Archive for March, 2012

Paying Bills

March 28, 2012

Often wrong, but surprisingly efficient

Something you might not think about every day: the way we pay our bills. It’s not a fun thing to think about, so naturally we probably aren’t inclined to wonder how it’s done elsewhere. But it is a fascinating part of the living abroad experience. How do you pay the bills when there is no automatic bill pay, there are no direct deposits, and paper bills don’t come in the mail? How do you know how much to pay? When do you do it?

Armenia’s system seems as efficient as possible considering the level of development. It impresses me. The system is far from perfect, but it has its advantages.

Bills here are paid in person. You can go to any bank (there are lots) or even the post office to pay your bills. All of these locations are wired into a database. For example, they can take your gas code and look up your account. It shows how much you paid last time, how much you’ve used, and how much you owe. The database is updated near the middle of the month. You must pay your bills by the end of the month. Today I just paid my bills for the month of February.

I go to a nice bank in Vardenis to pay my bills. One of the girls there speaks English so it makes life a lot simpler. Sometimes when she’s busy or not there I have to do it in Armenian, which is easy enough since I bring the old receipts with me. But she likes to practice her English and it helps me too so I always go to the same bank. She looks up my bills, prints them, stamps them, signs them, I sign them, and then I take them to the cashier. I pay the cashier the total amount, usually after he teases me about not being married and offers several of the clerks’ marital statuses. Today he even got a “what is going on with your hair” comment in there.

It’s important to hang on to the receipts. Sometimes on a random night of the week there will be a knock on the door. When I peer through the peephole I see a larger than life gut of an old Armenian guy distorted through the glass. Sometimes if it’s near the end of the month and I haven’t paid, they want to know if I’ll pay. Or if there is a debt on the account or some kind of confusion they come knocking. These conversations always push the language limits, often leaving me feeling like a JV freshman who makes a stand-in start for the varsity – things happen a bit too fast for comfort and the whole event feels slightly out of control.

The cool and frustrating part about paying bills in Armenia is that you never know what is going to happen. I have walked into the bank and had an electricity bill of 0. When I informed the clerks that it must be incorrect, their response was, “Bonus!!” I’ve also gotten a call while I was out of town that my gas had been shut off because of a massive debt on my account. What? I pay every month. Turns out I had been paying for the apartment next door the last few months after the gas company switched our meters. Nice.

Recently the gas guy came to my house. He told me that there was a big debt on the account. He asked if I was going to pay. Of course! But I was shocked at the amount (for February). It was 26,000, which is 2,000 more than we get for all of the month’s utilities. Perhaps something was fishy with the meter. Or perhaps I truly used that much gas. Now I’m keeping a more watchful eye on the meter to see if my own readings line up with theirs. Still, if I take what I’ve paid on average for utilities this winter, it’s around 16,000, which is reasonable. It will be interesting to see what I pay for March. My guess is 8,000 (I am still heating my apartment now although not as much since the weather has warmed a bit).

Another cool thing is that you get to know the guys who collect. The water guy came to my house so many times that now he greets me by name on the street. Usually he also asks if I’ve paid yet, but still, it’s nice to say hi to Artur Jur (Water Arthur).

For Armenia I am a bit surprised such a system exists. It’s a bit more modern and efficient than I would expect. Even for its flaws, it still works relatively well. And apparently no one really expects it to be 100% correct. After the meter switching fiasco, my landlord’s only explanation for why the gas company would change our meters was, “Kevin, it’s Armenia!” So true.

Sidenote: Monday I’m heading to Poland. Shortly thereafter I have my COS (close of service) conference. Thus, the next update will probably be mid-April. Until then, enjoy Spring!


PCV Cribs

March 25, 2012

PCV Cribs – the tour of my apartment you never got.

Green Beer in Armenia

March 22, 2012

One of my favorite things about Peace Corps is the other crazy people you meet along the way. Some of these are HCNs (host country nationals) but a lot of them are fellow Americans doing the same thing as you. The PC crowd also does a great job of marking our own culture’s holidays. That’s important because it makes you feel connected to home, makes you realize how awesome your own culture is, and serves as a morale boost.

So, I wasn’t going to miss St. Patrick’s Day in Sevan (although I was a bit whiney about the travel). Normally I don’t really care at all about St. Pat’s. It seems like a day for bars to turn a huge profit for no reason. People wear green and get wasted. Okay cool. Then again, I’m not Irish. But, it offers a great excuse to get together with your friends and celebrate something together.

We were received like kings. Wonderful smells wafted from the kitchen. Soon a soda bread was produced. And then another. And then a delicious dinner of brisket (not an everyday find here), cabbage, and boiled potatoes came. My mouth still waters at the thought of this meal come to pass. Finally, there was the cake. It was homemade with butter cream frosting. It was easily the best cake I’ve eaten in Armenia by a long shot. Perhaps that’s because destined to be a stale Armenian cake with nasty cream frosting and glitter all over it. Armenians get pastries right but for some reason have not mastered the art of the cake.

The cake was even more magical because it was rainbow cake! They claimed it was easy to make but I beg to differ. It was as impressive as it was delicious.

I would be impressed in America. Here, I'm speechless.

The rest of the night was spent drinking beers and doing fortune telling stuff. I got my palm read, tarot cards read, and my matches read. What is a match reading? Someone learned it from their Armenian tutor. You take two matches, stick them out of a matchbox so they are parallel, and simultaneously light them. One is you and one is someone else you are into. The matches burn down, twisting and contorting along the way. At the end the direction of the matches tells the fortune. If the matches lean in towards each other, it’s true love. But more often than not one match leans in and the other leans out. In rare cases both lean out, signifying an absolutely repulsive relationship I suppose.

This gathering was a great get together. We even rolled the equivalent of a Yahtzee on the way home. To avoid having to backtrack an hour plus into Yerevan in order to catch our marshrutka, we waited on the side of the highway. While a local taxi driver’s persuasions to hire him devolved into him digging up English phrases from his Soviet education 40 years ago, the Vardenis marshrutka came charging in. It stopped, and by the luck of the Irish it somehow still had its 3 stools empty. Happy and tired, we smashed ourselves in for the ride home. It was a great last weekend of (calendar) winter.

Winter in Vardenis

March 20, 2012

As I uploaded some new pictures today I realized I completely forgot to write a post about Winter in Vardenis. Better late than never…

In late February the town was slightly abuzz (as abuzz as it could be) about a special event. There would be no school the next day because of Winter in Vardenis. Not to be confused with a snow day, Winter in Vardenis is a sportish exhibition thing at the stadium here in town.

Since there are almost no organized activities here, I’d never been to Winter in Vardenis, and it just sounded funny, Laura and I both went together to experience it. My, what a site.

As we approached the stadium I thought to myself, “Wow, this is the first time I’ve ever seen the dilapidated stadium being used for anything other than a pasture.” There were some cars parked outside and lots of young men milling around. There was a guy aggressively riding a horse in the snow as everyone else watched. Inside the ancient entry way the scene unfolded to unveil even more akhbers (bros). There were a lot of people. Music was being blasted by a sound system precariously setup on a table with wires running through the snow.

It was pure mayhem

I guess the idea is that each school had a delegation. Soon a bus arrived from the 4th school and 30 kids and teachers jumped out. Hmm..okay, what about the rest of the school? The schools gathered in clusters and held little signs proclaiming which schools they were. Some chanted.

4th School, the most enthusiastic and cohesive. But I don't really under stand who they were cheering for.

The scene on the field was equally interesting. Several little stations were set up, denoted by huge signs. There were stations for arm wrestling, wrestling, kettleball lifting, and potato sack races. We both thought that the participants would be from the schools, but we were proven wrong. Random young guys seemed to compete. There were also quite a few participants decked out in military fatigues. It made the event that much more confusing for us.

Worst job? Sign holding.

The first event was a cross country ski race around the perimeter of the soccer field. We watched in disbelief as the guys strapped on skis that were probably around before perestroika. The race was extremely funny to watch because it was basically a 400 meter dash on skis. The two guys battling for first place, one of them in full army garb, were literally just running with skis attached to their feet. The incorrectness of it all was great.

We stayed long enough to watch some of the other events. The wrestling featured kids who had no business wrestling each other. But who needs weigh classes? This is Winter in Vardenis! The arm wrestling was entertaining. A guy in the crowd had a terrible Armenian mullet. I had been staring at him off and on between events. Suddenly he took his jacket off and revealed his absolutely jacked upper body. He was going to thrash in the arm wrestling event. To top it all off, he looked way too much like Michael Bolton from Office Space.

Bolton destroyed him

After a while we had seen enough and decided to go. It was a fascinating and peculiar event. As I walked out of the stadium and looked again at the cars parked in the snow, I thought, “Wow, it looks like a high school football game Armenian style.”

Later we learned that it actually made the national news. How and why I am not sure. I still can’t really believe that it was a thing and that it happened. It was like a Soviet version of a county fair. Spectacular!

Insert Peace Corps propaganda here

Two Steps Forward, One Back

March 16, 2012

In Armenia, and probably most other Peace Corps countries, progress is roundabout. There are no drives to the lane. Instead, the ball gets passed around, possibly bobbled, scrambled for, desperately tipped to a teammate, and then passed around some more. We all know it. The ability to accept that fact during the trials of daily life is the test of a volunteer.

It’s easy to forget that this isn’t America. It’s easy to lose your head. It’s easy to complain about things that don’t go quite how you wanted. Or about things that seem to be contrary to progress. But it’s our job to embrace those things as challenges that will somehow give us insight, perspective, or some other five dollar word that improves us. After all, it was our own decision that brought us here.

I sat there with pride. The pride was manifesting itself on multiple levels. I was proud that the meeting was even happening. I was proud that people came and seemed to be interested. I was proud of my counterpart for being a female leader in a man’s world. I was proud of the discussion that was taking place. I was even proud that I was able to understand enough of it to be able to take some notes.

Our strategic planning was finally finding its footing like a newborn colt. It was a beautiful sight! I felt like a volunteer in one of those hippy PC brochures. Motivation, readiness, and availability had all been improbably and delicately duct-taped together, allowing us to begin thinking about the organization’s past and future.

The funny thing is, as I was sitting there the translator’s phone kept ringing. I was oblivious to the fact that this was her new employer calling to congratulate her on earning her long-awaited for job. The next morning she came in, told us she was going to Yerevan, and was gone in a flash.

Actually I’m quite happy because she is my friend. Her new job will improve her life a lot. She waited for so long, often without hope. It’s terrific that she finally has a job that will pay her closer to what she’s worth.

The only bad thing is it leaves the YMCA in a bad position. We lose yet another qualified worker. It’s hard to get much lower on the food chain when you can’t pay your workers a good salary or even consistently pay them a low salary. That’s the reality of the situation here unfortunately. And of course the strategic plan gets delayed again. But that part is okay, because I know somehow, someway, we’ll get it done…just like Armenians always do.

State of the Union

March 7, 2012

I’m a bit tardy, but we’ll have to press forward. Behold, the state of all things relevant to this blog.

Language Learning
In her evaluation of me my tutor recently said, “Kevin, I feel like you started here (hand low), then it went like this (hand goes up quickly) and now it’s like this (hand leveling out and stagnating).” Yep, you nailed it!

I am failing superbly in the conferences department. I was supposed to help with 2 different conferences this winter as a trainer. One I was cut from the roster, and the other has been rescheduled and will be held during my last vacation.

Peace Corps Staff

Stories from other volunteers continue to disappoint me in our staff. It seems that there is a lot of weak, going-through-the-motions support going on. I have been disappointed myself on multiple occasions.

It’s stern. Stern, but fair. The last 2 days of February offered a teasing preview of Spring. That is, still cold but just warm enough to melt the snow and turn everything into muddy puddles. When I walk near the puddles and see water flowing from one to another with little tendrils of dirt dispersing through the mini tributary, I always think how perfect it would be for some epic G.I. Joe action figure battles. Now things have tightened up again and our highs are usually in the 20s Fahrenheit.

Mental State
The state of my mind has been fine. Daily moods have their normal ranges, which are indeed amplified by service, but overall everything is normal. There was a period of intense focus and worry about the immediate future after Peace Corps. This dangerous situation was steered in a positive direction with the introduction of Morrowind and other light entertainment. There is such a thing as taking yourself too seriously.

There haven’t been any new unbelievable acquaintances made in the community. I’ve long stagnated in that regard. But there is a new sense of blending in a bit more, or just not caring that people are staring. That comes from either realizing that the situation here is finite or from beginning to not give an F.

Exercise has been going pretty well, although I tend to slack off on the strength training. I’ve maintained my running regimen throughout the winter, which in a cold Armenian winter full of early mornings and slightly ravenous dogs, is a thing to be reckoned with. I’ve gotten sick a couple times recently, but that’s par for the course.

There hasn’t been much longing lately. That’s always good because it makes the daily life easier. Recently I’ve been stricken with a craving for vanilla long john doughnuts upon entering my all purpose room. From my deductions, this is either a random craving or is associated with the “man” smell that permeates from my sheets (you try hand washing sheets and see how often you want to do it) and is oddly similar to, coincidentally, vanilla long johns.

Not important to an American (at least me) but of vital importance to Armenians. My Merrills have been through a lot now. They are showing the proud signs of wear that only a 2nd year PCV’s shoes can show. I’m hoping to nurse them through to the finish line, despite what the Armenians think. I was recently asked at work in the sweetest way possible why I don’t change my shoes. Because I’m Kevin, duh.

My life is generally devoid of drama, which is exactly the result for which I design my life. However, being in PC provides plenty of outside drama as our organization is full of queens. The most recent drama is an error in Washington that means we didn’t get paid when we should have. Judging from Facebook you would assume that a large part of the PCVs here starved because they got paid a couple days late. I find this shocking and somewhat humorous, as I believe we get paid too much and am embarrassed by my salary here.

Armenia’s Politics
I don’t really follow it or care that much, but there is a parliamentary election coming up. The scene has already come alive. We are now getting the customary “There’s a planned opposition demonstration in Yerevan, please avoid it..blahblahblah” SMSs. Hopefully nothing crazy happens. The other big item is the tensions between Iran and the west. Little Armenia is stuck in the middle. A war in Iran would probably be devastating for Armenia, although geopolitically fascinating. Case in point, Iran is wary of Azerbaijan now, which just bought $1.6 billion in weapons from Israel. Azerbaijan is muslim and 26 million Azeris live in Iran.

Our Politics
I don’t really follow it or care that much, but there is a presidential election coming up. I’m glad I’m not home right now. I don’t want to stir up too many emotions in the ol’ fan base back home, but the GOP candidates all seem like a joke. And Obama has disappointed me quite a few times too. Congress is scary. You wonder when we’ll see a politician be able to make quality decisions for our country based on what we really need as opposed to what is good politically. The thing that concerns me most is our inability to be fiscally responsible. As one of my PCV friends who is a lot smarter than me pointed out upon me mentioning that we’re still number 1, actually, no we’re not. Look at a lot of the quality of life indices. America is nowhere near the top. We might have the most powerful economy (for now), but health, education, corruption, press freedom, and many other indicators show the true reality.

Close of Service
Our COS conference is a mere 1.5 months away. That will be the last time that I see a bunch of these crazy people in my life. Thoughts swirl in my head. “I should enjoy the remainder.” “5 months…I can do this.” “I need to sell my boots.” “What am I going to take back home with me?” “What do I want to do here in my final weeks?” There’s still a lot of time to think about it, but the end is drawing nearer.

The Work
Work has picked up considerably the last couple weeks. We’ve started the strategy thing finally, we just did the poetry contest, and I am spending a lot of time creating business and computer curriculum for another cool project I’m lucky enough to be a part of. Add to that language lessons, teaching myself Polish, searching and applying for jobs, and daily tasks, and suddenly I’m feeling busy.

The Toe
This may be too much information for some of the readers out there. But, on the other hand, if this is the straw that breaks your back, then good riddance. How have you managed to stay with this blog for so long? Since November I’ve been harboring an alien in my toe in the form of a plantar wart. What began as a slight pain and a few flakes of skin has devolved into frustrated trips to the PC doctor and a hearty smattering of home-treatment. Mr. Toe is wrapped in duct tape at the moment, as he is nearly 7 days a week straight. The duct tape helps the pain, but so far has not gotten rid of the bugger.

(Early Terminations) There have been a few in my group since Christmas, which is not surprising. We’re really dropping like flies now. I think 9 or 10 people from my group have left now, which is 15% of our total. That complies nicely with average rates. It’s interesting how everyone’s situation is so different, yet you can estimate with a fair amount of accuracy that around 15 or 20% of those fresh faces getting off the plane will go home early. Now we are getting into the territory of leaving for jobs/school or leaving because there’s nothing left, so the numbers might spike.

I can’t think of any other random topics right now. I am happy to accept updates on your lives in the comments.

The Mayor of Vardenis is an Asshole and The Poetry Contest That Could

March 3, 2012

It’s the night before our big poetry contest. We’ve been planning and preparing for 1 month. We’ve got agreement to use the music school and its nice concert hall. We have certificates. We have judges. We have prizes. We even have some interested kids. Everything is set. We just pray that some participants show up the next day. Suddenly, my phone rings. It’s my counterpart. She’s nervous. This isn’t going to end well, is it?

She informs me that there’s a problem. The music school director has called her and told her that we can’t do the contest there anymore. The night before. Why? Because when she called the mayor to inform him of the contest, he barked that he didn’t know about it beforehand and thus it wasn’t going to happen.

Now, obviously, this makes the mayor an asshole. Acting as a wrench to some international volunteers trying to organize something fun, educational, and meaningful for the kids in your downtrodden community? Brilliant. It doesn’t take a genius to know this contest is something you want to encourage in your town.

What kind of man tries to shut down a free competition for kids? Oh, that’s right, this kind of man:

His children are the most privileged in town. He walks around with a smug grin on his face. The thing that burns me most is how much more he’s probably done that I don’t know about. Words can’t really express what I’d like to do to this schmoozing sack of shit.

Why is it that the people who most need a great leader so often get stuck with the dredges of developing world life? The last thing the people of Vardenis need is a lying, conniving, insincere, and completely short-sighted douchebag parading around as their leader. I mean, on top of 75% unemployment, a winter that lasts 6 months, inflation of 10% a year, ridiculously crappy schools, roads that are more a series of potholes and bumps than they are something to drive on, trash everywhere, literally no places for entertainment, and low quality goods that cost an entire paycheck, the last thing you need is an asshole mayor.

So, he tried to ruin our day.

We still pulled off a great poetry contest thanks to my awesome counterpart and our amazing custodian at the Y.

Switching venues the night before meant that our custodian would have to come in and work all day on a Saturday. I felt bad about that. Her life is hard enough as it is. I came in this morning and helped her as much as I could getting ready. Then I went and stood in front of the music school in order to direct everyone to the Y.

Organizing the contest was stressful because of the unknowns involved. It can be hard to get Armenians to plan in advance and also to get them to participate in things. I was concerned about participation on multiple levels. First, I was not really sure if the 22 people who said they were coming would actually come. Would there be enough for a contest? Also, I had no idea if there would be random mystery participants. There were 2 whole schools from which we didn’t know if we’d have participants (they ended up not sending any students). Having a finite number of prizes, certificates, and now, seats in the smaller YMCA concert hall, these were legit concerns.

Thankfully, we had a great turnout with 20 participants. All of the judges came and were great. One by one the girls took the stage and nervously recited their poems. I was proud of them for even coming, let alone getting on a stage and reciting poems in a foreign language. Some of them forgot parts of their poems. Some of them recited like robots. A few read with emotion. And one really put her heart into it, which did not go unnoticed by the judges (she got the highest overall score). Not surprisingly, she is a chronic YMCA attendee. My counterpart, the custodian, and even my counterpart’s husband were beaming with pride after she annihilated her poem. The Armenians broke out into rhythmic clapping for the only time of the day. For those unaware, rhythmic clapping, although slightly creepy to me, is a sign of true adoration from Armenian crowds.

Packed house!

A few had cool confidence

Many were meek

And one stole the show

The joys of judging

Everyone got certificates and those who placed got prizes. There were smiles and phone calls home informing parents which place they received as we said goodbye. The winners came up to give me their information for the national contest, where they’ll proudly represent this little corner of Armenia.

The contest was a success, despite the mayor’s efforts to thwart us. I am happy, relieved, and thankful for all the help. Laura did as much or more than I did. She was a great partner to work with in organizing this event. It was a big team effort and great to see it come together.

Certificates: treasured disproportionately to their cost