Welcome to my home

Welcome to my home

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I Got Really High in Armenia

So, every single day since I have been in Armenia (with the exception of my site visit), when I wake up, I get dressed, eat my breakfast, pack my bag, and step across the threshold of my front door into the cool Armenian morning air. On most occasions (July seeming to be the overwhelming exception), I can still see my breath drift away from me in a relaxed, but confident fashion. And as I watch my breath slowly dissipate into the greater body of air that is the outdoors, my eyes have never been able to help but refocusing on the highest peak of the mountains that cradle my town in their nurturing lap. Every morning, this sight has dominated my vision, regardless of whether it is placed on a backdrop of sunshine, rain, fog, or mist, and every morning I have the same thought. What’s it like on the top?

Because I have a pretty good view of the mountain from my front stoop, I’ve had ample time to study the intricacies of the slopes, saddles, and ridgelines of this particular mountain. And, over time, I’ve been planning my own way up to the top, I say my own way, because people here are deathly afraid of snakes, and the mountain is where snakes are imagined to be. The result of this paranoia, is that much of the mountain illustrates the antithesis of trails.

[Side note on snakes: If the people of Armenia are asked, killer snakes inhabit almost every square foot (should this be in meters?) of land that is not inhabited by people, and the mountain consists of all of said land. In fact, there are so many snakes, that one is lucky to find a patch of ground to tread on that is not seething with venomous motion. What is more, is that these snakes are mad (think Fred Phelps in San Fran). So, even if you manage to pogo your way through the snake-knotted ground, the snakes themselves will actually get together in a meeting (similar to those town hall meetings you hear presidential candidates talk about every four years, you know, full of meaningful questions, little old women dying of something, coal mine workers coughing all over the place, and community leaders talking about some need for jobs) in order to devise a plan more devious/complicated/top secret/intricate than the Manhattan Project, that will result in the downfall of any bi-pedal intruder on their turf (just try and diagram that sentence grammar gurus). They will stalk you for days, only to wait until your most vulnerable moment, and then they’ll strike with a more deadly force than any Shock and Awe, and more surprise than any Tet Offensive. Then, after you’ve been injected with a serum that is a SARS-Anthrax-Polio combination by about a million snakes, the king snake (you know the one that was formed by the powers of five super snakes combining into one mega-tron snake) will unhinge his jaw and swallow you (yes, the entire body of a human) whole. If you have ever seen Anaconda or Python (and if you’ve only seen one, trust me, you’ve seen both, and if you’ve never seen either, know that I envy you) you have seen an example of this. Ahem. If an encyclopedia is asked, you will find that there are very few poisonous snakes in Armenia. And, the only venomous snakes in country live in arid, rocky terrain (a.k.a. the very definition of not where I am right now). But you must be asking, ‘Ok Scott, maybe there aren’t any venomous snakes in them there hills. But, there could still be a lot of snakes, right? And, if there are snakes, they could be pretty big, right? And even if they aren’t venomous, they could still be pretty dangerous, right?’ Well, for all of those curious cats, I have but one response: stay tuned for the report of the snakes encountered in field. Side note FIN]

Welcome back. I believe I left you with my description of the mountain from afar. To quickly recap, pretty steep, lots of bluffs, and a bunch of scrub oaks (those pesky low growing trees that are thicker than any grandmother’s mustache, and harder to get through than War and Peace written in Sanskrit). Now that were back on track…Last Saturday night, I decided that enough was enough. Tomorrow (that would be this past Sunday) was the day I was to make that there mountain my grandmother goat, that is to say, I was going to climb on top of it in order to gain a better perspective. As I was standing on the front step looking at the mountain, I decided it might be a good idea to mention my intentions to my host father, who was enjoying a cigarette with one of our neighbors. Upon hearing my plans, both men proceeded to insist (quite loudly) that I not go because of the killer snakes, whose bellies are at least three feet across (no joke that was the hand motion indication) that run rampant on the mountainside. I kindly thanked them for the warning, and got stubborn. Tomorrow was to be the day.

My buddy Sean (who lives in another training village) came into town to join me on the hike. Although I had decided to be fairly irresponsible about the planning of the hike (not having an actual, map planned route in mind and ignoring the warnings of killer jungle snakes that have taken more muscle growth enhancers than Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire combined…and have military science degrees), my instincts to never go hiking alone would not allow me to fly this one solo. Plus, every Maverick needs his Goose if he wants to do something as legendary as buzzing the tower. Like me, Sean is an Eagle Scout, plus, he spent a couple summers rangering down at Philmont. So, naturally, he made a great hiking companion. Plus, he is one of the better friends I have here.

When he got into town about 10 (a little later than I would have cared to started…but oh well), we topped off our water bottles, bought a Snickers each at the store, and headed for the mountain. Our route, as was determined very much on the fly, was varied for sure. We climbed the lower portions of the mountain by going up creek beds, still very much with water, as a means to cut through the thick brush. I mean, this stuff would have been challenging for a machete. However, after a while, our impatience convinced us to abandon the meandering creeks in favor of a more direct route. Though we were each only dawning flimsy t-shirts, we decided to brave the brush and start to head strait up the hill. Once we got used to being bombarded by the thorns, briars, and webs of branches, this plan was fairly agreeable. However, it was short lived. After about an hour, there were rock walls that we couldn’t seem to get around. At this point, we both looked at each other with the same stare. We had come too far to turn back, and there was no feasible way to go around. So, up we went. The rock wall was only about a 20 ft. (meters aren’t real) climb, but without equipment there were plenty of opportunities to second-guess. But, as I am here, writing this in the past tense, you can assume that we made it out just fine. Once on top, we found ourselves standing upon a vast alluvial fan (rocks that had taken it upon themselves to fall from there greater rock bluffs and slide down the side of a mountain, thereby creating a slope of loose top soil/gravel). Although the ground ahead of us was clear of brush and bluff alike, the grade was incredibly steep. So, we ascended, slowly but surely, sweating in the stern sun.

We could see our goal; only one more strip of scrub oaks (again, really…groan) lay between the final ridgeline and us. We pushed onward and upward. Once we hit the trees, some sort of deraignment had set in, not permitting us to even think about rest. Through the trees and up to the final ridge. At this point, we were Rocky in the midst of a montage. In fact, our monomania seemed to only be disrupted by the stiff wind that let us know that we were on the absolute top of the ridge. Gusts whipped up the far side of the mountain and over the ridge, hitting us with force enough to make our steps falter. In fact, the topsoil on the ridge was so thin because of the wind erosion that the rock was exposed in most places. Summited, we had nothing to do but sit, take in views, and slug away our Snickers each. A Snickers has never tasted so good. We stayed on top for a while, giving our legs a breather, and our eyes an even better breath of the view of Mt. Ararat, Mt. Aragats, and the shores of Lake Sevan, (do a wikipedia search because this post is running too long to tell about them) all in the same place. I got plenty of pictures, and as soon as I can find some decent bandwidth I will get them up online.

After a good rest, we began our descent. All in all, we were gone for about seven hours, hiked about 11 miles, and climbed roughly one mile higher into the sky. As for the field report on actual killer snakes that hate babies and kick dogs, we were able to document an empty set. So, you (as I) will have to keep holding your breath…so much for a mountain made of snakes. And here I was, hoping to be able to name that mother ‘Snake Mountain’. Oh well, another place, another time I suppose. I did manage to get quite a bit of sun, and am now the proud owner of an Armenian sunburn. But, by the time bedtime rolled around, I was only too ready to pass out.

Now, each morning that I wake up, I poke my head through my front door, and look up at that mountain, and I know. I know that I owned that mountain. That mountain (and its maybe snakes) are mine…and Sean’s too I suppose. Also, as my name for the mountain didn’t pan out, I’m taking suggestions. Leave them in the comments.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Still here, no worries

I suppose it has been quite some time since my last post. For this, I apologize. However, because of work related activity, I have not been near a computer with Internet access in a few weeks. But, I’m here now, and your fears of my death can be abandoned. If my memory serves me correctly, my last correspondence was pre-July 4th. So, I would like to wish all those Freedom Lovers out there a happy 4th. I trust that everyone celebrated with an appropriate amount of patriotism. In case you were worried about my American spirit while living overseas, please know that I too celebrated the 4th. The Peace Corps was kind enough to donate $200 to my village for the sole purpose of hosting a 4th of July celebration. While I am supposed to be learning and living another culture, part of my mission is to share my culture while I’m here. Naturally the 4th is a great time to do this. So, the few other trainees living in the village put our heads and energies together to host a killer party. We made American foods (deviled eggs, chips and salsa [no those don’t exist here], chocolate chip cookies, potato salad, etc.) and invited our families and fellow community members (who made even more Armenian foods). We had water balloon tosses and face painting. Despite our best efforts, there were still no fireworks, and for this reason, the 4th of July seemed to come and go for me. It was a bit weird. This is not my first 4th of July living overseas, but for some reason it is the first 4th of July where I felt incredibly disconnected.

This past week has been incredibly new, busy, and exciting for me. If you have been reading my blog for even a little while, you know that even though I have been informed of my permanent site location, quite a bit of mystery has surrounded it, as no one has been there, thus affording me no opportunity to learn about its ins-and-outs, so to speak. (Was that sentence grammatically correct?) However, I can now say that a bit of the dense fog that lay heavy on the identity of my future site has been lifted. I have spent the past week living in my new town on what is appropriately called a “Site Visit”. During this visit, my responsibilities included getting to know a.) my family, b.) my town, and c.) my work.
A.) My new family seems to be incredible. For the first four months of my life in my permanent site, I will be living in an apartment that houses grandpa, grandma, dad, mom, and boy (circa 2001). Two stories up, dad’s brother lives with his wife, and two boys (circa 2005 and 2007). I can say that I feel quite at home. Mom and dad met me in Yerevan and escorted me to the town. Within the first 3.47 seconds of arrival, their son was on my heels with a huge grin, which never left his face for the entirety of my stay. When we got to the apartment, the rest of the family was waiting to welcome me. I quickly learned that my new uncle is a history teacher at one of the schools in which I will be working. That’s great. After a brief introduction to each family member jockeying for position, I was sent into the family room and told to sit down on the couch. This is where I met grandpa. Grandpa is a man of few words, and an abundance of smiles. He was watching soccer, which he told me he was a big fan of. I watched soccer and read. I think grandpa and I are going to get along just fine.
B.) While my current town is mountainous, green, cool (that’s a temperature, not a judgment), and has occasional rain, my new town is flat, green, hot, and dusty dry. But, my family does have a garden within the city. There, they have about 6 apricot trees, a hedge of raspberries, tomatoes, beans, and other things that I’m sure I missed. They also have two cows, a bull, a bunch of chickens, and a little black pig. The pig is not quite as rambunctious as the piglets at my current home, but I still wouldn’t turn my back to it for too long. The town itself doesn’t have too much. There are anywhere between 6,000 people and 10,000 people depending on whom you ask. Despite this population, there is nothing in the way of recreation: no restaurants, bars, youth centers, leisure activities, Internet cafes, etc. So, it looks like I’m going to have to make friends quickly, even though no one in town speaks English. In a way, this is good. Such circumstances will help me build stronger Armenian language skills, as well as focus more attentively on my work.
C.) There are two schools in town, each of which housing grades 1-12. Each building has about 40 teachers. So, for all of you math wizzes out there, I will be working with about 80 teachers in an attempt to help construct new teaching methods and strategies. Currently, the country is going through a nation-wide teacher re-training. So, my schools are scheduled to attend the federally facilitated teacher training sessions in late August. So, I will be going to those almost immediately upon entry into my community. While this might seem to abandon any sort of gentle transition into my workplace, it will serve as a wonderful starting point for the teachers and me. I’m hoping that having this at the very beginning of my work with a new faculty will help create a mutual starting point for both parties concerned. However, there are an infinite number of differences between the current Armenian school system and where it seems to want to go. Now, throw cultural and language barriers into the mix and I’ve got a nice little challenge ahead of me. I know I am going to be busy, and I am excited about it.

My morale seems to be holding up just fine. I have made several wonderful friends in my fellow Peace Corps Trainees, and this helps. The truly tough part will come when we all go our separate ways, bound for our permanent sites. It seems odd that I am looking forward to and dreading the end of training On the one hand, I will be done with redundant and non-applicable meetings, but on the other, I will be leaving everything that I have come to know. My language learning is coming along quite nicely. I passed my midterm in a grand flourish of anticlimactic action. Now, I am continuing to plug away in a second half that seems remarkably similar to the first half. I miss baseball.

There are three generations of goats in my family’s goat pen, and when the oldest generation gets tired and lies down to sleep, the youngest ones climb on top of their backs to eat some of the lower hanging branches of trees and weeds normally out of reach.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Mid-term Exam Tomorrow...

Much has happened over this past week, and I feel as though they can easily be summed up in three simple sections I have entitled: loneliness, marriage, and seemingly obscure holidays. Before I proceed, I feel as though I must provide the disclaimer that although I have begun by presenting some semblance of an organizational pattern, I still reserve the right to type in a tangential fashion. So, don’t think I have forgotten about a topic if I appear to stray off the given topic. Also, now I don’t have to pretend like transitions are important.

LONLINESS :-( [Everyone’s a sucker for an emoticon.]
As many of you know, and some of you don’t, the living arrangements I currently have are only temporary. The village in which I live is only to be my home throughout my training (language classes, cultural classes, and not developing strategies for not dying). Upon completion of my training (mid-August) I will be moving to my permanent assignment. From the moment each of my fellow volunteers accepted their invitations, the country director for Peace Corps has been working hard to finish up our final placements. Last week, the afternoon half of our large group training session was completely devoted to the announcement of our final placements. Allow me to build the suspense for those of you who are currently unimpressed, nonplussed, or otherwise apathetic. Because, like many of you, until I was told that this was a big event, I was unaware that I was supposed to be nervous/anxious/giddy like a schoolgirl.
Upon walking into the training center, we (the trainees that is) were greeted by a big map of Armenia taped off on the floor with masking tape. Each marz (Armenian for state or region) was sectioned off, and the whole thing was humorously denoted as “Not to Scale”…All morning the trainees and the staff were buzzing with excitement and energy. I was still trying to figure out what all the hubbub was. The afternoon was to run as such: everyone stands out in the lobby as each name is read off, marz by marz. As each marz was read, all of the trainees were to go stand in their new home on the LIFE SIZE MAP!!!!! Once there, they were to be greeted by volunteers who are currently serving there and were brought in for the day to tell all of their new best friends all about the grand old time they would all have together forever. Neat. That conversation was supposed to last for two hours. Let’s fast forward to the “Scott Moore” announcement.
Yeah, my name was called! And I’m the first one in my marz to be announced! Cool. Let me just hustle on over to my part of the map. Hey wait, where are the current volunteers to welcome my in their warm and cheery arms? Wait, why are you not calling anyone else’s name? Wait, which marz are you now saying? Wait, that’s not my marz. Um, excuse me, you forgot to name the other people in my marz. What’s that you say? I’m sorry, speak into my good ear. Oh, there aren’t any other volunteers going there? That’s ok…I suppose. I’ll just get to know the volunteers that are already there. What? Oh, there aren’t any of those there either? Wait, there’s never been any there? Cool…Ok then, I’ll just stand over here by myself for a while then
Yup, the rumors are true. Although I can’t tell you the name or location of my town, I can tell you that I’m the only one in my entire state…for two years. I go on a five-day site visit here pretty soon. So, stay tuned for updates on that. I’ll get more detailed information about my next host family and job as a teacher trainer.

MARRIAGE ;-) [Who doesn’t like a good wink?]
The burning question here (as I’m hoping you’re hoping) is: did Scott get so preemptively lonely that he went out and got hitched? No. But wouldn’t that have been dramatic? I’ll see what I can do by next post. But, my host mother’s nephew did get married. And let me tell you. If you want to have a good time, go to an Armenian wedding. I arrived late to the reception because we (the trainees, not the people) had been on a cultural journey to a place named Echimazeen. As you probably know, Armenia is renowned for being the first country to declare Christianity as its national religion. Ever since then, the country has served as the seat for the Armenian Orthodox Church. Makes sense, right? Anyways, Echimazeen is to the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church as the Vatican City is to the Catholic Church. And it was pretty impressive. I plan to go back in September when they are having a huge ceremony for the brewing of holy ointment that only happens once every seven years. (This has been an example of a tangent, but you loved it, don’t worry.)
Anyways, I believe we left off with me arriving to the wedding a bit late. When I walked in, everyone had already been there for some time, and most of the eating had taken place. However, they had saved a place at a table for me, with several plates full of food. More importantly, they had saved me two glasses, one for water, and a smaller one for shots. As with American ceremonies of such pomp, many toasts are given throughout the event. However, unlike American tradition, you don’t drink your drink unless a toast is being given…and if you’ll permit one more “however”. However, the sheer number of toasts seems damn near exponential in comparison, plus the only toasting drinks present are vodka and cognac. More or less, this fueled the best part of the wedding, which was traditional dancing. I know that earlier I boasted having learned how to dance, but I now know that I know nothing. It was incredible to say the least. I guess I have two more years to buff up my dancing skills.

SEEMINGLY OBSCURE HOLIDAYS :-D [I promise this will be the last emoticon ever.]
The day after the wedding was a national holiday, the name of which I still don’t know. However, I do know the rules of the holiday, and they are as follows. 1) Throw water on anyone you see. 2) Anyone is fair game if they are outside, regardless of age, sex, or socio-economic status. That’s it. According to a celibate priest (that’s an actual rank in the clergy hierarchy, not a judgment on my part), this holiday has its roots in the pagan times, and was melded together with a holiday celebrated by the church once the country adopted Christianity. But, because of time constraints, I didn’t get a great description of what the holiday now celebrates. And, 70 some years of Communism (school and government sanctioned atheism) in the country more or less purged most knowledge of religious culture from the majority of the communities in the nation. So, no one in my family could really explain it to me either.
But, I do know that there were armies of children roving the streets with and endless supply of water to douche passersby. So, my neighbor, a fellow trainee, armed up with water balloons and buckets and we took to the footbridge in an effort to defend our turf. I hung back about one hundred meters with my camera. The way I saw, if Josh didn’t make it, someone needed to tell his tale. So as he taunted the local ten year olds into a water battle on the bridge (at this point you should be thinking the Jets and the Sharks), I snapped photos. It was intense, and it ended with both of us running for, what at this point felt like, our lives. Fortunately we made it back to my house in time to avoid a thorough drenching. The important part is that we learned several valuable lessons on this day. Next year. Next year these children don’t stand a chance.