Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sand and Snow or Nachiajavan Rock Wall

After reading Anna Karenina for two hours last night I went to sleep at 10:30, well, I might be exaggerating a little, it was probably more like 10:15. The interesting thing about going to sleep that early is waking up before it’s even light outside. I woke up this morning just before 7 and my room was still completely dark. When I pulled the blankets down from my face I felt the autumn-cool air that circulates around my bedroom in the early hours of the morning, air so cold you’d swear you were outside. The upside of this frosty atmosphere is that it feels incredibly fresh and I often feel like I’ve got to brush the dew off my face or something. The environment is actually pretty conducive to retaining dream-imagery as well, in the fresh darkness, wide-awake I often feel like I’m still dreaming.
Eventually, I decamp from fairyland and face the real world of my brutally cold room. Before I pull the blankets off myself I do a few sit ups in bed to get the old blood flowing, then after I feel a little warmer I immediately roll onto the floor and do a few more, as the shock of greeting the morning air first thing after waking up requires some kind of palliative measure. I think I’ll try and arrange my camera so that I can get a picture of my face during these a.m. calisthenics, as I’m pretty sure I’m making some ridiculous facial expressions.
The other day I hiked up to the most prominent peak in the surrounding area. I’m still not really too sure how I managed to make it to this crazy place. It must’ve taken me about six hours to get there, almost up-hill the whole way. On the way back I remember passing some mountains I had trod up and trying to imagine how the hell I had managed to walk up such a lengthy and severe slope. I’m not saying all this to brag about my incredible mountaineering skills or anything, if anything all the labor I expended was only the result of not knowing what the hell I was doing; no, I was impressed on my death march back home by the things we are capable of when we’re not paying much attention to the immediate situation. This crazy mountain I had decided to climb was a long ways away, but it didn’t look so far so I just kept going. After so many hours I just kept telling myself, “I’ve already come this far, I might as well keep going.” Not finding a distinct path anywhere I was continually walking up and down mountains and valleys. Almost every time I’d crest some lengthy climb I look over the side to find that I had to go all the way down and back up again. It got to the point where, toward the end of the climb, when I was climbing up the final peak, I had to stop and rest after every few steps. That may have been due to the air thinning out as well, but I really think I may’ve been that tired. When I finally got to the top and rested for a minute I began to get cold and for the first time became conscious of the fact that I was surrounded by snow. The winds up there were also treacherous as hell and, as tired as I was, I had to start moving again in order not to freeze to death up there. I was so sweaty I might as well have been sprayed with a hose and there I was sitting there in an arctic gale trying to rest.
On the way back down I realized that it was much easier going up. Every step I took seemed to throttle my kneecaps and my thighs was starting to ache, it felt like I was jumping down ten feet every time I put my foot down. There were few level places to walk but when I got to one of them I strolled like a fop walking through Piccadilly.
By the time I began to get close to the first village the sun had almost set. As I walked on I realized that I had been walking, nay, climbing all day, since I had left the house around 9 am. I was a nice thought to keep me going as I dragged myself back home. Of course there had been a cattle trail that led about half-way to the mountain all along, this still wasn’t easy to walk but it was better than having to transverse all those damn mountains again, if I had to go back the same I came I really don’t know how the hell I would’ve gotten home.
When I got back to town I really hoped I wouldn’t run into any inquisitive kids, since I wanted to get home and eat as soon as possible. Inevitably I did, but I was able to keep our exchange short.
“Inch ka chika?”
“voch me ban”
“ur es ganoom?”
“heru te mot?”
(Hello, Jon. -Hello. -What’s up?-Nothing.-Where are you going?-Home.-Is it near or far?-Near)
I stopped into a store and bought some of this anonymous mango juice they have. I say anonymous ‘cause I have no idea where the stuff comes from. The label just says it’s produced in Yerevan, no hint as to where the mangos come from, since they sure as hell don’t come for Yerevan. I bought the largest size they had, damn the cost, as I had told myself while shuffling through the arid mountains. I drank about half of it on the way home, trying to enjoy the flavor of what must’ve been mangos and soap.
When I finally hobbled through the door, seeking nepenthe in a warm meal and a soft bed my host-grandmother immediately began upbraiding me for not calling.
And I know, you’re probably thinking “serves you right you dumb lout. Leaving at the crack of dawn telling them you were heading for the mountains and not coming back in the door until 7pm, without calling or anything, probably scared everyone half-to-death, you should’ve gotten a sound beating.” Or at least that’s what you’d be thinking if you were an English governess or something. Regardless, it’s not a bad opinion to have, but after living on one’s own such a long time one of the hardest things about the Peace Corps, at least for me, is not so much the cultural adaptation or the isolation but the reintroduction to family life. I’ve actually worked pretty hard at this and every time I leave the house I now tell them, as I also do upon reentering. I thank the family profusely for every meal and try to be cleaner than I’m used to being, but it seems like no matter what I do I’m constantly overlooking some nuance of family life and acting like a buffoon.
Regardless, next month I’ll be able to move out and I can’t begin to describe how excited I am to be able to listen to music and cook at the same time. I’ve only cooked about 3 meals the whole time I’ve been here, and all of them were back in the first village I left in August. So hopefully I can find an apartment and by mid December I’ll finally get to use this Thai chili paste I’ve had since I got here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

All Hallow's Even or Dog-eared Paperback

I woke up with a bug of some kind in my beard. It took my a while to become aware of it because I had to run over to where I had my phone plugged into the charger. I picked up the phone and talked for a moment, listening, without much interest, to the details of another P.C. alert system test. After I hung up I brought my hand up to my face to wipe away what felt like some encrusted drool in the corner of my mouth and when I brought my hand away it was holding a bug, a little guy who’d probably spent the night curled up on my face, either that or it was one of those kissing bugs that spread horrible diseases. As the nights continue to get colder I can’t help but wonder how many other bugs will be seeking refuge on my body throughout the winter and I wonder how many scorpions are still in my room.
The weekend before Hallowe’en I had a party for my students as an excuse to do something at least somewhat ostentatious for my favorite holiday. My planning was a little lax and I kind of threw everything together at the last minute. Paige, another volunteer who lives nearby actually did most of the work by getting some pumpkins together and even going so far as to make brownies. I provided some kind of entertainment by sitting at the front of a table and “lecturing” on hallowe’en for about 20 minutes by flailing my hands all over the place and mispronouncing dia de los meurtos (probably misspelling it too). I don’t know if the students were actually listening to my excited babble about pumpkins and ghosts or if they were just staring at me, wondering how I could be such a lunatic as I punctuated my lecture with spooky sounds.
“So then the festival of Samhain became All Hallows’ Even…oooohhhhwww.”
When I finished my incomprehensible lecture we all brainstormed spooky topics for awhile, which the students seemed to do pretty well with, despite the fact that it was a relatively unstructured activity and those usually don’t go too well. Then I had two of my forth year students recite the Raven, as they had just read it for an after school club with me. I think everyone else stopped paying much attention by the third stanza or so, finding the antiquated (and beautiful) language of the poem too difficult to understand. I stood by beaming with pride while the rest of the students began to glance out the window or toy with their cell phones. I made spooky noises throughout the reading of the poem as well, occasionally bellowing out “Lenore” or banging on the table ever time a rapping sound was mentioned. I also rustled the hell out of the “silken, sad, uncertain, rustling of each purple curtain,” much to my students’ chagrin, I think they probably frequently feel embarrassed by what probably looks to them like a serious lack of restraint. I tried to punctuate the end of the poem by ducking out of the room and running back in with a sheet draped over me waving my arms around and emitting more ghostly howls. When I pulled back the sheet I saw the most of them were smiling at me, “alright,” I thought, “now we’ll get somewhere.”
Everyone had been excited from the beginning about the pumpkins on the table and when I announced that it was time to begin carving them the students quickly got into groups and took their pumpkins. After a brief explanation of pumpkin carving and the clatter of everyone sorting through the pile of knifes, the party had really begun. Initially I was afraid that the students would follow what they do so often in class and copy each other. Sometimes the most interesting question, “what makes you unique” for example, elicits a uniform response. Of course, it could be, and probably is, true that they just don’t know what I’m asking them so they all say the same thing.
So shortly after we had begun the carving a student came up to me and asked for the picture of a Jack O’ Lantern I had showed earlier, a child’s coloring book drawing with the usual triangular eyes and nose and blank, expressionless mouth. For a moment I had a vision in my head of them all carving the same pumpkin design, 5 pumpkins looking exactly the same. I couldn’t bear the thought so I told the student I didn’t know what I did with the picture, but she didn’t need it anyway. “Design your own pumpkin,” I said, with probably way too much enthusiasm, because she looked at me with one eyebrow almost up to her hair line.
In the end, I practically had tears in my eyes. Every Jack O’ Lantern beamed at me through a different set of eyes and smiled at me through a unique twisted grin. One had a cigarette shoved between some unruly pumpkin teeth, another had make-up accents and earrings. We took about 1,000 pictures after that. Some of which I guess I’ll try and put up here when I find a computer that will allow it. I was indifferent to the picture taking, waltzing around with a bed sheet still half-wrapped around me and asking to see every pumpkin up close, it was about as close to motherhood as I think I’ll ever get, and I was happy as hell.
About an hour later we shuffled out of the hall after the students had left and sat down at a nearby café for a few coffees. Keep in mind when I say ‘café’ I mean a few plastic chairs and tables by the sidewalk and an option of coffee or tea also most of them host half-starved stray cats. Anyway I smoked about 8 cigarettes in about half an hour and discussed my wonderful class that I had probably been vehemently complaining about the day before. C’est La Vie, huh?
Later I’m taking a suicide cab up to Jermook, a mountain resort with supposed healing (or at least salubrious) waters. I spent the night up there talking to two very literate guys and our conversation bounced all over the place, like the kinds of conversations I used to have back home.
You know how certain images just strike you sometimes? Like, you end up with pictures in your mind that you don’t remember taking? I’ve stared so hard into so many text books trying to memorize charts and table for various reasons, but it seems like the only images I’m able to retain are the ones that I scarcely remember seeing. From the 6th floor of this apartment building there was a very into a mostly empty courtyard. Just across this open area there was a little store that kept its lights on all night. Anytime I want I can close my eyes and see that little place, glowing against a night so dark there was no horizon line and everything seemed to float.
The next night we went camping. Just outside my village there’s a little picturesque spot next to a waterfall. I thought we’d make it down there but, due to an early sunset, we ended up camping further up the river bank. It was actually the first time I ever went camping with no tent and I’d like to tell you that I fell asleep with my face pointed toward the bright mess of stars overhead, but it was far too cold and though I made a point to glance skyward before drifting off, I actually fell asleep with my head buried under my sleeping bag. The next morning I woke up early after rolling into the damn river. I remember lying there thinking “why the hell are my feet so cold when everything else is warm?” I tired to ignore it and go back to sleep but eventually the feeling stirred me awake and I came out of my bag to find half my person submerged in the river. I can’t help but to wonder what it would’ve been like if I had fallen back asleep, no doubt I would’ve rolled in the rest of the way which would’ve been really funny.
One more remotely newsworthy item, I went to Yerevan, the capital a few weeks ago and was laughed at by the police. It was early in the morning and I was taking the Metro back to where I catch my marshrutni (marshutka) by home. After I had been on for a few seconds when I began to feel a burdensome stare weighing on me. As this is pretty normal, even in the capital, I didn’t bother to look up and see who was gawking this time. Then I began to hear the unreserved, explosive laughter that usually accompanies this feeling. After a few seconds had passed and the laughter hadn’t tapered off I decided to look up and confront the bastards, in hopes that maybe a dead cold stare would make them shut up (this never works, though.) I almost laughed myself when I saw the culprits were a bunch of yahoos in police costumes. They were all having a blast pointing and laughing at the goofy-looking American who dared to be caught in public without a knock-off Armani shirt and elf shoes. This sort of thing is usually tolerable when it’s coming from teenage boys who seem to need some sort of rube to laugh at wherever they are, but from the cops it was just annoying, and worse yet it was making me really damn angry. By the third stop or so I was starting to get worried I was going to walk up to them and knock one of their damn hats right off their head. Every second that went by the idea was becoming more and more tempting, and the train rattled down the tracks, the people stared blankly ahead and I just kept staring at the hyena-faced cops.
Luckily, I think I’ve got a lot more sense than to go up and knock off a cop’s hat no matter where I am, still I remember a friend of mine once telling me that pointing and laughing was one of the most hurtful things that one could do to a person. We experimented with it after that (I think we were in 3rd grade.) First, we laughed at each other, then we pointed and laughed. He was right, the effect of that added “yes, YOU!” of the finger makes it so much more intense. And sometimes, standing on a subway, on the other side of the world from home, its hard to care so much about the repercussions, if for the moment you can just safe face and stop being humiliated.

The day before the presidential election I was invited to lecture on Animal Farm at a university in the capital. To much of Yerevan’s chagrin I brought my skateboard with me and had a great time reminding myself of the small things that make life worth living.
Both lectures I had went incredibly well and the students were absolutely amazing. If only I could spend the rest of my time here teaching literature to such eager minds, I might decide to stay, marry and never leave because I don’t know if I could expect better students anywhere else. After both alacritous lectures blurred by I found myself out in the street wondering what to do with the rest of the night. I called my pal Reza and let him decide for me and within an hour or two we were sitting around a kitchen table with some wine, some bread and some rad people to talk with. I nearly forgot about the election until I was just about to go to sleep. I checked out the updates, which at that early hour were still completely uncertain, steeled myself for the feeling the next day of a great chance come and gone and went to bed.
It felt nice to be congratulated the next day, to wake up just in time to watch Obama give his acceptance speech in Chicago in a park I remember strolling through frequently in a time that seems like decades ago.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Peel of Ragged Mountain Bells, or The Case of the Disappering Desert

It’s difficult to feel lost when you’ve got no destination and feel content to walk until you’ve come to one. Once in a while, out in the middle of a national park, crowded city or mountain range, I’ll look around at what appears to be endless unfamiliar scenery, consider it for a moment, and continue walking in the direction I was heading. Within a few moments of my renewed task I forget that I don’t know how to get home.
Yesterday, I walked up into the mountain range that boarders this town on what I think is the east side. I had a half-cocked plan to visit a monastery that I heard was up there. I had no idea where it was, but I felt sure I’d be able to find it eventually and after I clambered over enough mountains I did.
I started off on the wrong path though. After walking for a few hours I came to an area of shacks, clustered around a river, the inhabitants, either wearily staring into the distance or motioning for me to come over.
Sometimes Armenia feels like it doesn’t need the Peace Corps, or at least the traditional, romanticized image of the PC, that is, a group of ambitious, indefatigable college graduates that help to weave palm fronds together and dig wells. Over here when we talk about PC policies I notice a lot of us frequently say things like “oh, maybe in Africa, but not here.” We’ve all got this notion that we’re completely divorced from this traditional PC model. Sure, most of live, or have lived, in villages with little running water, outhouses, oxcarts and old ladies toting huge burdens on their backs. But a lot of other volunteers live in places with two TVs, a working shower, maybe a piano, things that are usually associated with wealth. The level of affluence here seems to swell in small pockets, especially when contrasted with the immense poverty surrounding it. When you see a flashy car drive by a guy in rags herding sheep up a street in the dusk, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s out of place. Is the shepherd some ancient, wandering anachronism? Or is the 2008 model car a rude intrusion of the occidental world? A battering ram of “progress.” In Armenia both parties seem to accept each other without much complaint, the car swerves around the sheep and the shepherd calls them back into formation, neither party so much as glancing at one another.
I walked up to the first shack I was invited into. It was a one-room affair with a gas burner placed between the make-shift beds, and a little table. With the dwarfing and isolation-inducing feel of the mountains and the lowing of nearby cows this home almost seemed to tremble in its existence. The home at once looked to be out of place and a natural part of the scenery, like the first barnacle on a brand new boat. I was given a seat on what looked to be a milking stool. The couple asking me questions about my origins and such for a while. The woman, apparently very alarmed by my solo adventure through the mountains tried to get me to turn around. She wanted to know why I was alone. I explained that I didn’t really know anybody in my town to go cavorting around the mountains with. She seemed saddened by this and offered me food and coffee, perhaps to mollify what she could only see as loneliness.
We had been sitting outside the shack up until this point. The coffee and food were inside so we went in. I was seated on a chair and watched the couple struggle with matches and a propane cylinder. While the coffee was on I spoke a little more with the old couple and looked around the austere furnishings. I remember there was a can of rennet on one of the cross beams of the place and a candle or two, two single beds, the man sitting on one, the woman on the other and the pleasant musty smell of a cool concrete basement in the summer. I ate some bread and even a little of the cheese paste in a proffered bowl, which obviously came from one of the goats (or sheep) that was wondering around the premises. The woman tried again to persuade me to go back and, as it was getting late in the day, I began to agree that perhaps it was the best idea. The man, who seemed almost as the spokesperson for adventure, kept turning the conversation to the road that lay ahead, while his wife looked on and frowned, clearly annoyed at his encouragement. After the modest meal he and I went out (under the pretense of directions back home) and I listened while he waved his hands around and spoke in a torrent of words, few of which could I understand. [Keep in mind this is all in Armenian.]
“There’s a church?” I asked after he said something about a church.
“(indecipherable) go right (inaudible) (indecipherable) straight.”
“is it far?”
“far (indecipherable) near …”
“but it’s far, right?”
“(inaudible) far (indecipherable) but…near”
All the while the woman was standing in the doorway of the house making a dismissive gesture and saying “not good, alone not good” over and over. With this information I decided to cross the next mountain, at least to see what was ahead. I could always turn around, right?
The problem with people like me is that we can never turn around. I never have any idea what I expect to find but the only thing I can be sure of is that whatever it is I won’t find it without going to look for it and staying in one place does not constitute “looking.”
As I slowly climbed the mountain I thought about everyone here, and presumably elsewhere, calling the PC program in Armenia ‘posh corps’ since we’ve got a capital like Yerevan that looks like it could be an American city (but is probably one of the few cities left in the world with a population higher than 1 million with no McDonald’s) and many sites with running water and accessible transportation. But as I left this couple in their ramshackle shack, waving me away, I thought about the other side of the country that they seemed to represent, the side that lives in places like this all summer long to allow the animals to graze, so they can harvest what they will need from them for the winter, spending the afternoon lugging cans of water up from the river and singing quietly to themselves in the mountain sun.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the mountains. I did eventually make it over to the monastery, where three old women and their large dog helped me get some water as I probably had the appearance of a Sergio Leoni-era, Clint Eastwood by the time I reached the damn thing: lips charred and shrunken, face sun-burnt and dust-caked, beard stubble chocked full of burrs and seeming to hold up my hollow, jaundiced cheeks. After I gulped down the water I answered their questions about being in Armenia, and, again, why I was in the mountains alone.
After I declined going to their homes to eat (it was getting late and I wanted to get back) I decided to lay down on the cool stone floor of the monastery for a while. Hewn from immense stone blocks, even in the dead of August heat, Armenian monasteries remain late-autumn-cool. One doesn’t do much in the monasteries, say a few prayers, light a few of the ubiquitous thin, yellow candles that are available in a self serve box by the door, and bow before the alter when you walk backward out the door. Since I had come so far I decided to fully prostrate myself, in the form of a napping penitent on the floor, where I listened to the lizards skitter across the apse and the relic piles.
Walking home in the fading sunlight my thoughts tumbled out of me and rolled, unattended, down the craggy mountain. I couldn’t seem to keep up with any of them so I finally just stopped trying and put my headphones on. The sunlight felt closer to the mountains now and my sunburn began to stick to me, like a hot ichor that steamed out of my reddened skin. Dehydrated and tired I approached the village.
When I finally arrived at my home, night was falling, and there was a black coffin lid propped up outside the door, people were milling around everywhere, all looking at me with curiosity and, in some cases, what looked to be suspicion. Armenian coffins are not your sterilized, rectangular American coffins either, they are of the classic shape, with a large cross emblazoned on the front, to see one of these outside my door seemed at first to be a pronouncement that Dracula would be dining with us that evening. I glanced at the lid in the failing light, it was the most tangible form of death I think I’ve ever seen. A black coffin lid in the summer twilight, undisturbed by the gentle breeze blowing around it.
The beggar’s shroud of ripped and informal clothing that seemed to fit my countenance so well in the arid, lifeless mountains, seemed out of place here, at the funeral. I felt like a ghoul at a scene where everyone was dressed up and there was a body on display. Quietly I snuck up to me room, hoping not to be seen. I remained there until the next evening when the body was finally taken to be interred. Somehow it just seemed rude to come out of my room. My host family seemed to appreciate this deference.


A few days later I’m waiting to return to work at the university. I seem to expect to be entertained today. I can’t quite describe the feeling, I guess it’s impetuousness, or the remnants of California hedonism. Some days, from the moment I wake up I feel some kind of happy restlessness. Perhaps these occasions are brought on by certain dreams or sleeping positions, I don’t know. I think it would be fairer, in this case, to say that a phone call cheered me to the point of inattention on this particular morning. I had passed the night as usual, nearly falling asleep with a book propped up on my lap, lying in the sweltering funk of my room, panting despite the fact that I was lying completely still, probably panting even in my sleep. At 7 am my phone begins to rattle across the floor from its place in my pants’ pocket. I stumbled over to the desk, unawake, thinking it there. I was dumfounded for a minute until I realized where the sound was actually coming from. I dug the tiny thing out of a denim wad on the floor. “Private Caller,” the ID read when I finally got it out. For an instant my mind raced back to all the damn “Private Callers” I used to talk to at 7 am back in SF and even Arcata, asking me if Gavin Newsome had my vote. “Arrggh, If he ever did he’s sure as hell lost it now!” I used to drone/roar into the phone, after the fashion of an angered sleepwalker, before hanging up. “Had the Newsome people tracked me down in Armenia?” I wondered to myself for a moment. “Were they calling at 7 PM California time just so they’d still get me at 7 AM here?” Shit! What wouldn’t they do to badger me into a vote. I answered the phone, ready with a quip, or trying to get one ready. “Who calls someone else at 7 in the morning?” I said answering the phone. The voice at the other end laughed, that was a good sign. “Jon,” the voice continued, “it’s me.” I had never talked to anyone from the Newsome election offices with the name “Me;” I was safe.
After the first, non-mother, call that I gotten from the US I jangled my way down the morning stairs to the shower. When I came back up I was feeling even better and decided I was going to watch the one movie I brought to Armenia with me. I popped in the copy of Children of Man that Mikey burned for me a while back into my laptop and waited. Nothing. I cleaned off the disk, went into My Computer to drag the contents out myself, nothing. I was about to call the whole thing off when I remembered a burned disk of the second season of that show Weeds, that had somehow ended up with me. I was planning on giving it to someone ’cause I hate those kinds of shows, and by “those kinds” I mean anything that’s not a cartoon, or something I remember watching before I turned 14..
“Whatever,” I thought to myself, “I’ve got a full cup of coffee, it’s 8 o’clock and I’m wide awake, I might as well try an episode, It’s not like I’ve got anything to do today.”
It was noon by the time I turned the thing off, even then I had to force my hand. The vivid and vapid outpouring of American culture had finally hypnotized me, not with it’s glamorous entreaties to join an impossible lifestyle, but with it’s character development and needling plot twists. Damn, it was just like the US version of The Office, which my friend Jay had back at the training site. The viewer just settles right into vicarious existence, attentively hanging on to plot developments, alternately loving and despising certain characters. I wanted to stay with the show all day, I didn’t want to be outside of its wonderful walls. When I realized that this was my feeling I decided to shut the thing off before I became a complete hypocrite. (I once had a roommate who actually watched 6-8 hours of TV a day. I remember being appalled when she admitted this to me and telling her so.)
With the infernal entertainment behind me I set off for, where else, the internet café. I strode out 30 minutes later, practically reeling with happiness, I couldn’t believe my luck, a call, a TV marathon and an e-mail in the same day! Where the hell was I, America? I gloated down the street to a café to study up on my teaching methodology when it finally hit me. I wasn’t going to be able to get a damn thing done. I had squandered a week’s worth of entertainment in one morning, as far as my endorphins were concerned, I was either back home with my friends or on crystal meth. no one can get anything done when they feel like that, and sure enough, the book I sat down to read faded into the music that bounced around in my head, the letter I tried to write came off confused and apathetic. I wildly contemplated going home and watching still more TV! but somehow I made it through the afternoon and even succeeded in giving a vague tutoring session later. One phone call and, ahh, the world suddenly becomes so valuable and disruptive.


Imagine one of the hardest days of work you’ve ever had. A day when your co-workers are dogging you, the boss is scowling, you’re tired and your feet ache like bastards. Imagine walking home from this day contemplating the work you’ll have to do at home before you can return to work the next day. You’re literally weighed down with books and papers. The sun is beating down on you and there’s construction everywhere. Cars are honking incessantly. Imagine all this but at the end of this harrowing journey you do not have, a household to walk into. No spouse to greet you and listen to your complaints. No snot-nosed kids running around that vaguely resemble you. No dog, no parakeet not even an empty apartment to greet you with open arms of solicitude, but a household full of strangers that speak a different language and seem to look at you with uncertainty, as if you’d walked into the wrong house. A TV that blares uncertain things in Russian.
(I don’t want to be negative here, this family of strangers is actually very nice to me, Russian television affords some quality entertainment options, whether or not you can understand the language and I’m sure many people with spouses, kids or parakeets to come home to could do just as good a job bitching about those things as I do about the situation here. Still, I’m writing about my experience in the Peace Corps, and I’ve got to include both the good and bad here in order to depict the situation as a whole. After living on my own for 8 years I occasionally find it difficult to come home to a crowded house of people I sometimes feel like I’m just a burden to. This is a singularly American viewpoint, entirely removed from the notion of family security that’s predominate in the rest of the world, I recognize that, however being American I could not help but to include it.)


God, I thought I wrote about this. I was about to finally post this damn thing, when I realized I’ve left off the most important part.
A week or so ago I went for a walk in the evening as the winds were picking up, blowing down from the mountains. It had been a long and hot couple of days and the breeze felt beautiful. To hear this ever-still world actually rustle, actually stir was like someone finally turning over something on a grill that’s just about to burn.
The birds sing in brighter cords, the world seems to renew itself, the old men that occupy all the obscure corners of town rouse themselves and speak with the passion of young men, the young men fall into the reverie of the old men and anyone still inside comes finds an open seat on the crumbling soviet balconies, or between the cardboard seat covers laid over the hard concrete curbs, mashed up by all the towns asses at one point or another.
So there I am, skipping out of my house, down the rock and dust road that leads down the hill and past the cemetery that clings to it. I cross the town, the trees move slightly and change the shadows on the streets. I don’t have an idea where I’m going, at this late hour I’ve got a few options, there are some areas of town where I don’t have all the open manhole positions memorized, with no streetlights it’s not good to be in one of those places after it gets dark, unless you want to break something. Which never actually deters me, but I thought I’d at least note it here.
I decide to walk out across the highway, down the road to a nearby village that looks like something straight out of a coyote and roadrunner cartoon, where the high desert bounces up and down on the horizon like an electrocardiogram sketch.
Beginning this road there’s a gas station that looks exactly like what it is, the last outpost before nowhere. The cool wind in the still warm night is blowing a cloud of desert dust all over it. The halogen lights sparkle, coruscate even, in the tawny fog. There is something at once so beautiful and lonely about the place, like that painting of the 50s Diner (I think the painter’s name was Hooper or Hoper) bright as day on the inside but surrounded by darkness. I continued walking until I was far away from these lights, alone looking down into a ravine, a dog howls up near one of the mountains and I begin to feel like I’m never going to be heard from again, like that smoky-bright gas station a few miles back will be the last witness to my life leading up until that point. As the dark fully descends from the mountains the wind gets colder and eventually even the bulky outlines of the mountains cannot be discerned from the sky. The stars seem to be out in every direction now, over my head and beneath my feet and the wind continues to pour across the road that I can longer see.

Monday, August 18, 2008

I'm pretty sure those were plums, or, the echo of your own broken voice.

Among the multitudes of my readership there are bound to be a few of you that remember a certain Sunny Delight commercial from, maybe, ten or eleven years ago. For kids like myself who watched inordinate amounts of TV everyday after school this particular commercial always struck a cord. For one reason they showed the damn thing about 100 times an hour, but back then that was some kind of market stratagem: thorough saturation, so looking back there were a lot of commercials that I saw way too many times. What makes this particular commercial so important is that I think it rent my generation into two very salient schools of thought. There were two very distinct ways to receive this commercial, and since we had all seen it, in all probability, millions of times, it was inevitable that one day we would begin to discuss it.
The gist of this particular Sunny “D” spot was not too different from many other commercials. It opens with two thirsty kids rooting around in a refrigerator. The point of view is from inside the ’fridge so the viewer is looking out at these sweaty brats from behind pickle jars, open boxes of baking soda and general refrigerator effluvia. One of these kids seems to feel at home in this particular ’fridge, as he is listing off the present supply of drinkables therein for the other kid. As he does so the rooting continues and new bottles are continually brought into view. I don’t remember everything he mentions, I’m sure some kind of generic cola was in there, I don’t think Proctor and Gamble would have the balls to include water, as, keep in mind, the kids eventually choose Sunny “D” over all other options. Also, I’m sure the dairy council’s Gestapo would’ve been torching offices if milk was included so, to soothe the myriad corporate egos of the day Sunny “D” essentially just made up a bunch of drinks. Oh sure, they had a cola, but again, I’m pretty sure they just said “soda” as the kids shoved a brown bottle with a red label aside, maybe with the whole cola wars thing going on Sunny “D“ thought they‘d step in to the ring and sock a punch as long as the contenders were busy blasting each other. Anyway, I’m getting way off track here. The main point I wish to harp on here was that one of the made up beverages was dubbed “Purple Stuff,” and it was this enigmatic liquid that split the generation that followed Generation X right down the middle (possibly even some of the Gen Xers as well, shit knows THEY watched enough TV too.)
So there we all were, day after day, cartoon after cartoon. Watching these incredibly eager and ruffled kids sliding drinks around in a refrigerator. After a period of time, many of us began to wonder, “hey, wait, what IS that purple stuff?” I know that for me it was after the first viewing, others eventually came to the “Purple Stuff” way of thinking after finally trying Sunny “D” for the first time and assuming that there’s no way the “Purple Stuff” coulda’ been worse. Others didn’t even need to try the “D” (that’s right, Sunny Delight and Detroit now share the same nickname as far as I’m concerned,) they knew from the beginning that the “Purple Stuff” didn’t really exist, and that was enough to make it the most enticing drink by far. Rumors abounded about the supposed flavor of this wild purple concoction. Some named fruits they had never tasted, but had seen in upscale grocery stores, others made up incredible and multifarious mixes of existing flavors, while still others invented completely new flavors, all of which I have unfortunately forgotten now. Of course there was the school that claimed the “Purple Stuff” was grape flavored, but they were only a sort of fifth column from the Sunny “D” lovers faction. They were the ones who were incapable of dreaming up wondrous possibilities for the “Purple Stuff” and they clung, stubbornly to old traditions and hackneyed flavors.

“If the stuff was supposed to be grape why didn’t Proctor and Gamble just say ‘Grape Stuff?’”

The advertising goons who came up with this commercial underestimated the creativity of their audience. They apparently figured, as a bunch of mindless consumers, tainted by years of myriad entertainment options and brand name identity associations that we would all buy into the idea that the unknown was inferior to the well-established, tried and true product. Of course they forgot one very important detail, Sunny “D” tastes like barf. So naturally when kids saw the glee on these gangly adolescents faces they knew they were being duped. No one likes Sunny “D” that much, and by contrast the mystery of the “Purple Stuff” became that much more exciting. This Phenomena would later be repeated with the Sprite commercials that invented a rival in something called Jukie or Juky, which again we all lusted after, having long since developed an antipathy for the absolute tastelessness of Sprite.
After a significant period of time had passed and the Sunny “D” commercial was still being played I remember trying to examine the “Purple Stuff” more closely. It was sorta’ opaque, and had a multi-toned quality to it, like some wines do. The packaging was fairly innocuous, as, I think the line of thinking was that we would not want something that came in a lackluster package. On the contrary, this seemed to attest to the indisputable value of the product itself. “Purple Stuff” didn’t need a flashy package or even a flashy name. It was fine promoting itself as some half drunk bottle inside Billy’s ’fridge. It didn’t even mind being spurned by two snot-nosed brats in favor of some other uncertainly flavored sludge. “Purple Stuff” eventually came to represent, not the freedom of choice that capitalism so badly wanted us to accept, but rather freedom to not care at all, or better yet, freedom to make or imagine your own after-soccer-practice cooler. In the manufacturing of a fake drink the corporate world demonstrated just how easy it was to turn anything into a product. We fast began to realize that the quest for the enigmatic “Purple Stuff” was revolutionary because it brought us into our own minds. We didn’t turn to the grocery stores looking for “Purple Stuff” on the shelves because we knew it was too singular to be there. “Purple Stuff” became a way of life, sorta’. Those of us who took to “Purple Stuff” over Sunny “D” dreamt of what was unavailable anywhere outside our own hearts. “Purple Stuff” was in every individual that had bothered to think about what “Purple Stuff” might be, or how it might be made, or what it might taste like.
So quite unwittingly, the corporate world let slip the secret that individuality does not lie between the selection of product A or B. A and B cease to matter when you become capable of imagining XRQ17. From that point on I knew that A and B contests would never be worthwhile again.
*[Originally, I brought in a bunch of political points here, but after reading what I wrote I realized there is nothing political about this, the concept of “Purple Stuff” stems far deeper than the realms of what candidates have to offer and I’m not trying to make a political point here. I only wish to give voice to what I remember as the zeitgeist of the mid-nineties playgrounds and living rooms of America.]
It took ten years or so but I finally got to try “Purple Stuff” I know you’re probably thinking it’s antithetical for me to even attempt to define the great purple nectar at this point, but, again I think the beauty of the “Purple Stuff” mythos was that it was always within our grasp. I think anyone of us was ready to taste it at anytime, we just had to be ready, had to believe that what we were imbibing was the actual “Purple Stuff” and not just something we were willing to accept as “Purple Stuff.”
I moved to Armenia a few months ago from the US, the village were I live is down in a valley in an area that resembles the American southwest. It’s in the mid to upper 80s or 90s here everyday. The valley itself is lush and green and bears some beautiful fruit in the summer. Outside the valley grapes can be cultivated but not much else will grow in the arid soil. The other day I was walking up into the mountains. I was thirsty as hell following a trail that was supposed to lead to a lake someplace. I never found that lake but on the way back I came across a tree that literally had fruit falling off from it. I didn’t know what the fruit was, let alone if it was edible but I decided to try one anyway. With the first bite I nearly lost my balance, completely enervated by deliciousness. I ate another, my head swooned, I rocked back on my heels. It was almost 100 damn degrees outside and somehow this stuff was cold! I ate a few more and eventually came to the decision that this fruit was really too good to keep eating. Like I didn’t want to satiate myself with something that was this good. I didn’t want to worry about getting sick from eating too much, so I left the tree behind with it’s miraculous fruit. It wasn’t until the next day that I made the comparison between the color of this fruit and a commercial from ten or eleven years ago.
Friends, I have found my “Purple Stuff,” let me know when you find yours.

Wow! I really don’t know how to begin to convey the excitement and gratitude I’m feeling right now. I guess the best way would be to begin with a feeling of disappointment, ya’ know to sorta’ offset the happiness.
The disappointment came as a result of a bum cell phone. I didn’t really even want a cell phone and told myself from the beginning of my Armenian odyssey that I wasn’t going to get one. I mean I assumed in a country like this cell phones would be expensive as hell and probably wouldn’t work very well. It only took me about a day or so to realize how wrong my presumption had been. We arrived in Yerevan early in the evening, jet-lagged and haggard we gradually made our way out of the airport to encounter a parking lot full of people talking on cell phones, “Whoa,” I thought. “developing country my ass.” Anyway, I guess it’s the norm these days, no matter where you are you can get cell phones and reception to boot.
As the weeks of Peace Corps training progressed everyone began buying phones and calling home, calling each other, calling the Armenian operator, just randomly mashing keys until someone began to talk on the other line etc. etc. The point is calls where being made. I took no part and held up my stalwart commitment to not buy a phone. After all, it worked so well for years in college. My resistance was eventually worn down when I heard that a phone was to be given away along with the piles of other junk departing volunteers were leaving behind. We had this monopoly money doled out to us to buy this stuff and somehow I decided the phone was probably the best thing to get, although earlier tonight I was thinking maybe I shoulda’ gone with the udon noodles and soy sauce.
Anyway, I had the winning bid and I took this crazy phone home after buying a sim card for it so that it would actually work and not just beep at me when I tired to turn it on. I tried it out a few times. Everyone calling me and me calling them to exchange numbers without actually having to type anything into the phone. Well, it felt good at first to connect with everyone and when I got back home I decided to be considerate and call my mother, as the country to the north of us (about 4 hours by car) just went to war and she tends to worry. I found myself a good spot, got a cigarette going and made the first call on my new phone. My dad answers sounding kinda’ mad. “Hello?”
“Heya, dad how’re ya’ do…”
“Hello!?” He sounds madder.
“Hey dad, what’s…”
“HELLO?” It becomes clear at this point that he can’t hear me. I try a few more times before he hangs up.
“Hmm” I think to myself. “Must be a bad connection or something. Seems odd though as I’ve got all five bars indicated here. Whatever, I’ll try somebody else.” And the same process repeats.
“Maybe it’s only America, I’ll try someone here in Armenia.” Again I go through the agonizing process of being able to hear someone answer the phone but not being able to respond. There’s something oddly Sartre-esque about that, like the inverse of being-in-doing. You act but only get a isolated reaction, the other party has no idea who they’re talking to. You’ve committed the action of calling but they’re the ones who end up alone, speaking into a dead line.
I can’t help but to be kinda’ bummed at this point. I had gotten pretty excited about making a few calls. Hearing some familiar voices and familiar stories, but no I was back under an increasingly turgid American evening sky, the wind blowing over the chaparral, sounding like the voice of loneliness. And then I started thinking that they must’ve given me a bum phone on purpose, how could they have not known the damn receiver didn’t work? And now at the end of training there was nothing I could do to try and give it back. Fuming thusly I went over to my pal Jay’s to tinker with it while I tried calling his phone. As usual Jay was very obliging and I screwed around with my phone getting madder and madder while he tried to console me, probably thinking that I was being too dramatic as usual. I finally gave up on the damn thing and went home to tell my host mother that the number I gave her did not work, and that she should delete it from her phone. Being the angel that she is she asked if I would mind if she called a friend who fixed phones. Huh? What kinda’ luck is this? “Ok, sure,” I said. Yeah why not. Maybe he can even fix it. So while she made the call I was thinking this guy must live in one of the cities nearby, he certainly doesn’t live here in the village. When she hung up she told me that this guy lived next door and was coming over. Huh, ok, wow that’s pretty cool. Still, I was convinced my phone was a hopeless cause and didn’t get too excited.
About five minutes later this guy comes walking across the valley near our house. We greet each other, and quite business-like, he takes a look at my phone, pressing all the buttons I had already tired. I began to feel bad for even calling this guy over thinking, “damn, he’s just going to do all the stuff I already tried, if only my Armenia was better I could explain to him that it’s a lost cause, maybe we could chuck the phone into the garbage ravine together and have a good laugh about the benefits of technology while the cows low as they saunter home for the evening. But this was not to be the case, the guy used his phone to call mine, listened on his phone and blew into mine. “Here it comes,” I thought. He going to realize this is some sort of mechanical problem and give up. Instead he tells my host mother the Sony needs a new microphone, he’s going to take it back to his place and fix it. “Huh?” I’m thinking, “this guy has cell phone microphones in his house?” I’m telling you everything about this process kept getting better, it was like being on some sort of succor elevator.
The guy’s back in a few minutes. My phone works, here it is, try it. I do, it does, and I’m happy. We all sit down and eat watermelon and drink coffee and he tells me how he’s unemployed because there’s no work in this country. This guy fixed my busted phone in a village where there’s more cows than people, and I think the sheep might even have their own political party, now there are places like that in America too, but damn! How many of them are going to have cell phone microphones?
“No, I’d reckon you’d have to go to down to Boise for summut like that.”
“Huh?, Cell phone, ain’t nobody got no microphone and a cell phone, which one you want? Misself I only got that ol’ beta player for sale, I guess I could let it go for, oh maybe 100 dollars. What? Oh yeah, it’s got a microphone to it, sure!”
The whole scenario was like some kind of soft mafia, phone’s broke, huh? Lemme’ call my friend. Hey I hear your phone’s busted oh, give me a second, here ya’ go., it’s fixed. No, of course you can’t pay me, whatta’ ya’ nuts? And to think I was all set to pitch it in the garbage ravine, only now that I’ve got a working phone I can’t get a hold of anybody. Oh a quick note about the garbage ravine, it’s exactly what it sounds like, if you can imagine a hot summer rainbow of stench, you’re on the right track to picturing, or rather, smelling what I’m talking about. Seriously, I didn’t know that steel could become putrescent until I made the mistake of looking down there one day, whew! I’ll have to tell you more about it someday, oh hey you could always call me we could talk about stink all day!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Heavy Green Artillary, or child-drawn Jesus

Honestly I have no idea where to start. I’m sitting in my room now, probably the biggest I’ve had in years, thinking about the last few years as I go through the pictures I have stored on my computer. I want to show my host family here how I’ve lived since leaving home. I mean I’d show them how I lived before too but I didn’t take many pictures back then, and even fewer were scanned on to a computer. Whatever, this is all erroneous as hell but I’ve got to hit a starting point somehow.
It’s just past midnight and by all appearances the house is asleep. You wouldn’t believe how little these people seem to sleep, despite the fact that they work out in the garden all day. We drink coffee together at around 11 pm, but somehow I usually go to sleep before they do. Of course they’re always awake before me, even though I’ve got to be to language class everyday at 9. The whole thing makes me feel lazy as hell, especially considering that they tend to wait on me hand and foot, all the crazy time. I wake up and there’s a breakfast, I come home from class and there’s a lunch, sometimes a plate of food will just “appear” in my room, sometimes two. This is to say nothing of candy or “confet” which I’m pretty sure is a Russian word.
Anyway, yeah, 90-some percent of the males in this country smoke, but somehow, one of the few smoking peace corps volunteers (I think there’s about 4 out of the 47 of us) I end up with one of the only non-smoking ones. However, it’s probably better that these people don’t smoke given the amount of candy they consume, quite seemingly for the hell of it. We’re all sitting there at the table and a dish appears, everyone takes a few pieces and, invariably, a few are dropped next to me with the request to eat. The Armenian word for eat being “kesh” which I hear more than one hears horns honking, downtown in a big city. Of course you’d expect that sort of mentality, it’s not exaggerated, really I’m almost always surrounded by food and someone telling me to eat it. Not in a jovial manner either, more like the way that someone who is becoming frustrated explaining something to you (think your dad telling you how to fix something on a car) will tell you to “pay attention!” They use that same tone to tell me to eat, and they’re always telling me that. There’s no saying no either. I tired once or twice after I had already had an entire serving plate or two dumped on my own plate. My host dad looked up at me, blinking his huge eyes as though holding back tears and made a grandiose gesture toward his heart. I immediately grabbed the proffered food item and ate it with relish, despite the fact that I think it was probably the 8th one I’d had that day.
I don’t want to make my host family out to be, in any way whatsoever, at all bad. They are some of the nicest people I have ever met by far. As far as Armenian families looking out for the Amerikatsi go they are also very permissive. I know many of the grown men here are hounded after by their host mothers. I’m taking 45 year-old men who have to report home after school. Sweet merciful shit, that would drive me nuts! I mean, like I-think-this-peace-corps-business-isn’t-for-me nuts. Luckily, my host family doesn’t seem to care what I’m going to do, or when I’m coming back so long as I eat before I go. This requisite freedom has given me a few opportunities to make some nice countryside excursions. I’ll tell you about one if you’ve got a minute.
Two dogs, walking around a gas station, and the sun beating down on the dirt-pack parking lot. I’m push starting a car with a portly middle-aged guy when the dogs start to bark, apparently annoyed that I’m making such a flagrant ass of myself in what is, by all appearances, their parking lot. One of them has that low, “I’m not really going to do anything” type of bark, but the other, Sparky seems like a good name for a gas station dog, Sparky, well he’s kinda’ gaining on me and if this portly guys doesn’t put a little more muscle into it I’m going to be getting my ankle chewed off in a minute here. The car starts, coughs, and stops. At the first sound of the motor the portly guy stopped even pretending to push and left me shouldering the car. After the motor stops the car looses any momentum I had put in and is too hard to push. The driver gets out either cheering me on to push harder or just straight up yelling at me for not pushing hard enough. Either way, I’m feeling better ’cause I’ve noticed that since I stopped pushing the car, Sparky has calmed down significantly and gone back to sitting under his bench. After a few more tries the motorist and I eventually get the car started, he drives off onto the road, probably still yelling at me to push harder. I return to the bench I had been reading on earlier after having walked all the way into the city of Hrazdan. I was kinda’ tired and had been taking a break until I was appointed head car-pusher. I went back to my book, but suddenly I didn’t feel like resting anymore. The sun was too bright and the country still far to new to sit down on, even if I had been walking for 4 hours or so. I bid Sparky adieu, gave him half my sandwich and headed back up the road I had come down where I had noticed what looked to be a supermarket previously. It didn’t look open but I thought I saw some people going in and out, so I decided to go in, or try to go in and find out the deal on Armenian supermarkets.
Sure enough the supermarket wasn’t even built yet, they were still putting in beams, girders and such and groceries were all over the place in boxes. I had walked in anyway, and despite the obvious fact that I didn’t belong in there, no body stopped me until I picked up a bottle of water with the obvious intention to buy. Let me back up a little and tell you why it’s so obvious that I didn’t belong in that store. In Armenia, not many people sport anything like a beard. This is not eastern Europe we’re talking about here, even the occasional mustache is rare. I get a lot of people asking me what the hell I’ve got a beard for, as if I was actually using it for something. I usually tell them it helps me think, which I follow up with the classic, beard-rubbing, eyes upward, thinking gesture. I usually get a few laughs for this, but the confused looks never go away. Secondly, everybody here dresses like they’re always about to go to some kind of formal event. At least the guys do. The young girls wear all kinds of flashy stuff but the guys are strictly business casual. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried to fit in. I wore a button-up shirt for awhile but soon found out that I simply cannot tuck shirts in. I hate the damn feeling of it. I’d almost rather walk around trying to wear a sweater as a pair of pants, I seriously feel that awkward. So, the un-tucked button-up shirt is almost as bad as whatever else I’d wear so I just said, “screw it, I’m not going to ever convince anyone I’m Armenian anyway, I might as well just remain American, and where my worn-out jeans, but maybe I’ll go with a sweater rather than my worn-out tee-shirt.”
So anyway my ratty-ass is escorted out of the not-yet-open supermarket and I continue down the street. After walking for about an hour I came to a little café. I went in, tracking mud all over the just-mopped tile floor, and asked for a coffee. I tired to start a letter while drinking my coffee but within seconds I noticed about three bodies leaning over my shoulder. At this point I’d been walking all day and I was tired so I pretended to ignore this unabashed display of curiosity. I have since learned that such a thing is simply impossible. I tried to continue writing, but I noticed the volume of the conversation being held, quite literally and figuratively, right over my head, was gradually increasing. As one tends to do in letter writing I had a snag in my line of thought and had to look up to collect my ideas. Of course, as soon as I looked up from the paper I immediately found myself face-to-face with the group of young men who had surrounded me when I had walked in the café. They all beamed at me the way new parents beam at a new-born. I said hello to them and invited them to sit. They declined and continued to hover. After a minute or two of awkward silence the questions came, which are only slightly less awkward since my Armenian is still so bad.
Ohh Gawd when was that? I must’ve wrote that right after I got here. There’s a lot in it I’d like to correct now, for one, I have since seen a beard or two. They are still quite rare however and I’ve actually been told by people close to me to cut mine. I have since revisited that grocery store. It was open and I bought a bad of potato chips from the Saudi Snack Company. Currently I am still dressing like a bum, but I try to keep a professional look on my face in hopes that someday, someone may take me serious.
There’s just too much, I swear. My friend Jay and I were just discussing this the other day. Everything that happens in this country needs to be written down immediately or else it becomes lost. Fortunately, I’ve done a great job of this by way of several handwritten letters and myriad e-mails, but, alas, I am far too concerned with personal communications to pay much heed to any kind of general communiqué, or even anything that I would keep for myself, like a journal or something. Whatever, I’m resolved now to at least make a comment or two about everyday that passes. The Peace Corps got us all so bogged down with our training that it’s really hard to find enough time to write a story, let alone interesting anecdote everyday, but, dammit, I’ll try.
With this in mind I’m going to take a precursory view back over, hmmm, July, 20th, I think? As it went down in Solak, a village, nay my village just outside Hrazdan, Armenia.
My shoe’s falling apart. I’m on top of a mountain and the bottom just fell off my shoe. I think about the loose shale that I climbed up to get here, I think of the steep and very sudden inclines, I think of the Caucasian wolves that I’ve heard are up here. The sun is beating down on me and I didn’t bring enough water. It’s only been an hour or two and I’m already thirsty as hell. That wouldn’t be so bad if I had a way down. I curse myself, thinking of the perfectly fine pair of boots that I’ve got back home, sitting by my bed. Luckily, I’m the resilient type and I’ve actually tangoed with worse shoe problems than this, hard to believe maybe but true. I repair ol’ lefty with a bungee cord that seems to serve no purpose on my Land’s End backpack and continue on my way. After a few hours, I reach the church that I came up to see in the first place. Now, I’ve gotta’ admit, I’m not usually especially blown away by churches, either decrepit or lavish, but this lonely little place in the mountains, with child-drawn icons of Jesus was pretty impressive. I guess it was more in the solitude of it than anything else. Just that it was so far away from any kind of civilized place, I wondered how they even got the bricks up there to build the thing. Also the bright orange candles in the carbon-scored apses appealed to me somehow, I dunno’ centuries of smoke looks pretty cool on a centuries old wall way up in the mountains, twelve time-zones away from the rest of the world that one knows.
When I finally got home I had laundry yet to do and I usually bathe and clean my clothes almost simultaneously, since it’s sorta’ a pain in the ass to heat up the water. There’s a basement-y looking room with a moldering tile floor where the washing is done. I went in after enjoying a pleasant meal of borsht, (which, by now, I’m quite sure is any kind of vegetable soup and doesn‘t necessarily have to include cabbage) and began to mix the stove-heated water with the cool stuff. I’ve got to say a word about this process, as there’s almost something magical about taking water from a dented metal drum that abuts a stone wall in a room with a window that overlooks the ever-purpling mountains. It seems like every time I’m doing my laundry the sun has just set so the mountains beyond the window are backlit. While I prepare the water in this nearly narcotic alcove, I’ve got to strip down to nothing, while somehow managing to keep my feet in a pair of sandals the entire time. Believe me, if I could avoid the hassle I would but my host dad insists that the sandals be worn at all times in the bathing room. He speaks with such conviction that I am inclined to follow his advice, lest I end up with bubonic foot-rot or something, the floor does have a nice black patina all around its edges and I would venture to guess that it probably wouldn’t be the best idea to walk on that stuff with bare feet.
So after this maneuver I’m standing completely naked in sandals, I assure you, I don’t think there is a more awkward manner of dress, even the infamous “nude with socks” fashion would probably look more appealing. Anyway, I then proceed to dump the water over myself with a measuring cup. I’m tempted here to include a picture just because I think it would be hilarious. I’ve got the window with the mountain view right in front of me and the whole process is quite relaxing, but, with the fading light and the trickling sound of water I cannot help but to feel that the bathing situation here is probably better suited to women, who, at least in my mind, are probably much more at home in relaxing bathing situations than goofy-looking kids like myself.
When I’ve finished cleaning myself I start on the laundry, which is slightly tedious. I guess one misconception I had about the peace corps was that I’d be sitting in a room much like the one where I do my laundry, using buckets and stoves in much the same manner that I use them, with, I dunno, a scarf or something tied around my head, laughing in an unknown language with the babushka’d women of the village. The situation is nearly dead on with the exception that in the back of my mind, I’ve got a bunch of pedagogical papers and homework I should be looking over. I didn’t think this part of America was going to follow me to Armenia, but it has. The thing is, one could easily abandon the paperwork and slug homemade vodka in the washing room all night with the old ladies and never touch the papers, or one could hide in one’s room going over the papers over and over again. Maybe it’s just because we’re still in training here, but I’ve talked to people who have taken every available view about what to do with all these papers they give us, and, strangely enough, every viewpoint seems to work. You could probably get away without ever looking at most of the papers we get, without ever lifting a pen, but then again, we’re all here for a common objective, right? So why wouldn’t you look over what they gave you, presumably only to help with you project. The only excuse that I can come up with is that it feels foreign to be looking over Xeroxed copies of EFL and safety guidelines when your host family has been out in the fields all day long with scythes that they made themselves. I’d never even seen a scythe until I came here. Everything that the Peace Corps seems to promote makes you think that the best thing to do would be to ditch the papers and start working on making your own scythe, so you too can help in the fields. I guess what I’m saying is, I’d like to be up the hills, herding the goats and wearing a straw hat and instead I often find myself sitting in my room highlighting catchy phrases in academic papers, just like I was back in the states. This isn’t so bad, I mean there’s still plenty of opportunities to acculturate oneself, I guess I just hadn’t fully considered what it is to be the harbingers of “progress.” It doesn’t really enable you to pass yourself off as a goatherd, though you still get to bathe with a bucket, using water heated up on a wood stove, I dunno’ strikes me as a dichotomy, I guess.
Ok, if the flash drive card I bought earlier today works I’ll finally be able to put this thing online and stop mercilessly adding more and more to it. That’s always been one of my problems when I’m not writing to a specific audience, I never know when to stop, especially here where so much happens, while, seemingly, nothing happens. I want to contribute this phenomena to darkness and time, both of which are distorted in Armenia, and the usual American perspective has little bearing, in fact, when applied, it tends to make things more confusing, take the dark for example. There are no streetlights here outside of the capital, at least all the places I’ve been that aren’t the capital, I’m quite sure they probably have streetlights in some of the larger cities that I haven’t been to like Gyumri or Vanadzor. But, since I haven’t been to Gyumri I can’t speak for it, and here in Solak and elsewhere there is no light outside that which escapes from people’s windows. Now, this is not particularly disconcerting or anything. I haven’t been wandering outside at night feeling lost or disorientated. No, the difference is much more subtle. Sometimes I’ll go outside to brush my teeth and find that I’ve inadvertently walked around to the other side of the house. The moon is also much more salient and, when full, casts some incredible shadows. The stars seem caught in the branches of the trees and the rain at night is completely invisible. These things would be easy to adapt to, even to embrace, but the oddest thing about the dark here comes from its ability to envelop people until they’re right next to you. The intensity of the darkness here seems capable of masking things to an incredible extent, one moment I’m totally alone, the next I’m sitting and talking with someone. When this person gets up, well, almost immediately they’re swallowed up by the dark and I wonder if they were ever even there. This all might seem fanciful, but consider how, in the states, no matter where you are, everything is designed to give notice that someone is approaching, whether this takes the form of headlights coming up a driveway, a porch light that draws silhouettes around those at you door, even bikes have reflectors. Simply, in America, we are probably the most visible people in the world.
So when the dark begins to envelop people, and they become prone to disappearing, time too begins to shift. My lack of a command of the Armenian language also distorts time when I am speaking with people. My thoughts creep by at a much slower rate, my speech is drawled out and, when I try to pantomime, my gestures seem too fast, as they don’t match the rate of my speech. Opposite this, I often find myself picking up a book here and not looking up from it until four hours have passed, though I’ve only felt, perhaps two of those hours at the most. I go for a walk on Sunday and have no concept of how much time had passed until my feet begin to hurt and I notice it‘s getting dark.
Maybe what I’m trying to communicate here doesn’t need to be expressed with the ponderous abstracts of darkness and time, maybe I could just say being in a new culture forces a different outlook on you and while this outlook is taking shape around your old perception of the world it’s hard to keep your bearings. Yeah, after all I’ve written that seems to be true enough but I’m afraid it just doesn’t do justice to the feeling of watching the stars, while knowing that your friends and family, looking to that same sky would see only sun, and suddenly realizing it’s been three hours and someone is standing next to you. I don’t know how to explain that.
After teaching for a few days I had an exceptionally wonderful lesson with my “practice” class. My partner and I taught a William Carlos Williams poem and I was enthused to see my old interest in teaching returning through the poet’s words on eating someone’s plums. I was again, waving my hands all over the place and practically shouting at my students to get them to understand and enjoy the possibilities of the poem. It almost seems like I teach better when someone else has prepared the lesson. I remember this feeling from substitute teaching back in Lansing, Michigan. It feels like ages ago that I stumbled into a class that was reading Jack London’s To Build a Fire. Most of the time I subbed, I had math or social studies classes, but for one shining moment I was teaching the kids the symbolism behind a story that meant something to me when I first read it as a Jr. high student. I’ll never forget that class and each time I am able to communicate my love of literature to students I revisit that day in Lansing when, for a brief moment, I felt like I connected with a class full of apathetic students, much like I had once been.
After my class today I came home and plopped myself down in the field behind where I live. There’s a wonderful cluster of rocks up there, perfect for reading and musing. As I drifted in and out of my book, watching the village retire for the evening below me, I heard the far-away sound of a train whistle. I turned my head to see where the sound came from and saw an engine making its way toward me with three flat carriers of tanks. I gotta’ tell you it’s pretty interesting after a long day to watch a train go by carrying tanks. I mean, real olive drab military tanks. The look so damn formidable I kept waiting for one to roll off the train and blow my little town apart. I guess just that comparison between a peaceful little village and a group of tanks made me see how fragile everything is in the face of war. I have no idea where those tanks were going but I hope it was somewhere far away.
I am happy that I seem to have recovered my ability to stay up really late. Despite my endless days of Armenian classes, lesson planning, teaching and homework, I have stopped sleeping like a damn recluse and this makes me hopeful that I may be able to accomplish something amongst all the cultural confusion after all.