Archive for January, 2012

Ur es gnum?

January 31, 2012

After a tedious period of data collection, the results are in.  Exactly where are the Armenians going?  Most of them are just going home.

+/- 83%

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Hitchhiking in Armenia

January 30, 2012

My body was restless.  The same thing, day after day.  I’d been in Vardenis for a month straight.  It was time to scratch that itch for something new and have a bit of adventure along the way.

Saturday I took a day trip to Gavar, which is no small feat considering there is no public transport between the two cities (I learned this the hard way).  In the past I had seen a phantom Gavar marshrutka leaving Vardenis early one morning, but it never came on this cold, snowy Saturday.  Instead, I took the Yerevan marshrutka to the Gavar bridge.  The bridge isn’t quite Gavar, so that requires a quick hitch into town.

Now, PC does not condone hitchhiking.  In fact, it warns us against it.  Doing it is a violation of PC rules and could get us administratively separated.  And blogging about it, well that’s just stupid.

But honestly, I don’t really care what PC thinks at this point.  If they want to kick someone out of a program for getting around the country when there is no public transport and taxis are cost prohibitive, not to mention we can’t drive motor vehicles, well then they can kick me out.  The truth is, there is somewhat of a gentleman’s agreement between PC and the volunteers.  We know we’re not supposed to do it, and PC knows they can’t really stop us.  It’s up to us to make good decisions.  Am I going to hold PC accountable if something terrible happens while hitchhiking?  No, of course not.

After B2B, I had to walk over 1 hour up this mountain pass before getting picked up again by a utility service truck. But believe me, I'm not complaining.

Armenia happens to be a good place to hitchhike.  There is even a hitchwiki which I just found that ranks Armenia as “good.”  I and other volunteers can attest to this.  It goes along with the homogeneity, the hospitality, and the general 1950’s attitude towards safety (seatbelts are optional, cigarettes are mandatory, and letting your 5 year old walk to the store alone is no problem) that hitchhiking would be easier here than in the States.  This case is one of the few times you benefit from being an obvious outsider.  Armenians are curious.  If they have a chance to pickup an artasahmantsi (foreigner) along the rode, they will.

As I walked past the bridge, the second car I flagged down stopped for me.  Two guys in their mid 20s were in the front seats of a 90s Lada compact.  We chatted during the 5 minute ride into town.  I explained to them why I’m here, asked where they were from, and told them several times that I’m not Armenian.  Then I got out and bid farewell to these 5 minute friends.

In America I would never hitchhike.  There are too many crazy people and too much crime.  But in Armenia I feel safe doing it.  There is crime here, but a lot of it exists on a very high level of politicians, oligarchs, and their respective mafias.  The day to day life presents almost no crime.  I have ridden in over 50 cars by now and have never had a problem at all.  The closest I’ve come to trouble is riding in a car of 4 soldiers on their way to Karabakh.  The one sitting next to me was on some kind of drugs and playing with a knife.  At the end of that ride I had them convinced I was a devout Christian who was 100% behind Armenia and also hated the Turks as much as they did.  The more likely circumstance is that you will wind up with your pockets lined with candy, or with a fresh baked cookie in hand, or some tut (mulberries).

You never know what beast might stop and pick you up

There’s that saying about the rotten apple though.  No place is completely safe.  Last summer another volunteer was hitchhiking when suddenly the car turned into a field.  They made him empty his backpack.  They found his leatherman and turned the knife on him.  Then they drove into town to clear out his bank account.  While a scary situation no doubt, the volunteer had enough wits about him to shame them in Armenian, explaining that he was volunteering in their country to help their youth.  Feeling some remorse, the criminals left him with a bit of his money that they stole.  Peace Corps took advantage of this event to scare the bejesus out of the new group of volunteers to never hitchhike.  They did so quite rightly, I suppose, because it was a very serious incident.  But that one event was the single blemish on hitchhiking since I’ve been here.  I’m guessing among all volunteers over almost 2 years, there have been thousands of free rides.  So the danger rate is a fraction of a percent.  Indeed, crossing the street in Yerevan is much more dangerous than hitchhiking.

Heeding that unfortunate event, I emptied out my wallet before heading out Saturday morning.  I had enough cash to survive the day but also not enough to care if it got stolen.  Credit cards were removed too.  And honestly, if they saw my Element wallet they would probably decide that they should give me money, not steal from me.

The snow was deep as I walked out of town on the way home.  The first couple cars didn’t stop.  Then a BMW approached.  I gave it a shot, even though luxury cars seldom stop.  But to my surprise it slowed down.  The front door opened and I saw 2 young akhbers (dudes) that could have been considered shady in the proper context.  I asked if I could get in and they said of course.  The back door opened and there were 3 more of them.  So, 4 men deep in the back we rolled onwards to Martuni.  I explained my story for the xth time and then parried their questions as best I could.  At one point they suggested we go to Turkey.  When I asked why, they said to kill their enemies.  “Okay,” I said, “but I’ll just watch.”  That earned some street cred and a handshake.  Later they were trying to explain some curse words to me.  When I shot back with the one good one I know in Armenian, the car erupted in laughter.

When they turned off to a village prior to Martuni, I got out and began the search for my next ride.  Three cars later an old Soviet tanker truck barreled to a stop on the side of the road.  I climbed inside and greeted the old chap driving.  Despite the rumble of the engine, my accent, and the incredibly bouncy ride, he was quite good at understanding me.  He didn’t mess around with the details of my existence but rather began explaining his experience of the Soviet days.  “People don’t stop to help someone these days.  In the Soviet times, they would stop and pick you up and take you where you needed to go.  Now they don’t.  Or they want money.  Everyone is a taxi these days,” he complained.  We continued discussing the Soviet times until he had to turn off to deliver his gasoline.

Did I mention that hitchhiking is language practice at its finest?  You get a standard structure.  The same questions are always asked at the beginning.  You get used to all the many ways that basic questions can be asked.  I have never heard inch e ko anuna (What is your name?), as we learned in PST.  Saturday I was asked anunet imal e, the same exact phrase, but seeped in local dialect.  Thanks to hitchhiking I was able to understand it.  You are thrown in to multiple speaking situations with completely random people, different dialects, different voices, and different personalities.  After the basic questions are over it’s a game of how much can you get.  I liken it to running around trying to catch raindrops in a hat.  You’re not going to catch every drop, that’s for sure.  But the more you do it, the more drops you catch.

So, yes , I hitchhike.  I have refrained from saying that for fear of repercussion, but with that I have also passed on sharing many cool stories.  I don’t do it all the time.  In fact, last weekend was the first time since August.  But in my first year I did it quite a bit.  You have to be in the right mood for it and looking for a bit of adventure.  It puts another spin on your service.  Some of my favorite moments have been walking in the countryside all alone in between cars.  You have a moment to soak in the country and realize that you are having an experience completely your own.  It’s even more fun with another person.  You are a team and the road is your game.  With girls, it’s downright easy.  Hitchhiking has spiced up my Peace Corps experience in a really cool way.  I will never forget the cross section of interesting characters I’ve met and the sights left not unseen because of it.

A hitchhiking American who speaks your language. Now if that's not soft diplomacy I don't know what is. The next adventure is just around the bend...

How I Spend My Time, The Future, and Dangerous ATMs

January 27, 2012

One of the questions I got asked early on from people back home is how I spend my time here.  I realize the blog was left high and dry on that topic, although if you have been reading throughout the journey you can probably glean what I do from posts here and there.

What do you do with yourself in a foreign country, without TV, without video games, without sports, without a smartphone?  You can do a lot!

Many of my days start off with a run.  I have a trusty route that takes me through the heart of Vardenis, by Pasyilok (shout out to Wayne), by the stadium, and back into the core of town.  The runs keep my body healthy and keep my mind sane.

Running alone is not enough to keep the body in tip top shape, however.  I also alternate between two different workouts during the week.  One workout is pushups.  I loathe doing them, but I acknowledge they do a lot for me.  Abdominal strength, upper body strength, and just pure resolution.  It’s special to do something you abhor sometimes.  The other one is centered on the resistance band and chair.  I do curls and other things with the band, then move over to the chair for dips.  In the warm months I even mix it up further with pull ups in the park on my runs.

Next is breakfast, made from scratch daily.  During the week that means either oatmeal or cream of wheat, both with sugar sprinkled on.  I supplement that with some bread and peanut butter, plus juice, to have a hearty breakfast that will take me from 9 a.m. all the way until 3:30, when I can eat again after work.  I have continued my weekend tradition from the States of special breakfasts.  Scrambled eggs turned into little sandwiches with cheese and hot sauce is what does the trick for me.

After work I have lunch.  Lunch is bread and cheese, almost always.  Sometimes on the weekends I will have some leftovers for lunch, but it’s bread and cheese 90% of the time.  I throw in some junk food here too, if I have it.

Then, two days a week I go to Armenian lessons.  Despite my late stage of service, the language lessons give me a structure and learning environment that I enjoy.  The lessons are far away, so I spend about 40 minutes walking to them and back home.

The rest of the time I come home and relax.  Usually this means turning on the laptop, putting on some music, and doing some mindless and some not-so-mindless internet surfing.  Sites I hit every day include Mr. Money Mustache, ArmeniaNow, Facebook, SoccerByIves, and recently, Reddit.  I also check my email periodically (probably way more than I should).  I think I spend too much time on the internet.

Since I have no TV, sometimes I watch TV shows on my computer.  All of these shows are pirated from other volunteers or on DVDs that I own.  The TV show viewing is very sporadic.  It happens in binge cycles.  I might go 2 months without watching anything, and then I’ll tear through a season in a matter of days.  I recently did this with Game of Thrones.

Lately I have been reading more.  Topics are usually non-fiction.  Some books have come from home in packages, others from the IRC (In Country Resource Center) at PC, and others from CouchSurfers.  My latest conquest was “Emergence” which paints a very interesting picture of seemingly simple systems that have some sort of adaptive quality that rises up and makes the system “smart” without a centralized leader giving commands.  Case in point, ants.  Or city sidewalks.  Currently, I’m reading “A Brief History of Nearly Everything” and rereading “The Caucasus.”

Sometimes, but not often, I travel or hang out with other volunteers.  For example, tomorrow I am going to Gavar.  I haven’t left Vardenis in 1 month and that is starting to scare me.

More often, I skype with friends and family.  I skype with multiple people each week.  It’s a great way to stay connected to the support network and feel like a part of people’s lives from afar.

Another activity that fills my time is writing.  I write for the blog, obviously, but I am also constantly writing emails, writing little notes to myself, or writing in my own personal journal.  Occasionally I even write longhand letters.  I’m a writing fool.

And then there is the studying.  I started my service really hitting the Armenian hard.  I would spend an hour or 2 each day on it.  That diminished over time and now I spend no time on study outside of my 2 weekly lessons.  Instead, I am now teaching myself Polish.  I began back in August but only started seriously dedicating myself to it in December.  It’s a slower process than learning Armenian, obviously.  But I know probably 1,000 words, can count, say the days of the week, colors, most of the basics.  And I can say stuff like, “That carrot is too demanding.”  Step by step…

I have more free time in Armenia (I am at the office from 10-3:30 most days).  However, as I’ve mentioned before, a lot of the extra time goes into daily tasks that simply take longer here than they do in the states.  Making dinner always takes at least 30 minutes since I am cooking from scratch.  No more 5 minute frozen tortellini.  And there always seems to be a sink full of dishes waiting to be washed.  So that’s another 30 minutes almost daily.  Laundry happens a couple times a week but I honestly don’t spend more time on it than I did back home.  I wear my stuff until it smells or is discolored.  Hand washing takes about 30 minutes and then it dries/freezes on the line.

My last Sunday morning was spent battling a mess in my kitchen thanks to recent water damage

Now that I’m approaching the end (or at least dreaming about the end), I also spend progressively more time thinking about what’s next.  The only thing I know about my future is where I want to be.  I don’t know what I want to do, or more importantly, how it will work.  So with that, I announce my hopeful future plans, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise for those who know me:

I’m going to Poland.  Not forever, but just for a while.  And I want to come home first for a while.  But I would like to live and work in Poland for 9-10 months.  I spend a lot of my time thinking about that and how to make it happen.  The decks are stacked against me.  Between the red tape bureaucracy (a visa will be the biggest thing) and diving into another country all over again, my mind is often racing.

So, now you know how I spend my time.

Today I went to the ATM and had this odd sensation in my fingers.  I thought, “Oh great, I have some nerve problem.”  Last year I had some nerve tingling when I bent my hand at a similar angle to that my hand was at to use the ATM.  I tried the other hand.  Same problem.  Wow.  It really felt strange.  Then I pressed my hand against the wall to test it.  Nothing happened.  Then I touched the ATM button again.  Tingly.  The buttons were shocking me.  I was shocked, and a little embarrassed at how long it took me to realize!

The Gloom of January

January 24, 2012

I think everyone can agree that January is the crappiest month of the year.  It’s cold, gray, and doesn’t seem to have an end.  I pulled out my winter armor back in October.  The ground has been white since November.  And we have at least 2 more months of winter, if not 3 (depends who you ask).  I’m tired of it.

Good riddance to my last Armenian winter.  At the moment misery’s company are rejection and brokenness.  Rejection because I just heard from our training director that I am being cut from the roster of trainers for the PC Project Design and Management workshop.  Not enough trainees.  Bummer, as I was looking forward to the Training of Trainers this week, which about 8 of my friends will complete, and then the actual workshop in February.  Brokenness because my laptop battery essentially died yesterday, effectively tethering me to the AC cord for the rest of my service.  I was always a desktop guy anyway.

If you stir all of that together, the small daily disappointments, the bone-chilling cold, the endless snow, the usual sadness that Vardenis emits, being away from the people you care about, it’s enough to drive a man to write a woe-is-me blog post.  When I feel this way I see anger, restlessness, and hopelessness.

When I feel this way, I just wait for my environment to pick me up.

Inevitably, I will see something or hear something that puts my own self-pity into its proper place.  That is, its “not really that bad in the grand scheme of things” place.  I see dogs running around on 3 legs.  Okay, at least I have my health.  I see others trudging along the sidewalks, going about their daily lives.  I wonder if it’s a blessing or a curse that they don’t know what life is like in America, or many other foreign countries for that matter.  All they know, and all they will know, is Vardenis.  The ignorance is a double-edged sword that allows them to subsist in a less than ideal situation while preventing them from experiencing many great things.

When I got to the office this morning, I heard stories about good young men being sent to the army and coming back maimed, physically and psychologically.  One man, apparently of good character, strong, came back with a concussion and the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome.  After a beating to the head at the hands of his officer, I’m sure the concussion wasn’t treated properly.  His mental state has been permanently altered.  He’s now in jail after altercating with a knife during one of his dark moments.  The other young man lives in my building.  Russian father, Armenian mother.  Light eyes and hair, like me.  A really nice, handsome young guy apparently.  He came back with epilepsy.  Again, beatings are the suspected cause.  He can’t afford medicine to control his seizures.  He can’t work, can’t marry.

My problems are nothing.

Then there was some other news too.  France’s Senate passed a bill criminalizing denial of the Armenian Genocide.  Obviously a big deal here, and actually a pretty big deal in the world.  France is a powerful player, as is Turkey.  This action has really pissed the Turks off.  They have promised sanctions, cuts of diplomatic ties, and more.  But what remains to be seen is what the true fallout will be.  I believe Turkey is just bluffing.  Due to EU trade agreements it has signed it cannot treat France any differently, economically speaking, than its other EU partners.  And doing anything too radical will surely hurt their chances of joining the EU.  Seeing the backlash from the Turkish side has been really fascinating.  It’s like when you catch some slimy criminal, present him with the facts and data that prove he is a slime ball, and he erupts in anger at the accusation because he has something to hide.  Turkey is squirming right now.

If Turkey really cared about its future, it would admit to the Genocide and apologize for it.  It’s a terrible crime that should be an undisputed fact.  The world is slowly agreeing that it happened, country by country, action by action.  There is a path out of this after all.  As soon as Turkey admits and apologizes, it begins moving forward.  The EU is possible.  Everyone will forgive Turkey and move on.  We are not accusing present day Turks of doing anything wrong.  Germany is the example often cited.  It scarred history with the Holocaust.  And now it is one of the most powerful countries in the world.  They get along well enough with their neighbors.  They have moved on.  And that happened 25 years AFTER the Armenian Genocide.  Turkey, just admit it and move on already.

I digress.  While the sky here is gray, at least it’s not falling.  And I can thank the world around me for showing me that on a daily basis, even if sometimes I don’t want to see it.

Infanticide in Armenia

January 18, 2012

Any Armenian will tell you about the Armenian Genocide at length.  You’ll hear about the 1 million people killed.  How they took their homes and land.  About all the suffering.

But other things here go unspoken.  It’s not surprising, in a land where holding hands in public is taboo, that people don’t often bring up the darker social issues that flow beneath the surface of society.

Watch this short video for an intimate look at the problem: The Red Apple

It’s no secret that people here want boys.  The boy is seen as powerful, a bread winner, and someone the parents can really be proud of.  Keeps the family lineage going type of thing.  Girls are nice too but by God we’re going to have a boy dammit.

When I first came here I didn’t really think about it or notice it.  But after a while you hear stories.  You hear that Armenian women have multiple abortions as they don’t use any contraceptives.  You begin to wonder if the women in your life carry that burden on their souls.  Then you start noticing other things.

Peculiarly, in many families the youngest child is a boy.  You can often see a couple with two children.  If the first child is a girl, then usually the 2nd is a boy.  Strange how that works.

It’s sad on its own.  But if you also consider the shrinking population of Armenia, this behavior leads to a demographic crisis.  All the little precious akhbers won’t have anyone to marry when they come of age.  Plus, you throw in rich South Koreans coming and marrying Armenian women (this really does happen – I met one of them at the airport) and you’ve got a legitimate problem on your hands.

In many ways, the future of the country depends on things outside the control of the average Armenian.  And then here is a case where the Armenians themselves are crushing their own future.

Ew, what’s that?!

January 16, 2012

This fell out of my dress shirt as I was shaking it, attempting to rid it of wrinkles after line drying.

Bird spine?

Whatever it is, it’s weird.  And it’s really weird that it was INSIDE my dress shirt without falling out on the line.  Maybe I’ll make some avian soup stock.

The Deliciousness of Khorovats

January 12, 2012

Prepare your tastebuds

Armenian food consists of many regional dishes that you can find a variation of in other nearby countries.  Any Armenian will proudly boast of borsch, dolma, halva, pakhlava, and lavash, but the joke’s on them.  I highly doubt the Armenians invented any of these food forms.  Rather, there is a lot of overlap amongst a lot of cultures in this region.  However, one food seems to be uniquely Armenian in my book:  Khorovats

Okay, barbecued meat is not that original.  But the way they do it here is pretty cool, and it’s really tasty.  Armenians will ask you if you have tried khorovats.  For your sake, I hope the answer is yes.  It comes in several varieties including pork, chicken, and lamb.  My favorite is pork.  Khorovats is equal opportunity though.  Vegetables are welcome to join in on this party, and they often do.  It’s rare to find a khorovats without ruby red tomatoes and deep-hued eggplants finding a place on the skewers.

Before we get into the how-to section, let’s learn a bit more about khorovats.  The words comes from the verb khorovel, which means, “to barbecue.”  The “ats” ending shows a state of being – it would be equivalent to saying “Barbecued” in English…except that in Armenian it is used as a noun.  I have heard no explanation as to why, but I assume it’s just due to the enormous importance of khorovats in Armenian culture.  Kind of like how Google is now a verb in English.  Just go with it.

As you already know, Armenia has very traditional gender roles.  Men (are supposed to) work and earn money, women raise the children and keep the house.  In the Armenian family a man never cooks anything.  The fact that American men can cook for themselves is baffling and downright confusing to all Armenians.  Khorovats is the exception to this rule.  Men are the only ones allowed to prepare khorovats.  The women won’t touch it with a 15 foot pole.  It is seen as a manly bonding activity.  The women take pride in bragging how good their husband’s khorovats is.  I have been subjected to countless taste tests and the results are in:  Armenian men know what they’re doing.

Khorovats is usually saved for a special occasion of some kind.  Some examples can be weddings, birthdays, and other celebrations.  It’s also done for special guests and also sometimes just randomly to blow off some steam.

Eating it with silverware is a crime.  Instead, you should tear into it with your hands and lavash.

That about covers the rules and traditions.  So, how do you prepare it?  Let’s learn.

Step 1:  Gather wood and chop into manageable pieces

Easier said than done in treeless Gegharkunik Marz

Step 2:  Pile wood between metal ties

Uh Huh!

 

Step 3:  Light fire and let it burn down to coals

Better than propane

 

Step 4:  Place marinated meat on skewers

The lacey flowery thing is optional

 

Step 5:  Set skewers over the coals, resting on the ties

You can hear the fat sizzling

 

Step 6:  Flip em’, fan em’, squirt em’ – Rotate skewers, fan coals if necessary to create more heat, and squirt coals with water if they erupt in flames

The alpha male will surely emerge at this stage, if he hasn't already

 

Step 7:  Sit back and watch for about 30 minutes, repeating step 6 as necessary

If you do Step 7 by the headlights of your Lada Niva, even better (Photo: Morten Germansen)

 

Step 8:  Remove from skewers using lavash.  Take inside and enjoy.

Bari akhorzhak (Bon appetit)

The only part I’m not sure of is the marinade.  There are greens and onions involved, and some kind of liquid, but I’m not sure what exactly.  They marinade the meet for a few hours prior to cooking.  After cooking the meat has a delightful crunchy flavorful coating.  It’s tender, succulent, and delicious.  Your mileage may vary, but there is no doubt that restaurant khorovats is quite inferior to the homemade variety.

Khorovats is one of the best ways to bond with Armenians.  They love it and so do you.  Whenever the word khorovats is uttered, wonderful memories are conjured and hopes for another great meal spring into existence.

The food is almost as good as the experience (Photo: Morten Germansen)

Winter: Month 3

January 10, 2012

I know all too well that the US is experiencing a warm winter this year.  Some places haven’t seen snow yet, wearing a t-shirt outside has been possible, etc.  I am happy for all of you.  Really!

In Armenia, we’re trying to get through the 3rd month of winter.  The season starts in November usually and lasts until April.  That’s 6 solid months of snowy, blustery, icy conditions.  I got through the first 2 months with the help of my heater.  But I kind of cheated.  I spent time in each month abroad.  But January will be my true test.  I spend the entirety of the coldest month of the year here in the highlands.

Right now I’m hosting another CouchSurfer (really cool guy), so we went for a walk today.  Here are some scenes from a typical Vardenis winter day.

Leo and Laura taking it all in (freezing wind included)

Armenian gravestones

Stairmasters

King of Vardenis

The last couple pictures display the Vardenis stadium.  That’s right, this withering town of maybe 10,000 souls once boasted a functional stadium and professional team.  Makes you sad that St. Louis can’t get its act together, right?

Like many things in Vardenis, the stadium tells of a legacy flushed down the toilet.  There are countless scenes around town reminding you of better days gone by.  I have told many people that I wish I could see what it was like here 30 years ago.  Have a taste:

One of two former cinemas in town

Let's have a peek inside...

Give your eyes a second to adjust...

Oh, what used to be!

The intense, but low, winter sun arching over a former restaurant and hotel

A sign hinting at old friendships now caked in blood: Khash (boiled cow hoof stew) and khinkali (Georgian dumplings) written in some sort of Russian/English/Turkic combo that would be understandable to Azeris

Makes that pothole you have to dodge on the way to work seem a little trivial, huh?

CouchSurfing Explained

January 6, 2012

My CouchSurfer (CSer) has left.  With that I breathe a sigh of relief.  Even with the best of personalities, it becomes a chore to host someone for more than a day or two.  Also consider that we shared one room for 3 days and 3 nights and maybe you will start to understand.  Basically living non-stop with a stranger in your little apartment.  But what is CS?

The most basic definition is that it’s a social experiment.  CS is a website that creates a community of travelers and hosts willing to meet each other.  Travelers can send messages to potential hosts and ask to stay with them.  They can also just request to meet up, have a cup of coffee, or see something specific in the city with the host.  Hosts can accept or reject the request to surf their couch.  Those are the basics.

If you’re like I was, you are raising a skeptical eyebrow right now.  “You mean, you actually let a stranger come into your home and STAY with you?!”  Yes, that’s right.  The important part of CS is not the what but the how.  It is based on a reference system whereby you can screen anyone who sends you a CS request to find out if the person is trustworthy, polite, and many other adjectives.  After having a CS experience you leave a reference for that person and often receive one back in return.  The reference system serves two important functions:  the first is guest screening like I mentioned.  The second is that people are more likely to behave in a good way because they don’t want you to drop a bad reference on their profile.

Of course this system creates a chicken-and-the-egg scenario coming out of the gates for new members.  With no references it could be hard to find someone willing to host you/surf your couch.  Have no fear, you can also have Friends on CS just like Facebook.  If you have some Friends people are more likely to trust you too.  And you can leave a reference for someone that you know but haven’t surfed with.  So in my case, I had a few references from other PCVs as soon as I opened my account, which really helped me get going.

Why use CS?  It’s a great way to meet people from different countries.  It allows you to show off the place where you live.  It gives you an interesting and cheap way to travel.  And it harnesses the power of the internet in a very cool way.

For example, I knew I was going to Tbilisi in April.  I started sending out messages to CSers there asking if they could host me during that time.  Some weren’t able, some didn’t answer, but I did find someone willing to do it.  And she was a great host that really enhanced my experience.  There’s nothing like walking home through the city not to a hotel, but to a typical house situated in some non-descript neighborhood that you would otherwise never visit.  It’s also a serious way to save some cash.  It gives budget travel a whole new meaning.  If you remember, my 4 day trip to Tbilisi cost under $200.

CS is a risk of course.  I’m not sure how I would feel about it in the US.  I might still maintain my profile, but be much more selective of who I take in.  In Vardenis, I don’t have to worry too much because people who want to come here all seem to fit a similar mold.  Not only is there the risk of theft or assault, but also of just getting a really weird guest.  I’ve heard some interesting stories.  But the person’s profile is a great indicator of the personality.

So far in Vardenis I’ve had 3 guests.  The first was a French guy who was raised in America, so it was like having an American guest.  The second two were both Dutchmen.  All three were my age or younger, hitch-hikers, and very bright.  They’ve all been enjoyable guests.  The first two stayed just one night, which is perfect for me.  The most recent one stayed for 3 nights and I definitely felt myself shut-down socially sometime during the 2nd day.  That’s just too much effort for me, especially with a person you don’t know that well.  Actually, it was funny.  The first day we were chatting like a couple on the first date.  By today we drank our tea in silence like an old married couple with nothing left to say to each other.

I would say the Vardenis archetype is “Young Male Adventurer” with a subclass of “Night-elf Cleric”.  If you zoom out a bit and just start browsing profiles, you find a few more types, which I recently joked with Ben about.  There is the “Fun Loving Hippie Hitchhiker” (which basically envelops Young Male Adventurer), “I’m Going to Visit Every Damn Country Guy”, “Desperate Extrovert”, and of course, “Creepy Eurasian Using CS as a Marriage Tool.”  Yes, there aren’t many types there.  Hippieism seems to be the flavor of the week.  As a person weird enough to do Peace Corps, but also not as liberal as most of my PC brethren and perhaps somehow firmly rooted in reality, it is interesting to interact with such people, but at arms-distance.

I’m not sure what the future holds for me and CS.  I think I’ll be active for the next year or so.  I want to use it more for surfing and less for hosting.  I plan to use it on my next trip to Poland.  Beyond PC I’m not sure how much I’ll host, but it’s nice to have the hosting record under my belt in case I want to do some surfing.  Kind of a karma thing I guess.  I know as I grow older and have a family it will probably fall by the wayside, but for now it’s a fun thing and a great way to make friends from other countries.

Nor Tari 2: Kyufta’s Revenge

January 2, 2012

We are in the middle of the New Year celebrations here in Armenia.  For everything you miss about the holidays back home, Nor Tari makes up for it, offering something unique and unrivaled.

I won’t go into so many details this time around since I’ve already covered the basics of Nor Tari before.  This year is different for me of course.  First of all it’s hard to buy food right now.  The stores were crazy before NYE and now they are almost all closed.  Bread, my lifeline, is nonexistent.  This leads to some interesting meals, such as my breakfast yesterday:  Leftover lentil soup from Laura and Kool-Aid (thanks Mom).  Regardless, I enjoy being a trailblazer and knowing that I am the first person on the face of the planet to ever eat lentil soup for breakfast and wash it down with some OHHH YEAHHHHHH!

Not living in a host family has its benefits.  I can avoid the celebration if I want to but I also have enough connections that I can easily spend all day with families if I choose.  So far I’ve spent the first couple days with Ev and her host mom.  Yesterday we went to her host mom’s daughter’s house and had an absolutely great time.  There was persimmon vodka (I had no idea such a thing existed) which was delicious.  I hate persimmons but love their vodka, go figure.  The food was outrageously delicious.  First course was a carrot and garlic infused roast.  Then came the attack of the salads.  Grape leaf dolma ambushed us while we attempted to clean our plates.  And then there were the cakes, the coffee, the candies, and of course basturma.  Basturma is a cured meat that is extremely tasty.  Think of bacon as a cold cut but not so nasty like bacon would be.  And besides, it’s cow meat I found out.  It’s a beautiful red hue.  And the father had prepared some special pig cold cuts which were incredible.  I’m not quite sure what he did, and he wouldn’t tell me because his process is a secret!

That brings me to my next point:  this is the time of year where all the language learning pays off.  I trudge to my lessons some days and totally don’t feel like going.  Other volunteers have all stopped going to tutors and I seriously question why I’m still doing it.  But then there are days like the last couple I’ve had where I have the opportunity to sit down and get to know some wonderful people in their own language.  We share stories, explain things, joke, and just have a good time.  Those moments are so nice and serve as a reward for all the work you put into learning.

I also wanted to mention something that is kind of random but seems fitting at this time of year, when we all have a fresh slate and the world is ours for the taking.  Due to vodka consumption I went to bed at 9 p.m. last night and woke up for good at 2:15 a.m.  Before I had resigned to the idea that I wouldn’t fall back asleep again, I was lying in bed listening to music.  It’s normal for me to just lie there thinking about the most disconnected things you can imagine.  And it’s also normal for me to have an inner dialogue rambling away at any moment.  Despite those two things, or maybe because of them, I had a moment of clarity that is difficult to describe.  Cutting completely through the interstate highway that is full of cars and trucks carrying thoughts like, “When am I taking my next shower?”, “I’m running today”, “What am I eating for breakfast?” and “I love spaghetti”, drilling through the pavement to the core of my odd brain and thoughts, something happened.  I felt for a moment all of the experiences I’ve had in my life.  I didn’t explicitly think of everything I’ve done because that would take more than just a moment.  But somehow I felt the sum of it all.  And it was a peaceful, fulfilling, proud, happy moment.  That was really fascinating for me because then I thought back to prior years and if I would have felt the same thing.  I think the answer is no.

Why am I going on about this?  Well what I want to say is that I made some difficult decisions to get to this point.  The course is not always straightforward nor enjoyable.  But I can say that deep down I really am fulfilled now in my life.  Two years ago that was not the case.  But I acknowledged that and made challenging changes.  Now here I am writing you about mushy stuff.  See how that worked?  So what I REALLY want to tell you, reader jan, is that if there are things in your life that don’t seem right or that you are unhappy with, well then you should do something different. 

Don’t be scared to make a change in your life.

I am so happy that I did.

 

Blog logistics time.  It’s vacation time, which means I have a lot of free time.  There are also some topics I have neglected but have a burning desire to shower upon you.  Ipso factso, I will finally post about khorovats and marshrutkas, both core components of my Armenian life.  I’ll also have a CouchSurfer from the Netherlands coming today.  Perhaps you don’t know about CouchSurfing, so I’ll do a post about that too.

Have a nice day.