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.