Archive for February, 2012

Video Man

February 28, 2012

Some readers have long requested video footage of my life in Vardenis. Now I have a camera and the know-how to make reasonably sized videos for Youtube. Here is a video that Ev and I just created for Peace Corps’s new-and-improved Community and YOUTH Development program (formerly CBD – b as in business):

CYD Video

We weren’t responsible for the script, which seemed quite awkward and jargony to me.

And of course, outtakes:


Enjoy this taste of winter in Armenia!


Is Ignorance Bliss?

February 23, 2012

The other day I walked into the office at the Y. Only one woman was there. She was cleaning the dishes in a tub of warm water that she had heated up either on the stove or with the electric water heater. We did our normal morning greeting, but I could see she felt terrible. Something was wrong, as it so often is with the women I work with. It seems they can’t go a couple weeks straight without a headache or some other ailment. The depth of the sadness in her eyes weighed on my soul as I stared out the window.

I thought about my own life and my current situation. It’s not perfect, but damn, it’s pretty good all things considered. Then I thought about her situation. We’ve had talks before. She worries about money. She worries about her husband. Her kyanq (life) is djvar (hard).

I thought about my future. As bleak as the Armenian February can seem, I have this little hope that I’ve been clinging onto with white knuckles my whole time here: one day I get to return to what I left. That little glimmer of hope can do a lot for one’s mental well-being through some difficult times. It keeps me on my feet and ready to tackle another day of ambiguity. I’ve talked about it with other volunteers before – I’m happy here, but perhaps a large component of that happiness is the knowledge that my existence is also temporary.

I thought about her future. And her past. I just thought about her life, I guess you could say. I compared the hopes and dreams she probably has to my own. They are quite different, that is if I was able to successfully simulate someone else’s dreams in my own head in order to make a comparison that I would base a blog post on. I dream of interesting jobs, early retirement, owning businesses, living in multiple countries, and marriage solidly founded in true love. She might be dreaming about a decent future for her kids, or a way to pay the bills more easily, or a way to make the headaches and toothaches stop. And here we come to that unbridgeable gap that I’ve come to many times in my Peace Corps experience, only to turn around back into the forest of introspection every time not knowing what to do, what to make of the situation, or how to even begin building a bridge of profound understanding of what it truly is like to be an Armenian.

There is absolutely no way I can reconcile my experience with hers. Yes, I’ve lived alongside her for a year and a half. Yes, I’ve learned her language. Yes, I’ve experienced her culture. But I will never fully know what it is like to be in her situation. “Yeah sure Kevin, but you’ll never know what it’s like to be me either.” Fine. Valid point. But the simple fact that you are an American gives me a 90% insight into your life. Until you wave goodbye to your culture and country you don’t understand how much that inexplicably random fact in your life constitutes such a huge f’ing deal of it. I’ll never know what it’s like to work my ass off for a whole month just to earn $80. I’ll never know what it’s like to feel so utterly obligated to comply with social norms that I must prepare a Nor Tari table with hundreds of dollars of food just so I don’t lose face. I’ll never know what it’s like to suffer from chronic, simple, preventable health ailments just because the culture I live in has its own unique take on why we get sick and what’s healthy. I’ll never know what it’s like to be sticking it out in a marriage with someone who isn’t supposed to love me but rather provide for me, yet is failing on all fronts.

And so I ask, is ignorance bliss? Is it good that she has never driven a car and never will? Is it good that she’s never eaten in a restaurant? Is it good that she’s never seen the ocean? Is it good that she doesn’t know what it’s like to fly? Is it good that she doesn’t know what it means to have women as empowered members of society? Is it good that she doesn’t know how nice it is to live in a clean city without plastic bags flying around like tumbleweed? Is it good that she doesn’t know what I dream about?

I ask myself this question all the time.

One Foot in the Door, One Foot Out

February 15, 2012

Suddenly it’s light until 7:00 again. There’s still snow everywhere and you can still see your breath inside, but now when I look out the window there is a sense of dramatic irony. I know that this winter won’t last forever. That idea lends a lot of hope and optimism to the situation. Fantasies of the spring thaw keep my mind wandering. It also springs my ass into gear when I think about what I need to accomplish before my service ends.

Finally I’ve started some early planning work for the strategic plan that I’ve procrastinated doing for a solid 18 months. We’re currently organizing the poetry contest and visiting schools for that. And I know when the weather turns I need to get an estimate for the solar project I wrote so that at least the proposal can be finished.

Those are cool and worthy things, and are the real reason I’m here. But I must be honest. I spend a lot more time thinking about my own personal life and how I’m supposed to transition from a dysfunctional society and an odd existence into something more in line with my aptitude. Specifically, finding a job in Poland, learning another language, and gearing up for some big, up-heaving life change.

Balancing the two is difficult. For example, going to an Armenian lesson and then going home and trying to teach myself Polish. The former is sold short because it suddenly seems uninteresting, only useful in the now, and is basically yesterday’s news. The latter is a bit more frustrating because of comparisons to the foreign language which feels comparatively easy, the one in which I’ve lived and worked the last 2 years.

Or going to work and being dead-set on making some sort of measurable progress on my somewhat flimsy goals. Then letting the overall office work ethic, or lack thereof (Wayne’s quote from the A-18 Welcome CD, “the work ethic should be daintily addressed” – not a truer thing has ever been written) lambast me into submission until I just don’t really care if I accomplish anything that day or not. Then instead spending the hours in the office searching and applying for jobs.

Or instead of enjoying the ample free time PCVs have (kind of), spending all of my time at home researching teaching English abroad, searching for office jobs, looking at strange grammar concepts, and trying to find some insight into making the process of working in a foreign country an actual attainable end result.

Do I feel guilty about this dual existence? The obvious answer with mild-comedic value is “yes and no.” My mind is constantly flopping like a beached trout between “I should be doing X for Armenia!” and “I should be doing Y for ME!” There is a huge variety of thoughts in the course of just one day, but this one seems to prevail more than the others:

“I may be on the fat government teat now, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here wasting away not even thinking about my future when I can do something to actively alter the course of reality, which, at the moment involves me being unemployed at my parents’ house!”

I’ve also seen the future in one form: A-17s on Facebook. Their return to the states has been informative, eye-opening, and of course, annoying. Many have fallen victim to selective filtering of my news feed. Those who have survived up until now still seem to not have found jobs. That’s a bit troubling. Although I also think a lot of volunteers don’t put in a lot of work looking for a job during their service. I’m treating the job search like a full time job. Well, at least an Armenian job. So it involves lots of breaks for snacks, reddit, and email checking.

There are periods of transition in our lives and they offer a massive opportunity to take your destiny into your own hands. They provide the rare chance for systemic change yet also the stress of an end without a visible beginning. That’s where I am now. I’ve got nothing at the moment. I’m homeless and jobless in 6 months. I have already made up my mind where I want to be, now it’s up to me to make it happen. Gotta hustle!

The Super Bowl in Armenia

February 9, 2012

One of the fears I had about leaving home was missing all kinds of sports. Baseball, basketball, and football. I loved to watch the games on my massive HD TV. I loved to watch ESPN tell me what I just watched. And I loved to read all about it online, hear about it on the radio, and talk about it with my friends.

Two years later here I am and I haven’t really missed it as much as I thought. Yes, I missed a Cardinals World Series victory. But I was still able to participate by listening to the games live on ESPN Radio. It was actually a cool experience that was kind of a step back in time. My imagination worked on overdrive as I imagined everything that Bobby Valentine & co. told me. When they clinched the series, I found myself laying on a makeshift mattress on the floor of a cold old house at 7 in the morning with a bunch of other volunteers passed out around me. My AC adapter ran alongside the chopped and dried wood for the wood stove right next to my floor spot. I’ll never forget it.

So how do we celebrate the Super Bowl here? That’s right, it’s a holiday if you really think about it. Well, your casual volunteer will probably not witness the event. But for those of us who are sports nuts we find a way. Last year it involved hitching a ride to Martuni, staying up all night with the A-17s, and watching a sometimes crappy live feed of the game without the actual commercials. I hitched a ride back home at 8 a.m. with a nice guy delivering a mountain of plastic bags to Vardenis.

This year was even better. I was invited to Ijevan, a city in the northern marz of Tavush. Two PCVs from my group live there in an apartment together. I had never been there so it was a great excuse to make an out-of-the-way trip to see their town and enjoy the game. They have a lot better setup than I do, with actual chairs and a couch, plus a coffee table. But how did we watch the game? No TV.

No problem. What PC lacks in amenities it forces you to make up for in resourcefulness. We checked out the PC projector and hooked it up to a laptop. Then they used their high speed internet connection to download a torrent of the game right after the game ended. If you don’t understand what a torrent is, then join my club that I started. Basically think “file.” Several tense hours later, which involved 6 men not checking their email, not logging into facebook, and carefully screening phone calls in order to avoid ruining the fate of the game, we had our download. Our Super Bowl started at 3 p.m. Monday afternoon. We were probably one of the last pockets of American men on Earth to know who won. Time stood still.

With the projector rigged up on top of the couch, we watched the game in a captivated trance. It’s not often you get to watch something HD in the PC. Wires were strewn everywhere, a sheet acted as our screen, and the picture bobbled around whenever someone on the couch moved an inch, but the game was glorious.

The rest of the time there was spent watching way too much stuff on the projector. I also played some Tecmo Super Bowl on the projector, leading my Bears to a nice victory over QB Eagles and friends. Sleeping was an every man for himself proposition, as is usually the case. I utilized my increased constitution to sleep “outside” on the balcony. The warm Ijevan nights equated to the normal bedtime temperature of my own apartment, so I was effectively sleeping in normal circumstances despite the concerned trappings of my cohorts.

Ijevan: Just as dirty as the rest of Armenia

Besides all that, I got to see one more place in Armenia. At this point it’s nothing new, but you can appreciate a beautiful place like Ijevan regardless. I realize my time is becoming shorter now. I am still not in bittersweet mode yet, as it is quite cold and unpleasant yet. But that time will come. I just realized yesterday that I have just a few more weeks of language lessons left, perhaps 14 sessions. The end is starting to begin.