Archive for June, 2012

This is (nearly) the End

June 28, 2012

One time when I was in grade school we were all running out to the playground. We decided to play kickball. Having one of the strongest legs in the school, I was bursting with excitement. I could picture myself blasting home run after home run to central right field. As we ran down the playground to start the game, I started to feel my legs falling behind my body. Add in the slope of the hill and soon you had young Kevin flying through the air, landing right in the middle of my forehead on the pavement. It must have looked really funny. Well, that’s exactly how I feel at this moment, minus the falling on my head part. It feels like things are going faster than I can keep up with.

There is now just one month of service left. A huge chunk of my comrades will be done on Tuesday. This weekend is the final get together. It’s fitting to be wrapping up now, even if it is weird. The A-20s are already here and getting ready for their site visits. It’s time to hand over the reins to them and the 19s.

Endings are always exciting, bittersweet, and weird. I’m trying to begin processing the 2 year experience I had here. I’m trying to wrap things up. I’m trying to cherish the remainder. And I’m trying to prepare for the future.

It’ll be sad to see my friends for the last time this weekend. This group of people is so strange and diverse, yet it’s also like a family. We’ve all gone through most of the same stuff together. We have something in common that almost no one else will understand. I have to be honest that I’ll miss the gossip, the impressions of other volunteers, the alliances and enemies, and all the other drama that is associated with a Peace Corps social life. Also I’ll just miss the people themselves. Some of them are so unique and once-in-a-lifetime.

Life goes on, of course. Next week Aga and I will be travelling into the south to visit the very famous Tatev monastery. We’re also spending some time in Dilijan. There’s a lot of other stuff I’d like to do before I leave too. So, I’m not yet ready to say goodbye to Armenia. But with each day, I grow more excited for my return to America.

The Walk to Ayrk: Round 2

June 26, 2012

Nearly a year and a half ago we made a frigid trek to an isolated village. I always wondered if the village was really as sad in the summer as it was that cold winter day. In the meantime I’ve also heard a couple stories about a great church in the village, which we didn’t see. As the weather is now ideal for walking, we decided to make another visit to Ayrk.

Most of the villages of Vardenis are near the road to Yerevan, the road that goes around the lake, or the road that goes into Karabakh. This village is nestled on a little offshoot road from Vardenis that looks like it just disappears into the tall mountains. The road is in poor condition. There are two smaller skeleton villages even farther down the road but it seems that there are no permanent residents there. So, the only reason people are on this road is to go to one of these villages. There are no other destinations to reach. That’s why, as we walked, nearly every car stopped to ask if we wanted a ride into town. Not that there were many cars anyway…

The rough road to Ayrk

The weather was ominous when we headed out. I began to wonder if this was a big mistake. Dark clouds were skipping along the mountains right next to us. We heard the crack of thunder several times from the road up ahead. But somehow the clouds stayed velcroed to the mountain range. We managed to avoid the worst of the storms and only got a light sprinkling for 10 minutes or so. If anything it was refreshing.

We continued walking down the old road, taking in the beauty of the green hills, grazing cattle, and other little villages in the distance. We ate chocolate and talked about a lot of random things, mostly connected with PC, as we approached Ayrk. The smell of fresh grass, wildflowers, and ozone filled our nostrils with every step.

The first thing I noticed when we were within range is that the village sign had disappeared. Last year it was there but had only 2 letters. I guess someone decided that no sign is better than a sign with 2 letters. The village was noticeably happier than it was in the winter, but that’s no surprise. It was more alive too, as some people from Vardenis reside here during the summer with their livestock. There was a flock of sheep on a distant hill that moved together in a mesmerizing way, creating a flow of white dots on a green backdrop. Cows lazily grazed on the nearest blades where they were tied. They looked at us with indifference and continued chewing.

In Armenia the difference between winter and summer can be…

…drastic

The ground was wet, making me thankful we had missed the meat of the storm. We snaked our way through some muddy puddles and continued into the center of the village. The mayor’s office stood with its familiar tattered Armenian flag. This time the flag was completely wrapped around itself due to the fierce wind. Here we paused, unsure of how to reach the churches. Just then a villager started taking her goats towards the road to get a better look at us.

I greeted her and heard some unidentifiable Russian words. She then switched to Armenian, a bit startled that I spoke it. At first she couldn’t understand me. I kept repeating the question, “Where is the church?” The word church is difficult for us; I don’t think I’ve ever heard it pronounced by an American quite like the Armenians say it. Anyway, she somehow understood me finally. She showed us the road but was more interested in inviting in for coffee. I looked at the others to get their consensus. Secretly we were all hoping for it.

She led us to their kitchen, which was outside the house in a separate little shack. I couldn’t stand straight inside. The pitched roof was haphazard. There were some pots and pans on the soot-colored floor. A meager bed sat next to a small table with a few chairs that must have been taken from the school. I remember sitting on the same hard little chairs during our agonizing language lessons during training.

Our hostess was explaining that we couldn’t go inside the proper house because her husband had just fallen asleep and another relative was sick. But two of her daughters couldn’t fight their curiosity and sheepishly joined us in the kitchen. The woman had 4 daughters. Two are married and not living at home any more. The other two still live in the village. They were in their early 20s. It was obviously strange and interesting for them to see us and meet us. One of them had never been to Yerevan before. As we became more comfortable with each other over coffee, one of the girls asked if she could ask us a question. “Why are you so simple?” I understood her words but not her meaning. I asked for clarification. She explained that we were dressed in simple clothes and we were very open and free. This girl, whose father won’t allow her to have a Facebook account let alone leave the village at will, couldn’t understand why. Faced with such a deep question and such little time to answer (not to mention vocabulary), we told her the honest truth: we’re not exactly sure why, but it’s part of our culture.

This family was a refugee family. But instead of being from deep within Azerbaijan, they were from an Armenian area that I always found interesting when scouring the map.

The Armenian and Azeri borders are some of the most interesting you can find. Chunks are missing, little slices are misplaced, and the border can look completely different depending on which source you use. One of the features I never understood were the little islands of Armenia within Azeribaijan and little islands of Azerbaijan within Armenia. How is that possible? What does it mean? During my service I eventually learned that these areas were historically populated by one ethnicity even though they existed in the neighbor’s country. I’m still not clear as to why they’re depicted on the map as islands. Anyway, it turns out that the Armenian island within Azerbaijan is actually not populated by Armenians anymore. During the war in the early 90s it was evacuated because it was under attack. I think the same thing happened with the Azeri pockets of Armenia. This youngest daughter, who was grinning to be speaking with some strange foreigners, was born 3 days before the attack. The family was forced to pack up and move or face destruction.

From Artsvashen to Ayrk

We finished our coffee and said goodbye to the mom. Her daughters came with us to show us the churches. Their dog, Sharik, also came along. He was a happy dog that alternated between following us, leading us, and exploring everything along the way. The green of the hills’ grass appeared brighter than ever as we left the dark, brown kitchen. We descended down a gravel road with the Armenian girls, asking each other questions along the way.

Then a field of khachkars appeared amongst the backdrop of hills. It was a stunning sight. The church was simple but also interesting. The girls said that “Turks” built the church and some of the khachkars. Many Armenians simply call the Azeris Turks. But we couldn’t understand why a Muslim Azeri would build a church or a khachkar. We pointed out that there were Armenian inscriptions on the church and cross stones. They countered that the Armenian letters spelled out unintelligible words. Maybe it was just really old Armenian (think old English) or maybe the letters really were used by Turkish people to write something in their own language (still I doubt this). Regardless, the place was beautiful.

One of the most beautiful places around Vardenis

Sharik the Shun was our tour guide

The khachkar was there centuries before I was born. And it will be there centuries after I die.

Nearly 2 hours had passed in the village already. It was time for us to go. The girls walked us far out of the village, where they turned their heads to hide at every car that stopped to ask if we needed a ride. They thanked us for coming and for giving them an interesting way to spend their time. They even invited us back for a holiday. As we walked off back towards civilization, I couldn’t help but wonder how these girls spend their daily lives in this sleepy village. I was happy to have met them and seen their village. The feeling of satisfaction filled me up for the rest of the day.

Failed Stated Index

June 22, 2012

The other day I read a funny headline on my favorite Armenian news site: Armenia ranks 102nd in Failed States Index, ahead of regional neighbors

That sentence says a lot about the mindset here. “Even if things suck, we are somehow happy if we are better than our neighbors.” Maybe that’s not just an Armenian way of thinking but a human way of thinking.

Anyway, 102nd isn’t great, but it could be much worse. As I browse the list for other Peace Corps countries, I am once again reminded that Armenia is a pretty good draw in the grand scheme of things.

Check out the list for yourself:
Failed State Index

I’m retiring to Scandinavia when it’s all said and done.

Armenia: Pomegranates, Apricots, and Danger

June 18, 2012

No harness necessary in Hayastan

After my last post which made all my family members concerned about my plans to visit Nagorno Karabakh this summer, I present you with the softer side of danger in Armenia. That is, in this ancient land that is often still sculpted and cared for in the mindset of yesteryear, there is often little thought invested towards everyday safety.

Perhaps in America we are too concerned with safety. In fact, I’m sure of it. Horror stories about the TSA’s wrongdoings, way too much regulation and legislation trying to keep us safe, and everything swabbed in Purell lends me to believe that we don’t have things exactly right either. But let’s take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Just yesterday, I was watching in amazement as the construction workers across the street did roofing work. There was an old soviet crane parked on the street below with its boom fully extended. As the boom couldn’t quite reach the roof, they just placed it next to the balcony on the highest floor of the building. Workers were standing on the roof passing down old roofing materials (in this case large sheets of rusty metal) to other workers standing on the balcony. The balcony railing was removed so that they could more easily load the materials. The materials were being loaded onto a wooden pallet suspended quite precariously by a seemingly odd number of steel cables from the crane hook. The pallet was not level. The workers were really overloading the pallet with sheet after sheet of roofing. I shook my head and thought, “THAT doesn’t look good.” The thought was supposed to be smug and ominous of course. Now, many things in Armenia that don’t look good end up working somehow. It’s like this magic that is in the air that makes things work even thought they shouldn’t.

The building from my balcony. Tragically, I didn’t get one of the overloaded pallet.

But in true Armenian fashion, the magic was running a little late on Sunday. A couple moments later I heard a very loud crash. I ran to the window again to see sheet metal all over the sidewalk below and a bunch of Armenian men standing silently with their heads hung in disbelief. I could tell they were surprised it didn’t work. Thank God they did do one thing right – they roped off the sidewalk under the work area. Because of that no one was killed.

It still shocks me sometimes even after two years here. To the newcomers the lackadaisical safety standards can be especially surprising. I remember standing around one day at a training event during our PST and hearing a story from another volunteer. He asked his host family about the large tank of liquid natural gas located in the trunk of the family car. “What happens if you’re hit from behind?” he asked them. The response was “vochinch”, which can be translated as it’s no big deal, it’s nothing, don’t worry about it, etc. We both laughed at the absurdity of it.

While Armenians are pretty good drivers (although daring at times), the cars leave a lot to be desired when it comes to safety. The seatbelts rarely work or exist. Usually there are belts in the front seat but most the time they are not operational. The belts are there so that the driver and passenger can quickly swing them over a shoulder when a police car approaches. They are a way to avoid fines, not a way to be safe. Other things like airbags or other safety features can only be found in the newer cars. You’re only cool if you have bald tires. You get the idea.

Typical Armenian trunk. There’s a lot of junk in this trunk (note the gas tank).

The holes. You gotta watch out for the holes. Sometimes you are walking and there is just a pretty big hole on the street or on the sidewalk. Those will get you. Likewise, you need to keep your eyes on the ground at all times, especially when crossing through entryways and navigating stairs. There are constantly obstacles set up to trip you and stairs with the most ridiculous rise over run patterns. If you’re a bit taller you will need to divert one of your eyes from the ground to the cranial region as well. Low lying pipes, doorways, and trees are everywhere.

Let’s go back to cranes again.

The Crane of Danger

I was shocked on a completely different occasion when I heard the same rig firing up right outside my window. I looked on and saw something very interesting: a couple of squirrely boys helping what looked like their grandpa set up the crane. Things quickly escalated from interesting. Other suitable adjectives could be: alarming, amusing, dumb-founding, and unbelievable. The grandpa guy was operating the crane to pick up an old domik (shipping container turned into a building). Then he got out to issue some commands to the other guys. After that one of the kids hopped into the cabin thing and started operating the crane. And it wasn’t just, “Hey Jr, you can move the crane towards the domik but then get out so I can do the hard part!” No, it was the kid doing the delicate act of picking up a domik on a rickety 3 cable system. Other safety violations included: not roping off the sidewalk, swinging the boom through trees which touch power lines, and driving a tractor underneath the suspended domik in order to put a trailer underneath the domik.

Notice the boy. Also notice that Crane of Danger appears to be stealing my laundry.

There are numerous other examples, but I think you get the picture. Every day you can see something here that would be considered unsafe in other countries. It is funny, entertaining, and horrifying all at once. The only way to cope with it is to just accept the Armenian safety magic, which really does exist.

Armenia: Geopolitical Wonder

June 4, 2012

If we compare the geopolitics of Armenia to a physical entity, the thing that comes to mind is the bubbling gray muck that gurgles under your feet in Yellowstone National Park. All the tension, hatred, and pain of a downright grim century (and more) boil beneath the surface. Your once great country is now a small landlocked speck, and the people can’t forget. Over a million of your kin were slaughtered by your neighbor, yet most people won’t talk about it. You won a bloody battle for your mountainous brothers and a land you can at least partially lay claim to historically, and yet no one recognizes the newly founded “country.” It’s volatile and mysterious. And it’s surrounded by a bunch of other similarly strange sights from its neighboring countries. Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran all have their own steam vents, geysers, and mysterious bubbly soups going on. It’s at that moment that we realize it’s all because the entire region is just like the mega-volcano that lurks beneath the surface of Yellowstone, making the whole wondrous thing possible, and yet threatening utter oblivion at a moment’s notice.

As the New York Times recently wrote, the Caucasus is a place of many problems and high stakes. Hillary Clinton is visiting Armenia today in what appears to be an attempt to give this wrinkly section of the world map a good ironing. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as getting your dress shirt looking nice.

Just this morning the Azeris again violated the long-standing cease fire with Armenia. However this time it wasn’t just some snipers trading shots back and forth across the border. The Azeris attempted to overtake an Armenian position apparently. Three Armenian soldiers were killed and 6 others wounded. They repelled the attack and inflicted their own casualties. All of this happened in the northeastern corner of the country, which is not even near the enclave of Nagorno Karabagh. The attack brings a lot of questions to mind: What were they trying to do? What is the Azeri’s strategy? Why did they do this on the day of Hillary’s visit? Does this affect the big picture? What will happen in the future between these countries?

Perhaps the big volcano will go off at some point. If Azerbaijan and Armenia fall back into war with each other, they will undoubtedly drag some other participants with them. And the other participants are likely to be big players. Russia. Turkey. Iran. I have no idea what would happen, but the instability of the region seems to suggest any war in the Caucasus could have major ripple effects. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I fear it might some day.