Archive for July, 2012

10 Things I’m Happy to Leave in Armenia

July 27, 2012

The feeling of finality is more palpable by the day. With that comes a rush of activity; cleaning, packing, and getting organized are now becoming priorities. Still, it’s transitional times like these when I really like to sit down and have a good think.

With that comes the first of two top 10 lists I’ve prepared. I figured I’d start with the negative one and end on a more positive note. Much of this post was written months ago – any time I was going through a hard situation. Those are the moments when you can really capture your angst.

So, here are 10 things that I won’t be sad to leave behind in my adopted home:

1. Akhbers
Akhber is the Armenian word for “bro.” The word started as yeghbayr (brother) but has devolved into this delightful form, which you can hear all over the place. Some people take it an additional ridiculous step and just say simply ap. Now you understand the word. Let me explain the problem.

Figure A: Akhber. Travel in packs. This specimen is an albino. More frequently all black. On rare occasions the two types join together in a group of 3 and strut down the street in Oreo cookie formation.

The akhbers are the young guys hanging out on every street corner, smoking, listening to rabbiz (really crappy Russian/Persian-influenced Armenian pop) music, wearing tight pants with black pointy shoes, oversize sunglasses, and greasy terrible haircuts, parading around giving each other slap handshakes and pecks on the cheek. They enjoy idling away, possibly squatting and consuming copious amounts of sunflower seeds. You know you’ve found akhber tracks when you see a large pile of sunflower shells, cigarette butts and packages strewn about, fresh loogies hawked everywhere, and a series of pointy-toed footprints in the snow.

Forensic evidence points to akhbers

The akhbers represent the dregs of Armenian society, and unfortunately, way too much of its populace. Many of these young men don’t have jobs and simply have nothing else better to do. But that’s the problem. They could be reading a book, learning a skill, or trying to earn a few dram for their families. Instead, they are content to spend all day with their buddies, strutting around as if they are God’s gift to the world. If you walk down the street and hear someone laughing at you, it’s most likely an akhber. Refrain from laughing back; you are the real winner in this situation.

2. Talking Over Each Other
I’ve encountered it so many times. Each time it makes my skin boil a bit more than the last. Reminiscent of my time in corporate America, where phrases like, “I get that” were rudely superimposed on many a conversation, the phenomenon in Armenia truly drives me nuts.

It is quite common to find yourself trapped in a room full of Armenians where the conversation is rapidly going from loud/annoying to slightly uncomfortable/awkward. They debate and speak passionately. To foreign eyes it appears that everyone is pissed off, but in reality they aren’t. They’re just very animated and lively at times. Then the conversation undoubtedly erupts into a chorus of 2 to 5 people simultaneously barking different opinions at the same time. Somehow, there is always one person who can’t gain anyone’s attention yet continues rambling nonetheless. It’s like a big game of I Can Be Louder Than You and I Won’t Stop Talking Because My Point of View is the Most Important. That gets old really fast.

It’s not only my own anecdotal evidence. The problem is systemic and has metastasized throughout Armenian culture:

“But within the first ten minutes of presentations the discussion spiraled out of control as the debating sides, disregarding the efforts by the moderator to bring the discussion back to a more debate-like format, began to hurl accusations against each other and talking at the same time without listening to each other.”

ArmeniaNow.com regarding the first political debate in the country in 9 years

3. Second Hand Smoke
This problem could have been so much worse. Thank God the Armenian men smoke girly light cigarettes that don’t stink that badly and don’t leave nearly as much smoke in your hair or on your clothes.

Still, second hand smoke is everywhere. Especially considering the recent crack down in many states on smoking in public places, the smoking here is just annoying. And a lot of the smoke being blown in my face has come from other volunteers sitting across from me in the bar. There is no such thing as a car ride in the winter without a suffocating smoking session with the windows closed. And I’ll never forget the time I was in a marshrutka of mostly men with a lax driver who let everyone smoke while not even cracking the window. Everytime I smell the smoke I thank my lucky stars for the girly cigarettes.

4. Litter
There is no such thing as a clean Armenia. If it’s clean, it means no one has set foot there yet. And that’s impossible in a country the size of Maryland with herders and shepherds roaming around in the crevices.

The first thing tourists notice is the garbage

What should be an incredibly beautiful country is tragically pretty at best because of the horrendous state of the environment. The Soviet apocalypse is evident no matter where you are. But the Armenians can’t just blame their Soviet brethren (many of which are still waddling around a street corner near you or completing a reign of terror as headmaster of the local underachieving school).

The problem is more or less recent. The plastic bag is by far the worst invention the Armenian countryside has ever seen. There are more yellow, red, white, and clear bags flying around than there are citizens. Add to that cigarette packs, ice cream wrappers, and plastic bottles and you have a crisis. Everything natural about this country has been ruined. Rivers struggle to flow over the piles of garbage. City drainage systems are damned with packaging. And Armenians just don’t seem to care in the slightest. Throwing trash out the car window is normal. Opening an ice cream and throwing the wrapper on the ground, even right next to a “Clean Vardenis” trash can, happens way too often. It drives me crazy every time I see it. How can you convey to people they are ruining their country? And why do I care more about Armenia than they do?

5. Treatment of Animals
As I prepared for my run I was startled by a loud blast. A minute later there was another. Sure enough, when I ventured outside I found two dogs in the street. “Just keep running, just keep running,” I hummed to myself to the tune of Dory’s song from Finding Nemo.

Dogs are routinely shot in an effort to control their numbers. As inhumane as that is, I sort of understand it. I can deal with it in an angry way. I know they don’t have the means to spay and neuter these dogs or open a pound for them. Those are 1st world solutions. It’s naïve to think that in a country where so many people go cold and hungry that dogs should receive the royal treatment. But it isn’t just the killing that bothers me. It’s the daily treatment of the animals. It’s the lack of respect. It’s the thought that animals don’t need to be a concern. This dangerous mindset comes with huge repercussions. The Armenians are constantly ravaging the indigenous animals, whether it’s shooting an ever-increasing rare bear upon sight or over-fishing Sevan to near extinction of the local delicacy during the dark years. Again, I understand it because of the situation of the country, but I wish it was not that way.

6. Nationalistic Ethnocentrism
Some of the other items on this list are tolerable to a certain extent. I’ve lived amongst them for 2 years after all. But this one grates on nerves like none other. It’s not without reason that any time 2 or more PCVs gather in the same place there is at least one joke related to Armenian ethnocentrism.

There have been hundreds of times I’ve just smiled and nodded as Armenians told me ridiculous things about their people and country, such as, “We invented the green ink in the dollar bill,” or, “Greeks and Assyrians don’t really count as part of the Genocide,” or, “Armenian is the most complicated, difficult language in the world” (+1 if spoken by an Armenian who speaks only Armenian). That last claim is usually followed by the ipso factso of “It is much easier for us to learn foreign languages.” There is no limit to the absurdity or number of outrageous claims.

Armenians have a lot to be proud of. I’ve covered some of that here if you’ve been following along the last 2 years. I’m proud just to have lived here. But a little humility and self-awareness is also a good thing. They don’t understand basic things like why the US doesn’t recognize the genocide. Or why I don’t know who Charles Aznevour is. Or that we have potatoes, fruit, and coffee in America too. I’m not sure if it’s truly ignorance or a self-preserving defense mechanism, but for many Armenians they are simply the most important and most influential people in the world. I know America has a bad case of this as well, although in our case it’s made worse by the clout that America really does pull on the global level. Regardless, for the rest of my life I won’t miss hearing an Armenian tell me his blood is 100% pure Armenian.

Many Armenians use the country’s historical (but lost) strength to back ethnocentric views.

7. Homogeneity
Sometimes you just want to look out and see black people. Or hear someone with a twang to his speech. Or see something different. Anything.

Waldo would be so easy to find

The lack of diversity makes me appreciate diversity that much more. Even going to Tbilisi, relatively vanilla by American standards, seemed like a diversity convention compared to Armenia. There is more to the world than one type of people. I’m glad I’m returning to a place that is so strong that it attracts the best people from all the countries of the world and allows them to intermingle, thereby creating a super country. This is our advantage.

For anyone reading some cheesy diversity mandate at work thinking, “What good is diversity? What’s the big deal?” – just come to a country that has zero diversity and you will see the value.

8. Doing Nothing
People who know me well know that I love nothing other than a lazy weekend where I don’t have to do anything. Nowhere to go, nothing I have to do, just pure relaxation. However, I can’t do nothing forever. I do like to accomplish things and recognize that good old fashioned hard work is rewarding. It makes the downtime even sweeter.

With that said, I will not miss the Armenian affinity for doing nothing. I cannot count the number of times I have been in the office either bored to tears or just frustrated because of their attitude towards work. There were entire weeks and months that seemed to be a big coffee break. The work was (extremely) light and the gossip was heavy. I know this difference is cultural. Some cultural differences are easier to get along with than others. This one was difficult.

There is a massive connection between this cultural attitude and the state of the country. A lack of motivation in the common Armenian to even get started improving the country is a death sentence for any progress. People are content to wait around and bide their time. There is still a large handout mindset as opposed to doing what it takes to help yourself. There are so many wasted human resources in this country. Right now there are two people in the room with me just staring off into space.

9. Winter
You’ve heard me bitch about it enough already. If you’ll tolerate one more lashing, this’ll be the end of it.

The winter here is rough. There are colder places in the world. There are snowier places. There are places with less sun. But those places are pretty close to the arctic circle I imagine. It’s not one thing that brings you down like it is in the US. In the Midwest winters we can complain about not getting sun. That’s true. But it’s not that cold, it’s not that long, and there are only a handful or two of snowfalls. In Armenia it’s the combination of outdoor and indoor cold, length, and persistent snow that have me gleefully running towards the exit.

The length and the indoor temperatures are the things in particular that make it hard to deal with. When you see your breath inside your house in early October and know that you have to deal with that until the end of April, it tests you. I know that these winters have hardened me up a bit. I’ll never be able to complain again about the cold because I know I’ll have a warm abode to retreat to. That’s not always true in Armenia.

Never again

10. Myths About Health
It’s bad being sick in a foreign country. It’s even worse to be sick and have the locals tell you why you’re sick, especially when what they’re telling you is firmly rooted in culture and mysticism instead of science.

People of Armenia, please hear me now. You did not, do not, and will not get sick from being cold. Yes, more people get sick during the winter time. But that’s probably because we’re all huddling together in the same room for warmth while dabbing at our runny noses with a snotty handkerchief that is permanently in our hand because it’s culturally unacceptable to give your nose a big honk in public.

Cold feet do not lead to nausea. Cold will not penetrate your organs and cause long term damage such as cancer. The solution to illness is not muraba, or matsun, or vodka. You should stay home when you are sick because you actually get sick from other people, not that wind blowing in the marshrutka window. That’s right, it’s the little kid sneezing on you. So, it’s 100 degrees in here and we can go ahead and keep that window open folks.

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Fashion in the Soviet Sphere of Influence

July 26, 2012

It’s time for the Olympics. While sadly I won’t be able to tune in to any sappy Bob Costas pieces this year, I am able to do some recon from the internet.

An interesting story was posted last week:
Spanish Olympic Uniforms

It’s a nice example of the Russian style that unfortunately spills over into hapless countries such as Armenia. Hairy men in track suits like these with “ARMENIA” or “RUSSIA” blazed across the back are an all too common site in this part of the world. The moment I saw the Spain unis I thought how funny it is that a Spaniard can lament something that would be considered awesome here. Geographically Europe and the Caucasus aren’t far apart, but in other matters they are separate worlds.

What is the Hardest Adjustment of Peace Corps?

July 17, 2012

One of my friends from the prior group of volunteers recently posted an article: The Hardest Adjustment in Peace Corps is Coming Home

As I’ve been mulling the upcoming changes in my life, I decided to give it a read. I thought the main points were great. It’s some of the same stuff I’ve heard over and over again. But I don’t think going home will be the hardest adjustment. Why not? I think there are a couple reasons.

Armenia PCVs aren’t living in the squalor you would find in many other PC countries. I’ve talked about it before here, so I won’t bore you. The Posh Corps here is a lot closer to life in America than the author’s Botswana. It won’t be such a shock to go back. Things like the disgust with American waste won’t be a problem. If anything, I’ll be beaming with pride when I see that all of our waste is actually disposed of and managed.

Also, this blog has served as my soapbox upon which I have shouted, cried, dreamed, contemplated, complained, and rambled about my experience. Thanks to having a willing audience on the internet, I’ve partially fulfilled my need to talk about the experience ad nauseum. Actually, I’m sure I’ll still have trouble not starting sentences with “In Armenia…” but you all have really helped me in this area. Thank you for that! Plus, I kind of don’t want to hear about every detail of the last 27 months of everyone else’s lives, so I expect the same for me.

Anyway, there are a lot of thoughts swirling around right now. There’s a lot of homesickness suddenly, or just excitement to be home. I have some half-baked posts about things I’ll miss and things I won’t miss. These things not only give me pleasure to write about, but also help me process the situation and give me something interesting to look back on. Thanks for giving me motivation to write along the way. August 10th is coming quickly…

Oligarch’s Clothesline

July 16, 2012

What at first glance appears to symbolize money laundering is actually much more innocent: Wayne’s money drying on the line after a day of getting soaked in the community on the water holiday

Armenian Staycation

July 8, 2012

With only a few weeks left as a volunteer, it’s time to wrap up any unfinished business. For me that meant going around to a few places in Armenia. Places where I had either barely scratched the surface or never before ventured. It’s an opportunity to see some friends for one last time and to even make some new ones.

One week ago we all headed in to Yerevan to say goodbye. A group of the A-18s left on July 3rd. This get together was the last time we would all be together. We went to a couple bars and tried to say goodbyes. There was an awkward gathering in the Peace Corps conference room where we got one more dose of “thanks for your service” from various staff members and then had some little delicious cakes. If anything the whole goodbye was kind of strange. Sometimes I said goodbye to someone and then saw them 10 minutes later. Or some people I didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye to. I guess that’s the way it goes. I’d be interested to know how many of these people I’ll see again in my life. The percentage is probably pretty low.

From Yerevan we made the trek down south into Syunik Marz. If you remember, I made a trip there last summer. That was my only other foray into the south. This time the goal was to spend some time in my friend Joel’s village and go to Tatev monastery. Both goals were accomplished in addition to spending more time in Sisian and Goris, two cool cities in the south. Joel’s village was set in a beautiful valley. Getting a taste of his village life was something else. He is 100% integrated into his community. Everyone on the street greets him by name. He is as part of the village as anyone else there. While part of me wishes I could experience a bit of that, I also saw what little amenities he has had to live with for 2 years. I know the lack of privacy and the isolation would be tough. But his experience was arguably more “Peace Corps” than my own. That is, in the traditional sense in which people think of the Peace Corps.

Hangin’ in Getatagh

After a rumbling yellow soviet bus ride down the terrible mountain road back to Sisian, we hitchhiked to the cable car that goes to Tatev monastery. Being afraid of heights, I wasn’t so sure about this trip. However, I knew it was worth it to see Armenia’s most famous monastery and to ride the world’s longest cable car. It actually wasn’t that scary (aside from a few wild dips as the car transfers over a tower). The monastery was cool, but once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. Really the setting was what made it great. You could hear the rush of water from far below, cutting ever deeper into the ancient gorges that surrounded the monastery. From every corner you could see distant green hills and little villages speckling the hillsides. I think the monks knew that if they planned a life of solitude, the least they could do was do it in an interesting setting.

It was a bit cramped with diasporans

The views are stunning

The views from Tatev were also incredible

My Armenian pose while wearing a “Worship Carrots” t-shirt is a stark contrast with the ancient monastery

From there we went to Goris and spent some time with a couple other volunteers, one who was visiting and another who lives in a nearby village. Goris is often hailed as Armenia’s most beautiful city. I’m not sure about the quality of the streets and sidewalks, but it does have a different feel than most of the cities here. And the mountain backdrop doesn’t hurt either. There wasn’t a lot to do in Goris other than walk around and check out the center. Unfortunately there were several volunteers there who just left. If they were there I’m sure they could have shown us some more interesting things.

Goris

On the way back up to Yerevan we got our marshrutka driver to stop for wine in Areni. Areni is Armenia’s famous wine growing region and also the name of a special breed of grape. I bought a 6 liter jug of homemade for 5,500 dram, or about $13. The wine is sweet (all Armenian wine seems to be) but not too sweet. Or I’ve just gotten accustomed to it over the 2 years here.

The next stop was Dilijan. I asked to stay with a couple of volunteers who I didn’t really know that well. It turned out to be a great choice. They are fantastic people and had a very cool apartment. They were PCVs in Niger in 2011 but were evacuated when terrorists killed French NGO workers just down the street from the Peace Corps office there. They asked to be reassigned and were sent to Armenia. Hearing their stories of Africa put everything into perspective. I couldn’t believe some of what I heard. Stories of only eating rice (the whole time), villagers buying shots of coke or cold water in plastic baggies, and 150% of volunteers getting GI diseases made me more thankful than ever that I have the cushy PC Armenia life. I’m not sure if I could make it in a country like Niger. But it was interesting to hear them compare the satisfaction of doing simple yet important work there and then trying to do work in Armenia but finding corruption, indifference, and a society built on looking at the past standing in the way of their progress. For sure Armenia holds its own challenges, even if they are not physical in nature.

Walking around Dilijan revealed a gem of a city that is only tarnished by the weirdness of post-soviet living. You can walk down the street and see something beautiful and something hideous all at once. The nature does its best to correct what the Armenians have done wrong in this intriguing city, but the overall impression was a little underwhelming. If I was on a real vacation I would probably be disappointed here. You hear such great things about it. It is a great place, don’t get me wrong. But there is still a lot wrong with the city from the small amount that I saw. One interesting note is that the National Bank will be moved to Dilijan in order to spread some of the wealth outside Yerevan. An interesting idea – but then I saw a new building under construction and the sign designated it as “Republic of Armenia National Bank Rental Apartments.” The workers from Yerevan will be living in their own little community instead of living by the side of the local residents. I was disappointed by that for some reason.

Dilijan is nice, but…

Post-soviet decay, mismatched architecture, and other oddities can ruin it

The trip was a good one. At a week in length, it was long enough but I was definitely ready to come back home too. I was able to scratch some stuff off the list and say my goodbyes. I also managed to lose my camera along the way. I wasn’t quite sure where I lost it but I thought it was in my friend’s apartment in Sisian. After having them scour the place with no luck, I decided to go for the Hail Mary and ask the marshrutka drivers if they had heard anything. They called the driver of my marshrutka. He said that a couple people behind me found it and took it with them. They live in Joel’s village and planned to give it to Joel – villagers who probably don’t have a camera themselves. A couple days later Joel had the camera. If you’ve been reading all along I don’t think you needed to hear that story to know that there is something pure about Armenia. And as is often said, those who have the least often give the most. So not only did I get a lot of cool new memories from this trip, but I got one more great story to illustrate the Armenian spirit.

Summer Snow

July 1, 2012

Today, July 1st, I woke up to fresh snow on the mountains. Usually this happens in October, not the middle of summer. We’ve seen unprecedented rain and cool temps. Today is around 12 Celsius, which is about 53 F. It’s been raining for days. The area is really green as a result. But the other side of that equation means muddy and puddly streets and leaky roofs. Anyway, I thought I’d throw this quick post up as a tribute to the crazy weather!