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.