Welcome to my home

Welcome to my home

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Finer Things and Goats


Bari galust, faithful readers! Things are going pretty well here. It’s been raining almost everyday. So, our normally clear little river is neither clear nor little, but rather a bit milky with sediment brought down by runoff from the mountains, and swollen like an annoying blister—not enough to pop, but enough to be aware of. Anyways, from what I’ve been reading in e-mails from everyone back home, it pales in comparison to the rivers of Iowa. I think Dan Eigenberg said it best when he wrote the “Iowa seems to be trying its best to return to the sea”. If this is true, I do believe it will be the most ambitious thing that the state of Iowa (or any other land locked state for that matter) has attempted in, at least, the millennium. But, it sounds as if everyone has found a relatively high place to hide out from the rising tides.
I myself have been doing my best to maintain some semblance of normalcy in my life here. I must admit that it feels a bit weird to be this far along in life (which I realize isn’t that far, but stay with me on this), and still be waking up to a mother who insists on packing my lunch for the school day. If only I had a pair of red Reeboks to sport on my walk to school. Yeah I walk to school, got a problem with that? But, if a routine is determined by anything, it is determined by my morning rituals. Every other morning, I go running. I think the old men in the village have started a club to watch the “amerikatsi” cross the bridge at an unusual pace, because every time I go across the bridge in the village “center”, there are always a bunch of old men who are standing with no other intention than to stare. But, as soon as I say good morning, they grow more talkative than a hen house (I’m allowed to use that analogy because we have a hen house, and it’s chatty). I think they take bets on what I now know how to say, because they seem to get a kick out of testing my knowledge as I run past them. I can’t help but think that I am disappointing them so far. However, I think I’ve gained a certain amount of street cred, because today, two of the village boys (circa 1996) were standing at my gate, wanting to go running with me. That’s right, I’m in good with the locals, and may have unintentionally started a running club. However, after observing their performance (although enthusiastic), my suspicions about aerobic exercise not being a part of their culture were confirmed. On the other hand, I recently learned what is part of their culture.
Who here has read Lord of the Flies by Sir William Golding? Who here remembers what the “Lord of the Flies” was? Three nights ago, two friends of mine were invited to a cookout, and guess what greeted them at the gate. Mounted on a large metal pike was a goat fresh goat head. I’ll give you about 10 seconds to figure out where the goat was. I, myself, am jealous, because I have not yet gotten to see this cultural gem. However, I have come close. Yesterday, it was raining pretty hard, and I had been sitting inside reading. All of a sudden, my host dad is calling me to come outside quick. So, fast action Scott grabbed his jacket and went outside. What was discovered will forever be remembered. My host dad grabbed my shoulders and walked me over to the fence and pointed in the neighbor’s yard. There, in the midst of a, now, gentle summer shower, hanging from a tree was a goat, strung up by one hoof. This goat, as it hung, was the most remarkable goat I have ever seen. I guess, if we are to continue the literary analogies, while the afore mentioned goat could be considered the Lord of the Flies, this goat would be known as the Headless Horseman. Although I sincerely doubt that this goat will ever be riding a horse. Let’s go ahead and get out the To Do List and check off “Observe a headless goat mass hanging from a tree”. Great.
On a lighter side, a few of my friends from another village came to visit me this weekend. That was great because I got to play tour guide to my town. I took them on a hike in the mountains with three stops: two churches and one castle ruin. I got some pretty phenomenal pictures, and will try to put some on the site when I get a chance to shrink them down a bit. But, for now, you will just have to use your imaginations (which are probably full of goat blood right about now). Life is good, on the whole. And, as language class progresses, I feel less and less like Helen Keller every day. My one great disappointment is that I still have yet to ride a donkey. But, the way I see it, two years is a long time, and I am determined. Feel free to drop a comment.
Much love.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cultural Differences, Every Step of the Way


Well, the rumors are true. I’ve been to dance class, and can now proudly inform you that I can perform two—that’s right, two—Armenian dances. Who’s jealous? If you aren’t, you should be. Dancing over here is pretty important to large social events. However, you cannot simply dance as we do in America, a.k.a. get out there and shake it. Here, physical contact is not emphasized during dancing. In fact, people don’t even face each other. Normally they dance side by side, with pinkies locked, often in a circular pattern or line formation. Regardless, dancing is still pretty fun, especially if you’re that awkward foreigner in the middle of well seasoned dancers…not that I know what that would feel like. I must admit, though, that after dancing for thirty minutes or so in class, I was pretty tired. One of the fundamental concepts (or so it seemed to me) of Armenian dance is that the feet should be off the ground as frequently as possible, and when they are on the ground, they should be light. Needless to say, dancing can be physically taxing at times. But, it felt good to exercise a bit I suppose, which is something that is not heavily emphasized in Armenia. But, it really reminded me of how little I’ve been doing in the ways of activity (beyond walking everywhere). So…(yeah it’s a weak transition, but you’ll just have to deal with shotty segues at this point)
I woke up an hour earlier than usual and strapped on my running shoes. Well, I suppose I woke up two hours earlier than usual thanks to the rooster that lives beneath my bed, but that’s neither here nor there. I’ve been dying to go for a run, but as afore mentioned, exercise is not a concept present in Armenia. Sure, they have gyms in larger towns/cities, but I don’t live in said location(s). So, running in public, as I was informed by my trainers (academic, not athletic), is an activity that is sure to draw stares, or at the very least, gossip among the huddles of corner-talking men and women. But, I was dying. I haven’t had as much energy lately, and I attributed this to the lack of exercise I have been getting (or not getting) in Armenia. So I decided to be bold. The way I saw it, I have been living in my village for about two weeks now, and everyone here either knows me, or knows about me. Let’s be honest, I don’t exactly blend in…yet. I formulated a plan that, in my mind, was sure to smooth things over. I would leave my headphones at home in order to hear people if they spoke to me, and I would make a conscious effort to say hello/good morning to ever person I passed on the street (which is customary anyways—think small town mid-west). I figured that if I did this, even if my actions looked a bit weird, I could soften them through brief moments of interpersonal communication. And let’s face it, who doesn’t like to get interpersonal every now and then? Right?
Well, for the cynics in the crowd who are waiting to hear me drop the “boy did that plan fail miserably” bomb, I’m sorry to inform you that your sinister outlook will only be partially sated. On the whole, my plan was successful. Although most people I passed gawked at me with an expression that seemed to beg, “where are you running to, and why are you running”, their tumult of confused emotions was calmed when I greeted them in passing. However, for about 20% of the people I passed, my Armenian greeting only seemed to be fertilizer to their growing seeds of bewilderment. Now, not only was some crazy American running to an undisclosed destination for an unknown purpose, but he was greeting them in their language. Weird, I know. But, I felt great after my run, so that’s good. I’m hoping that in time this will become more normal for all parties involved. But as for now, I suppose I have to be content having gorgeous morning runs along the river that tumbles through pastures and over stones in our picturesque mountains. Darn. Speaking of exercise…
The other night, I had a great opportunity to exercise my current knowledge of Armenian party etiquette (yeah, the transitions just keep getting better). My neighbor’s son just got back from his two-year, mandatory service in the military. So, of course that means you have to slaughter an entire cow in your basement. No joke, no exaggeration. The day before the party my neighbor brought me over to his home and took me down in the basement to show me party preparations, and amid the cases and cases of vodka bottles (which I thought to be a bit excessive) and cartons of vegetables, were tidy little piles of cow, ripe and ready for cooking. I don’t eat beef, but I couldn’t help but think that this was cool. Anyways, the party was out in the family’s garden, and there must have been 75 people there. I quickly realized that the number of bottles of vodka that were purchased for the party had not been purchased in excess. Needless to say, I did not even pretend to be able to keep up with anyone sitting at the elongated feasting table. But, despite the consumption of booze, I couldn’t shake a slight feeling of being at a middle school dance. Although men and women were both present at the party, there was a distinct table for men, and a distinct table for women. Not once during the night did either table interact with the one another, nor did the women’s table consume alcohol. Sorry women, you can’t do that in public. But, I think everyone had a good time.
The next morning I got up at 7 and went to a neighboring village for a fellow volunteer’s birthday. It was good to meet up for the birthday, as many of the volunteers I have become good friends with were there. But now, it’s back to school, six days a week…
I’m really digging life right now. There have been thunderstorms about every other night here, which makes for good sleeping. Now, if I can only find a recipe for rooster stew…

Much love

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Touchdown Project Armenia

Well, first things first. As I am now working for the U.S. government, everything I say is subject to review. Also, it is my responsibility to inform you that nothing I say is actually an opinion of said government. I am to make it explicitly clear that everything written, discussed, or mentioned within this blog is the author’s personal opinion. But, I think it’s a great opinion.

I have been here in Armenia for just about two weeks now, and I must say, things are good. The first three days in country I was living in a camp, of sorts, with the 49 other new Peace Corps volunteers. During those days we were slammed with lectures on Peace Corps policies and procedures, and afforded an opportunity to get to know each other. The volunteers exist on a vast spectrum of age, experience, and home states. 20% of the volunteers are over 50 years old, and I am pretty sure that I one of the youngest volunteers. So, for anyone who thought that they were too old to do this, think again.

Last Wednesday, I moved out of the camp and into a village to live with my host family. There are only six other volunteers in my tiny little mountain village. The village itself sits just about a mile above sea level. I live with a really nice couple. My mom is 49 and my dad is 54, and no one in my village speaks English. Awesome. My living situation is pretty legit. I have running water and a toilet (don’t worry mom, no out house); however, that is not true for everyone in the village. My family is almost entirely self-sufficient. We have a huge garden that provides us with an Edenic selection of fruits and vegetables. I have taken several strolls through the garden trying to catalogue its inventory, but I still have not been able to catch everything. With each meal, a new vegetable, herb, or fruit appears on our table that had previously gone unnoticed. In addition to our garden, we have a cow, 1 pig and 4 piglets (and let me tell you, those little suckers are rascals at best), 5 goats, a ton of chickens, and one rooster that wakes me up every morning at about 4:30. We might not have a rooster for long. I will be living here with Anush (mama) and Yasha (papa) until the middle of August when I complete my pre-service training (PST).

PST has been good so far. Essentially, PST consists of going to school six days a week. Five of those days are spent in language classes, and the sixth day I go in to Charentsavan to meet with the entire group of trainees for our “CORE” classes. CORE classes consist of cross-cultural lessons, policy briefings, and “sector” training. My sector is called Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). There are about 12 people in my sector, and two of us are Teacher Trainers, the rest will actually be working as English teachers, teaching classes from 3rd grade and up. Although I’ve only been here for about 2 weeks, I can’t summarize everything that I have learned thus far. I cannot imagine the things I will have experienced by the end of my service. Everyone that I work with is incredibly driven and positive. I know we will accomplish much while here.

The lifestyle here is communal. Everyone is expected to say hello to everyone in the street, whether you know them or not. Concepts like privacy are not known, or if known, not practiced. It is completely usual for people of the village to just walk right into a house without any forewarning (i.e. knocking, calling, throwing a brick through the window with a note tied to it that says I’m coming in). What’s more, as soon as someone walks in, they are offered a chair, coffee, and food, instantly. However, people don’t really hang out in their houses. Most people use the “road” as their meeting point. When I arrive home from school, I usually see a congregation of women standing together gossiping. Later in the evening, the men will come out too and stand together and smoke cigarettes. Gender segregation seems to be fairly common. Unless it is an established social event, a lot of people are present, or everyone is of the same family, I don’t ever see men and women standing together talking. That goes for children too. Men women seem to have very distinct roles to play. For instance, I am absolutely not allowed to help with housework, although I forcibly insisted that my mom allow me to help with laundry. She thinks it is so funny that I want to help with dishes and laundry. Women aren’t allowed to walk alone at night, or smoke in public. Men don’t do housework. This is not to say that they don’t work though. They tend the animals on top of their jobs (if employed).

Life is different, for certain. I am becoming accustomed to the Armenian ways. Language classes are really helping me to understand the culture. Each day when I get home from school, my parents seem very excited to see what I can now say. So, of course I impress them by boldly declaring, “vegetables! Classroom! Mulberry!” It’s pretty sweet. The group of 7 volunteers are the first Americans to ever live in this particular village, so everything we do is of great interest to the community members. I feel as though I am living in an aquarium. For instance, remember when I told you that the people like to talk in the streets a lot? Well, the other day when I got home from school, I was approached by a group of mothers who had heard that I had brought a “little guitar” with me. No one here has ever seen a Ukulele, so they are fascinated by it. What is more, an American has it. So, I was instructed to go into my room, get my “little guitar” and bring it out to the street. I did, because I got the impression that I didn’t really have a choice. By the time I had returned to the street, a chair had been placed in the shade and I was placed in said chair and instructed to play and sing. It was awkward to say the least. But it was good for public relations…I think. I can’t really be sure that anything I think is accurate. I am slowly growing in communicative ability, but am still missing 90% of what is actually going on. But, with time I will understand more, culturally and linguistically.

Sunday was my day off from school, and I went on a hike with my teacher in the mountains. She took a few of the volunteers and me to some castle ruins. Apparently the king only slept there once, on a layover on a trip from point A to point B, and it was built for that express purpose. I got some phenomenal pictures. I can’t describe how beautiful these mountains are.

I am excited and motivated; but above all consider myself to be privileged to be able to do what I am doing. I miss everyone at home, but am not in any hurry to return.

Much love