Archive for May, 2012

10 Steps to Become a Dram Millionaire

May 30, 2012

I recently reached my goal of becoming a dram millionaire. Now I can put on a terrycloth robe and join Wayne in the Parlor of Dram Millionaires to smoke some cigars lit by 1,000 dram bills. Of course, I am adding in the 350,000 from earlier to my current bank account balance.

I thought about creating an illustrated PDF on how to become a DM (not dungeon master) in order to help the future PCVs. Then I realized that would be a terrible idea. Most people just don’t really care I think. It would come off as elitist and preachy. My passion for saving and personal finance borders on the extreme and is definitely considered strange by mainstream society. However, I think the old icenugget will have the last laugh. Or perhaps multiple laughs, throughout my long early retirement. Anyway, here’s how I did it:

1. You’re a volunteer, stupid.

You are poor. Act accordingly.

You are not a college kid. You are not a middle manager. You are not a successful business owner. Your income is limited and basic BECAUSE YOU ARE A VOLUNTEER. Remember this. Live accordingly. (all other rules flow from this one simple rule)

2. You can have luxury after your service.

Try going without a couple luxuries.

Dram millionaires don’t buy washing machines, even though they could. They hand wash their laundry because they didn’t join the Peace Corps to buy washing machines.

3. Learn the ropes of public transit.

Master this beast. It’s heading towards wealth.

If you are not walking, then you are definitely not taking a taxi. You better be in some form of public transportation. If there is no public transport, then consider hitchhiking if it’s safe. Other than that, just don’t go. “But a taxi is only 600 dram! A crowded, inconvenient marshrutka is 100 dram. I don’t see how saving 500 dram gets me to one million Kevin!” Grasshopper, the million is saved 500 at a time. It’s not about the taxi vs. the marshrutka. It’s about your mindset. Your money should be going to what’s important, which is not luxuries like taxi rides.

4. Save on food.

Try quasi-vegetarian living for a while.

This is the easiest place to save in the Peace Corps budget. Every month I spent half of what the suggested food budget was. How? No restaurant or café eating at site. Prepare all your own food. Buy meat sparingly, like almost never. Look for wholesome foods that stretch the dram. Cream of wheat, oatmeal, and pasta. Bread and cheese. Buy the produce that is in season, and thus, cheap.

5. This is not a booze cruise.

Yeah, it’s only $1.50. But you only make $300.

Beer is the most expensive thing you can drink in my opinion. At 400+ dram a pop, you can easily drink a couple thousand dram in one night. Less bad, but still not good, is wine. If you really want bang for your buck consider vodka. But the best choice is to drink as little as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I had plenty of drinking sessions here with friends, but it was never a regular thing. Don’t even get me started about going to bars.

6. Trip to Yerevan? Whoa.

Those mountains aren’t going anywhere.

Limit your trips to Yerevan. Yerevan has an insatiable appetite for your hard (or not so hard) earned dram. Not only is there way more to buy than what’s available at your site, but there’s also the transport to and from site, meals to buy, and lodging. The farther you live from Yerevan, the more painful it is for your budget each marginal trip you make.

7. Pump the brakes on the phone.

You are fortunate enough to be in a country with good telecom. Use it wisely.

There are many different options for you to make phone calls more affordably, yet many volunteers eat through several thousand dram every month just for phone calls. Buy an internet package and use Skype or other free VOIP to talk with people back home. Write letters. E-mails.

8. Track your spending, especially if you suck at saving.

Don’t turn a blind eye to your financial life.

People make fun of me for tracking my expenses in a spreadsheet. “That’s no way to live your life!” Actually, it’s a great way. It takes about 5 minutes a week. It makes you conscious of where your money goes. And now I can make fun of those people because they are eating shame meals at the end of every month while I have a million dram.

9. Avoid buying clothing and shoes.

Just say no.

Clothing and pointy shoes are ridiculously expensive. They are also incredibly poor quality. I made one purchase of a sweet Armenian Olympic jacket and it’s literally falling apart after 1 year of light use. Limit your buying to the absolute necessities. The stuff you brought from home will serve you much better than anything you buy here.

10. Make it a game.

Assign point values, if that’s your thing.

If you challenge yourself to save a million, and you see it as a series of small games to win, then you will probably make it. When I save 3,000 dram taking the marshrutka back to town from the airport instead of a taxi, I feel good because I won the game.

Summary Time
If you’re imagining me living some sad existence in Armenia the last 2 years in order to save the mil, just stop it. I did just as much as other volunteers in terms of seeing the country and having fun. But I constantly had #1 in mind the whole time. In fact, my savings rate was not that intense.

Since August 2010, I’ve received 3.8 million dram from PC. I saved 1.1 million. That’s a savings rate of 29%. In my previous job I was able to save closer to 45% while living a luxurious lifestyle. The personal finance blogs I frequent often shoot for a 60 or 70% savings rate. Still, my savings is almost $3,000! Not bad savings for a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Now, I’m not sure if I’ll ever be a millionaire again, so excuse me while I go enjoy this fleeting title.


Two Years Deep

May 27, 2012

I feel relaxed, calm, and cool. There is an imminent feeling of accomplishment. I have many reasons to be happy.

The completion of my service is now visible on the horizon. It pops up in conversation regularly, both with people back home and Armenians here. I’m already getting asked if I’ll come back again and if I want to go. The answers are yes and yes. The Armenians understand when I tell them I want to go home. Then they usually say something nice about me leaving, like “Oh, it’s so bad that you’re leaving in 2 months.”

The journey through the Peace Corps experience has always been one marked with milestones in my mind. From the application, to the medical checks, to the clearances, to the invitation, to staging, to training, to site, to the first year, and now, finally, the second year. At each gate I like to pause, take a look back to see where I’ve come, and then peer forward to see where I’m going.

So it’s been two years now that I’ve been living in Armenia. That’s pretty hard for me to believe. I always feel torn between the feeling that time has passed slowly and that it has passed quickly. Maybe it’s the theory of relativity at play. It really does depend on what is going on and how you think of the time.

If I think about leaving America two years ago, the tears with my parents at the airport, the feeling of uncertainty swirling around me just like it did on my first day of kindergarten, the time seems to have passed slowly. That seems like forever ago!

If I think about what I did last summer, the Border2Border stuff, the 4th of July celebrations, and lots of PST training, the time seems to have flown by. I feel like I just did that stuff!

They, the infamous they, say that the second year of service goes by a lot quicker than the first. I wish I could say they are not right this time, but I have to hand it to they, they usually know what they’re talking about. Perhaps because the first year is filled with a lot of firsts, a lot of trauma, a lot of adjustment, it lends speed to the second year, which is filled with a lot more normalcy.

Everything seems a bit sweeter now. Probably because I know soon the fresh Vardenis air will no longer flow in my window. I won’t be greeted by the shepherds and their cows on my morning runs. The peacefulness and lull of an Armenian afternoon will be a distant memory. There is a lot to be missed for sure. It follows that there is a lot to soak in right now. You try to fill your memory banks for the rest of your life, even though you know time is your greatest enemy.

When I lean out the balcony window and think of all these things, enjoying the wonderful spring weather, my thoughts drift back to one thing: “Two years…two years…”

Two years ago we came. We didn’t speak a word of Armenian. Nothing was familiar. We were sick, both physically and emotionally. It was a big struggle. And now I can remember those feelings from the enjoyment of my current equilibrious state.

May 2010: My look of consternation says it all

Nothing drives home the sense that my time is now short more than the arrival of the new group. There is a big group of strangers here to replace me. It is time for them to have their own unique journey. I can imagine what they are going through now, because I too have been there.

Many times the finish line seemed impossible, but now it’s been two years.

What Do You Do?

May 21, 2012

But Kevin, what do you do there? I have never had a great answer for this question. I do the community development. I try to find meaning for myself in a nebulous vacuum devoid of concrete work or routines. I try to be useful in some way. However, now is a convenient time to answer the question because I have been doing some stuff. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Novus is a really ambitious Peace Corps project spearheaded by our super volunteer. It’s the same guy who created Border2Border, which I worked on last year. I was happy when they asked me to help out because it’s kind of like Michael Jordan asking you to be on his team. The analogy falls apart here because I’m not sure which role player I am. Steve Kerr, nailing clutch 3’s from deep? Or perhaps Luc Longley, lobbing up hook shots from the top of the key. It’s quite feasible that I am Horace Grant, the bespectacled workhorse. Who knows. The important thing is I’m on the team and helping out with a cool project.

We even have a logo

Why is the project ambitious? Well, its goal is to provide 24 business lessons and 12 computer lessons as a college curriculum to host country national college students. The curriculum firms up areas of business in which the students are under-taught or even not taught at all. Not only does it aim to offer 36 two thousand word lessons with PowerPoint presentations, exercises, and videos where necessary, but it is tying that all together through a business simulator. That’s right – one of our volunteers is coding an educational computer game that is used as a tool alongside the lessons. The game lets the user control business decisions for a startup brewery. Oh yeah, this is all done in English but will all be translated into Armenian. And it is designed to be portable to other Peace Corps countries as well. Hopefully you are grasping the ambitiousness by now. This isn’t just a new toilet at the local school (although that is an equally worthy project IMO).

The project is a team effort. Some of our team is from the A-19 group. That’s crucial because my group is wrapping up soon. The end goal is to have local professors buy into the curriculum and use it in their universities. It will also be a powerful resource for new volunteers to use for local trainings. Here the team idea continues. Imagine…you are a new volunteer, confused and frightened by what to do with yourself. One of the experienced volunteers hands you a CD and explains that it contains everything you need to conduct business lessons in the community. That’s the idea behind Novus.

So, I just finished writing my 6th lesson (4 business, 2 computer) for the project. My lessons will be translated into Armenian, and then hopefully many other languages. My words will continue teaching people around the world long after I’ve turned in my water filter.

Strategic Plan
When the YMCA requested a volunteer over 2 years ago, they knew they wanted to do one thing: a 5 year strategic plan. I remember feeling a lot of anxiety when they first told me that because I had no idea how to write a strategic plan. I also had no idea about a lot of other stuff. I told them that I wasn’t ready, which in hindsight was the correct thing to do.

There was so much new that it was impossible for me to step back and critically assess my new organization. I didn’t even know what it was all about. For the past 2 years I have watched, observed, experienced, and thought about YMCA. I have a lot better grasp now what the organization is and how we can make some realistic goals for the future.

We started the planning process a couple months ago, but it stalled for several reasons. Actually that’s normal in Armenia and to be expected. Hence my push to finish this thing off now while there is still a bit of an emergency buffer zone. Now we are rolling like never before.

Last week we kicked off the needs assessment portion of the planning process. I was most concerned about this part because it involves various things outside of my control. We needed buy in from the community to help us. I needed a capable and willing partner in crime to help me. Luckily, everything has been working so far. Our new translator, while not so proficient in English, is eager to work and not scared of walking into a bureaucratic room full of teachers and asking them to fill out our questionnaire. The community was also open, if confused, about our needs assessment. We walked to the 4th school and got input from a class of students as well as some teachers. The next day we went to the college and did the same thing again. We’ve also been interviewing the staff of the YMCA to see what they think. This week we’ll wrap up that process and begin translating everything. Then it’s data analysis time (I’m looking forward to that the most). After that we’ll have a staff meeting to discuss our findings and brainstorm potential goals for the new plan. Then I’ll sit down and synthesize the whole thing into an actionable game plan.

The Most Difficult Question in the World

I’d like to take a ramble down a side path for a moment. The needs assessment. I am learning a lot just through conducting it. For example, I grossly underestimated the time it would take the Armenians to complete the simple 2 page form. I thought it would be a 5 minute affair. In reality it takes much longer. Maybe the questions are more thought-provoking than I realized. But I think the real reason it takes so long is that many of them have never filled out anything like this or even thought about these types of questions before. The first question asks them to list 3 things they like about Vardenis. The question is more painful for them than the fact that there are so few things to like in Vardenis. There is a systemic lack of critical thinking too. There is a mindset of, “How am I supposed to answer this?” instead of thinking creatively to answer the question. I can understand their plight, coming myself from a hometown that a lot of residents would have trouble listing 3 likeable characteristics for. But if Peace Corps has taught me anything, it’s how to appreciate what you have, no matter how little it is. Vardenis has water 24/7, is very peaceful, and has a nice mountain backdrop. Boom. Three things. It’s not that hard people. I know this paragraph risks sounding like white development worker in shining armor syndrome (they just don’t understand, whaaaa, etc.). I’m not claiming that it would go perfectly in America either. But it’s been eye opening.

Cultural Bridge
Now is the time of year where the YMCA deploys me as a temporary bridge to connect two different cultures. Part American, part Armenian (by now). West meets East. English meets Armenian. We just had a flotilla of Danish guests come visit. Several of them spoke English at a level far beyond anyone in our office. During times like this I can chat them up and charm them just like any good businessman while taking the pressure off of my colleagues.

Hanging out with foreigners – is this really a job?

We’ll also be having guests from an American Y soon, so I may be deployed yet again. These same guests came last year. It was quite interesting. It was also good to serve as a cultural guide for them and for the Armenians. It’s hard to explain the feeling, especially without sounding completely full of myself. After all this time here I have a comfort level bordering on the ridiculous when it comes to Armenian culture. And of course being around my own culture is like putting on an old pair of Asics. So it lends me the ability to know how both sides are thinking and then take the appropriate action.

Other Stuff

There is a lot of other smaller stuff that fills in the cracks. Writing this blog, for example, while pleasurable, is still technically part of my work here. I am trying to educate you about Armenia while also learning and reflecting myself. Then there’s the World Wide Schools correspondence with my class back in St. Louis. There’s training the new volunteers (they’re coming this week, oh my God). And of course preparing to leave. I’m also spending a large chunk of free time trying to learn Polish. And then there are the daily minutiae of cooking, shopping, laundry, and cleaning.

So that’s it. That’s what I do.

The Impact of a PCV

May 18, 2012

The other day I joined Peace Corps staff in their site identification visits. We met in Martuni where we went to an NGO. Then we went to a nearby village. PC is trying to restock Martuni. My first year here, the town and villages had 6 volunteers. Six! Now there are none. So it’s great that they are paying some attention to Martuni.

It was my first time in the village, Verin Getashen. It’s a beautiful and (relatively) rich village nestled along a river gorge with an inactive volcano as the backdrop. I say rich because all the houses seem to have new windows. That’s thanks to the relatives working in Russia and elsewhere. The village has two school and each wants a volunteer from our new crop.

The village had a volunteer as recently as one year ago. In fact, they had a great volunteer. Let’s call him…erm…Banny. Banny did good work there. The community loved him. His host family adored him. He left a great impression on the village. I heard so much about Banny during my short visit.

The village was supposed to have a new volunteer from the A-19 group (I’m A-18 if you remember). However, that volunteer was kicked out near the end of the training period. Still, he lasted long enough to do the site visit. Site visit is a 3 day visit to the permanent site during the training period. Apparently 3 days is enough to make a terrible impression.

This volunteer, let’s call him…erm…Boah. Boah was a “I play by my own rules” kind of guy. “I know what the Peace Corps is and it needs to conform to me. I’m AMERICAN.” That kind of guy. Well anyway, Boah effectively ruined a perfectly good host family because of his ridiculous behavior. I knew that he had messed up with Peace Corps staff multiple times and that’s why he was kicked out. But I didn’t know he also did as much damage elsewhere in the country.

A year has passed since his site visit but his host mom still recalled how “wild” he was. He had his feet propped up on the couch. He didn’t know how to hand wash his laundry. When she started showing him how, he just let her finish instead of taking the laundry task over. Then he hung his clothes outside even though it was going to rain. He had no other clothes. He was dirty and inconsiderate. From her ranting (not all of which I understood) I could gather that he didn’t really care what the family thought. He was doing whatever he wanted basically. And now the family won’t host another volunteer because of how poorly Boah behaved. And even worse, they have some idea that a lot of Americans might be like Boah.

I tell this story to illustrate the balance we must find in our countries. PCVs are little ambassadors. We represent Peace Corps. We represent America. And they are watching everything we do. We have to be so careful not to offend the locals while also somehow maintaining our own identity. Some Americans just flat out fail at this balancing act. This is where all the soft skills you learn throughout your childhood and adolescence come in handy.

Sometimes I am shocked at the way we act in Armenia. Volunteers like Boah think they can come in and behave like they do in America. That is the stupidest and most narrow-minded approach to living in a foreign country I have ever heard. And sadly, it is somehow a very “American” idea too. “Oh, they can just conform to me.” No! We are here to try to integrate into their culture, not the other way around. I will never understand the volunteers who sign up for this experience with that mindset. It is often challenging, difficult, and frustrating to conform to some standards in a foreign society. But it is also the ultimate sign of respect. Just like pouring your heart into learning the language is the best thing you can do to show them how much you care about their country, so is playing by their rules. I don’t care if it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable, or whatever. This is Peace Corps. You’re a volunteer. Do your job.

Thanks to Boah’s course of destruction, the Peace Corps is now pressed to find another suitable family in this village to host a volunteer. The next volunteer will have to work twice as hard to reinstate the good image of America they had in the village. All of this because Boah failed to do his job. Some of us complain that what we do here doesn’t last. Maybe some of the work we do is rather short-term, but the impressions we leave on the Armenians can last a lifetime.

How to Identify a Corrupt Election

May 8, 2012

The election is over now. No one died (yet). Today there is an opposition demonstration in Yerevan, but it seems that the ruckus will die down until next year’s presidential election.

So, was the election a success? According to the news outlets and what I’ve heard, yes and no. It was relatively peaceful, but still several degrees removed from what we would consider a fair election in the States.

For those of you back home, I want you to close your eyes and imagine the following (okay, read it first, then close your eyes):

• You get a knock on the door the week before the election. A party representative hands you a 10,000 dram bill. That’s about $25. But wait, the GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity in Armenia is around $5,300. In America, it’s $48,300. So to an Armenian that $25 is really like one of us getting handed $225. How much is your vote worth?
• You see brand new Ukrainian tractors displayed in your town with political signs inside. The word on the street is, if the party gets enough votes the tractors will be “donated” to the community.
• You are forced to vote for the ruling party in order to keep your job.
• You go to vote with your passport and all your papers in order. You are an honest person. So, you are dismayed when the temporary ink stamp you receive on your passport after voting disappears within a few minutes. The stamp was supposed to stay visible for 12 hours.
• You are crowded into a polling place and have to deal with representatives from several different political parties meandering around. Some of them even come to blows.
• You are a student. You are not a fan of the president’s political party (which also holds the most seats in parliament). However, you are forced to attend a speech in the capital due to your teachers’ threats. You attend the rally. Suddenly, a man lights a cigarette and the decorative balloons burst into flames. They were not filled with helium but with a flammable gas. You suffer burns, just like 150 other young attendees. The president goes on to give his speech, does not say anything about the incident, and then a concert is held after his speech.
• You aren’t happy with the election. You want to attend the opposition rally held two days later in the capital. You live outside the capital in a regional town. Somehow, public transportation to the capital is canceled on the day of the rally.

Sadly, I’m not making any of this stuff up. I’ve gotten used to the behavior in Armenia. They don’t know how to form lines. Corruption is rampant. Stuff like that. But when you apply the same behavior to the election, it seems worse somehow. Or it’s just sadder to me. It’s sad because the fate of their nation is at stake. By many accounts the current administration has failed them, yet the ruling party came away with even more parliamentary seats. Why is that? Is it due to the corruption of the election process? Or did the people really want to vote for the ruling party? Maybe there was no better alternative. Regardless, I wish the election could have been cleaner. Still, change is slow and small here. There was no major violence and it was relatively clean. That will have to do as progress for now.

T-3 Months: With Speed

May 5, 2012

We’re over 23 months in now. Just a few more left until this whole experience implodes in on itself into a series of memories. For the rest of my life I’ll be hard pressed to not start every sentence, “When I was in Armenia…”

Recently the days have simply been dropping off the calendar like bread crumbs from my table to the floor. It seems that just yesterday I was planting trees but now it’s 11 days later. This phenomenon of time moving quickly is due to another phenomenon called Being Busy. Quite rare in Armenia, Being Busy is most likely to be found in and around the capital city. It’s extraordinarily rare that we could find a case of Being Busy in the Vardenis area.

I joke (and possibly poorly). I’d like to think that most other PCVs are busier than me at any point in time. And the Armenians are generally busy, besides males aged 16-80. But it has been a busy little period. There’s been stuff going on both at work and in the personal life, the combination of which has turbo charged my sense of time.

Work-wise it’s been a search for a new translator at work (now completed), trying to wrap up the Novus lessons, and a series of meetings with/for Peace Corps. Now that we have a translator we are continuing the strategic planning process. Gosh darnit I may not know what I’m doing but I have to act like it for the Armenian’s sake. So we trudge ahead. There’s other stuff that I need to get done too before I say my final hajoghs. I’d like to get a solar consultant out to the Daranak camp to get a good estimate for the project I wrote. I need to do all the bureaucratic paper work of the leaving PCV. And I have an idea for a small little project that would be a perfect going away thing. All of this work is exciting and not yet stressful because there is still a lot of time. But I’ll be disappointed if I don’t get it all done.

Besides the work, I just recently had a guest this week. You may remember Ula from the first months in Vardenis. Well, she came back to visit! And she stayed with me for 4 or 5 days. It was a flurry of visits, memories, and fun times. She was a great and easy guest. However, if any of you know me by now, you’ll know that I need to curl up in a little ball and not see another person for about 3 weeks now. That’s hard to do though because there is a lot of work still to be done! In the garden, that is. I’ve also been continuing to help Ludy in her garden for the epic potato plant. Today our efforts were partly foiled by rain. We could have easily finished today, but instead will take another stab at it this week after the election.

Some part of this gal’s body was turned into taco meat for my guests. Appetizing!

I can say that despite all this activity I have been very aware of a shift in the feel of my service. It now feels like I’m entering the goodbye stage. Maybe it’s the new people coming in a few weeks. Or maybe it’s the new spring weather. But I think more than anything it’s that everyone knows my departure is imminent. Even the people who don’t know about that are acting differently. The little boys rarely bother me anymore. The stares are at an all time low. Even the old barber that I’ve walked by every day for 2 years has started talking with me. There’s no doubt that I’ll never feel this Armenian again in my life. I unconsciously made a facial expression at work the other day and Varditer laughed. She said it was like an Armenian. My language has reached a comfortable level where I’m able to really have conversations with people. And I even find myself doing the Armenian tongue click thing before saying no or when something is bad. This is my cute, “Oh wow, look how integrated I am!” moment that every obnoxious PCV has. For that I apologize.

The warm ending begins embracing me. I wonder if it’s like hypothermia, where you become delusional and eventually feel exhilarating warmth, ripping off your clothes even though you’re freezing. Perhaps this feeling of integration is no more than the body’s way of coping with two years of stress. Or perhaps it’s just me allowing this wonderful journey to have the bittersweet end it was always destined.