, and never felt that I spent too much time in one place (okay, maybe that would be an impossible feeling to have on a 2 week trip after a 1.5 year absence).

“But how WAS it Kevin???”

Hmmm…it was wonderful.  After feeling like an alien, an outsider so many times in Armenia, it felt so nice to go back to a place where I belong.  Being a foreigner takes a toll on my soul, especially in a homogenous place like Armenia.  Even walking in the airports in Prague and Warsaw is a relief as at least I’m not drawing attention everywhere I go.

I was able to eat so much good food during the visit…a cascade of flavors that hadn’t met my taste buds in far too long.  There was seafood, Italian, Mexican, pumpkin pie, brownies, fountain Coke, pizza, cheeseburgers, cereal, cold milk, cookies, sandwiches, cupcakes, biscuits, Christmas breakfast, sloppy joes, a buffalo chicken sandwich, good beer, and so much more.  As I just wrote that, someone in my office walked by and asked why I am so sad right now.  She would be sad too if she couldn’t eat these wonderful things on a regular basis.

There was no culture shock to speak of.  That surprised me.  Maybe if you stay for longer than 2 weeks it sets in, but being back in America was like putting on an old pair of really comfortable shoes that you love.  It felt right.  There were a couple small things that surprised me, like the extremely casual English used by the waiters at the first restaurant I set foot in.  Or the ease with which I could do everything.  If I didn’t know something I could just ask and it was so easy since I knew all the words already.  But that wasn’t so surprising as it was just enjoyable.  There was a moment about 3 days in when I was at my hotel and realized how nice it was to blend in without getting stared at.

One thing that was very true, which I’ve heard from basically every returned PCV, is that the window for talking about your experience is either non-existent or about 2 or 3 minutes depending on the person.  I suppressed the urge to say, “In Armenia…” on multiple occasions because I know people just don’t really care or can’t relate.  There is so much I can spew about it at any given moment.  And the people you see back home have been doing their own things for 1.5 years, and of course they don’t spill their guts about that, so why should I expect different treatment?  And I probably wouldn’t want to hear them ramble on about some weird foreign country that I know nothing about.  Still there is a slight sadness there in knowing that the people you can really connect with on this issue, the other PCVs you serve with, will be sprinkled around the world after your service instead of at your side when you absolutely need to make a comparison to some trivial thing in Armenia.  However, despite all that I still laid down a whole lot of Uh HUH!s and other Armenianisms during my time home.  Those are things I’ll always do just for the fun of it, whether other people understand it or not.

Now I must be honest, there was one occasion where the opportunity to rant about Armenia presented itself:  I visited my Peace Corps World Wide Schools class in St. Louis.  It was a very cool experience.  I shared Armenian candy with them, pictures, and answered questions.  Seeing their optimism and fascination with a foreign culture was great for me.  I felt privileged to be able to visit my class, as I think most volunteers don’t get such a chance.

There was also an odd feeling that surfaced:  it felt almost as though I had never left.  Everyone was doing the same things and everything looked the same.  The passage of time was almost not evident at all.  The one thing that stood out was the aging of our dog Daisy, who definitely either forgot who I was or has just become a bit cold hearted in old age.  I could really feel a difference in her reaction to me.  But if we translate a 1.5 year human absence to dog years, you get a 10.5 year absence.  If I saw you after 10.5 years I would also probably be like, “What the hell, man?!”

I can say it didn’t feel like I spent enough time there.  America felt so good.  I didn’t want to leave.  Everything was so luxurious.  I had a new appreciation for the greatness of our country.  Our streets and cities are clean.  We have everything we could ever want and more.  We are open and friendly.  It is such a great place…I really can’t express myself here.

That’s basically my analysis of the trip home.  You might be thinking that I could have said more, and I definitely could have, but I’m going to just cut it off here.  I’ll write again soon on the transition back to Armenia.  Now, check out some pictures from the trip.  Also, special thanks to my parents for everything they did during the visit.

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Bratastic

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Just 4 studs, no big deal

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A small part of my trail of devastation...

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...which left me easy prey

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Obligatory Bean shot

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Puffy jacket attack!

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This pretty much sums up the whole trip

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Getting Ready for America

November 8, 2011

Eighteen months ago I was getting ready for the biggest trip of my life. Now, here I am, getting ready to make the return trip. There are several major differences this time around. I’m packing for 2 weeks instead of 2 years. I know the language. I (think I) know what to expect.

My apartment is a mess with the ongoing packing process. That is driving me nuts. It also gives me the transient feeling you get whenever you are getting ready to move or just settled somewhere. I don’t like that feeling.

Trying to tie all the loose ends, make sure I pack everything I need and want, and planning the trip…fun on one hand and stressful on the other. Still, the stress is minimal at best and completely worth it. The opportunity to see my family, friends, and attend some of my best friends’ wedding is wonderful.

It also serves as a nice break and vacation from Armenia. Some things here have been driving me crazy lately so it will be good to do a cultural 180. I know I have some reverse culture shock ahead of me, but I’m actually looking forward to what that is like. Being shocked by the culture you grew up in…now there’s something that not everybody gets to experience. Will the endless, ubiquitous, inane cell phone conversations that I will be fully able to understand drive me completely crazy? It’s likely. Will I succumb to panic attacks in the supermarket when faced with 25 different kinds of deodorant? I think so. Will that first bite into a medium-well cheddar burger make me reconsider ever going back to Armenia? Absolutely!

I think it will be a marbled experience, with swirls of glitter-farting-unicorns-flying-over-marshmallow-rainbows-wonderfulness mixed in with splotches of this-is-my-culture-and-I-don’t-know-how-I-feel-about-all-of-it-confusion.

In any case, time will be short and I hope that that fact doesn’t piss anyone off who wants to see me. To anyone who might wind up on the short end of the IceNugget visit stick, I assure you that I will again be back in the summer and will have much more time to properly catch up with everyone.

With that, don’t expect anything new here until after Thanksgiving. I hope you all have a great holiday!

Berd

November 1, 2011

One thing that can really make being away from home difficult is missing holidays. The beautiful thing about PC is that you have your own family of crazy PCVs who are more than willing to go to great lengths in order to celebrate American holidays in strange lands throughout the world.

Most people back home might think it’s crazy to ride in crappy public transportation for 6 hours one way just to see some Americans and sleep on the floor of a crowded cold house. But for us, it’s not only exciting, it’s a way of life! And so when we were invited to Halloween in Berd we made the trek.

Berd is in Tavush Marz. Sharp readers might remember that Tavush Marz was one of two that I had not visited when I wrote about my journey to the south. Despite being our northern neighbor, Berd is pretty hard to get to. One marshrutka per day from Yerevan in the morning is all they have. In contrast, Vardenis, which isn’t much bigger (but has a bigger footprint with a ton of villages) has at least one marshrutka leave Yerevan every hour from 9 to 6. Taking a taxi from Vardenis takes at least 4 hours. Going through the Yerevan hub takes 6 hours. So it’s a difficult destination, which means that it was my first and last trip to Berd.

On the way there we were able to take a taxi, as there were 4 of us wanting to go from Vardenis. This was a rare opportunity to go up the east side of the lake. We went through Chambarak, a quaint regional center in northern Gegharkunik Marz (my marz) that is definitely forgotten about more often than remembered. Similar to Vardenis, it has a large refugee population in its region. But Chambarak is much closer to the border and I believe had even more serious problems related to the war. It was great to pass through this place and see it with my own eyes. It was surprisingly beautiful with some rolling hills, a small river, and snow frosted pine trees on top of the hills.

Sour Water

Just past Chambarak is a village called Ttujur. The village name means sour water. Sure enough, we stopped at the source of the ttu jur. A concrete well with large stones contained bubbling orange water. Our taxi driver did not hesitate to grab the communal cups that were sitting on a ledge next to the well and begin filling them for us. Setting aside our American germaphobia (a valuable skill in Armenia) and disregarding all those training sessions on staying faithful to the big white water filter buckets we tasted this bizarre water. It was like mineral water and then some. Pushing its way through the bubbly sensation was the strong flavor of ground minerals. Someone mentioned it was like Jermuk (a famous mineral water here) but more sulfuric. We decided that if any of us fell ill it would be due to the ttu jur. Of course I have had no problems so far.

Laura enjoying some ttu jur

Ttujur marked the end of our nice paved road. We turned onto a rarely used mountain pass that leads directly to Berd. Distance wise it was a shortcut, at 130 km from Vardenis. Time wise I’m not so sure. The other route was over 200 km but the road is better. We averaged only around 40 km/hour on the snowy, foggy, and muddy road filled with potholes. Still, the road had a more mild path than the switchbacks we would take on the main road on the way back home. It was a mysterious journey. We couldn’t see far at all. We only passed 2 cars during 2 hours on the road. And every time I saw a structure dotted into the mountain side, I realized quickly that it was just a wooden skeleton of a building uninhabited for the greater part of the year. The visibility was a little disappointing as I had read this road offers incredible views. Indeed, the environmental change was stunning. We went from the treeless snowy hills of Gegharkunik to forested mountains and fog in Tavush.

Pit stop with Cardinals red, rally stache, and snow

Wild roadside rose hip

Just as we were approaching Berd, a Niva honked and pulled up next to us. We stopped and Artur rolled down his window. His face lit up as the Niva’s window lowered. Vardenis barbar started flowing and it was clear these were a couple of his friends. They were both surprised to see each other on this desolate road so far from home. I guess that happens in a country of only 3 million.

There are a few PCVs in the Berd area, 2 of whom have houses in the town. Around 25 PCVs descended upon Berd for the weekend, and most of these stayed at John’s house, which was our first destination. John is well-loved among PCVs as a very helpful IT volunteer and possibly the most social person in country. It wasn’t surprising that a lot of people wanted to come from all over to visit. His house has a large balcony and a large kitchen and living room, which is where we spent most of our time. It is almost imperative to have a large balcony for PC gatherings since it gives people a place to smoke and escape the toastiness of a wood-stove fired room. We unloaded our stuff and started catching up with old friends and new acquaintances.

Since Berd is so remote it does have some nice stores. There is a nice little supermarket that shames anything in Vardenis. It is just down the hill from John’s place. John warned them that a bunch of Americans were coming and would drink all their beer, so the store owners stocked up just for us. The Armenians were a bit bewildered at the throng of Americans buying all the beer, fumbling at the cash register, and blocking the stairs while hugging and greeting fresh arrivals.

On Friday night we all enjoyed some drinks and some delicious potato soup. Rocky Horror was played on a projector and most of the crowd was inside watching that. I stayed outside with the smokers and got to know some of the A 19s a bit better. Since I can’t participate in the All-Vol conference next week, I considered this trip to be my All-Vol and my chance to get to know the 19s. Even though it was cool and wet in Berd, the temperature was noticeably warmer than Vardenis. I had no problem staying on the deck for hours.

Luckily, I was able to stay with the other Berd PCV who has a house. She just moved into her place and wasn’t even settled in, yet she was willing to host a few of us. It was great for me because I was on a weird sleep schedule after weeks of waking up at 5 to listen to the Cardinals (it was getting light here at 8 before the time change so people tend to wake up at 8 or later). Saturday morning was Game 7 of the World Series, so I lugged my computer with me and went to bed early.

Saturday morning came quickly. I shuffled around in the dark to turn on my laptop, struggle with an internet connection, and begin listening to the game while not waking up my comrades. It won’t be easy to forget Game 7. Not only did the Cardinals win, but the circumstances that I was listening to the game in were so ridiculous that it’s funny. I was thankful for being able to listen to the game, although it still doesn’t feel like they won the World Series.

The afternoon was spent wandering around Berd in a small group. It was raining, which canceled plans for a larger hike, but we were still able to see the city and also the old castle on a hill that the town is named for. People say that the Berd region is similar to Nagorno-Karabakh, the mountainous quasi-nation that Armenia and Azerbaijan base their news cycles on. Without having been to NK, I have to agree with those people. Berd is mountainous, lush, and mysterious. Every family has a stockpile of wood, which you just don’t see in my area. The hay there is also just stacked in piles rather than baled, which I think is due to the lack of flat ground to run a baler on. We traipsed through the mud and arrived back at John’s house.

Hiking over an unfinished Soviet bridge

The remainder of the evening was spent waiting for costume time to start (6 p.m. start time) and then acting ridiculously in the costumes. I didn’t really have a costume but rather a wicked pastel sweater/hat combination. People would guess what I was, which was nice because I didn’t know what I was. The consensus was that I was Easter Waldo. Some of the other costumes were truly amazing considering our limited resources. Several people chose to dress as Armenians. There was a Mary and Joseph couple. And John had arguably the best costume, dressing as Squall from Final Fantasy 8 (video game reference).

Squall

They sewed these!

Representing Solak

The Armenian family as seen through the lense of America

The next morning it was time to go. For the first time in my service, there were so many Americans leaving a destination that we had a marshrutka all to ourselves. It was funny and interesting. I realized that marshrutkas probably won’t work in America due to our love of stuff. Bags, sleeping bags, and other crap was overflowing everywhere. At one point I was one of 4 people awake. People were lying on top of each other completely passed out. It was a post-party crash scene for the ages.

Overall, a great Halloween. I don’t know that it topped the Halloween of 2006 when the Cardinals won the World Series while I was studying in St. Louis, but it was definitely the winner for most unique. I would love to hear in the comments how you guys spent your Halloweens!

The Berd countryside