Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bang that Duduk or Sad Eye'd Everything

I have done nothing but walk all day today, well, that’s not entirely true, I ate a few meals and did some English tutoring, but mostly, it’s been walking.
I woke up early and decided to make myself some kind of breakfast, something besides oatmeal, which I’m getting kinda’ tired of. After breakfast I contemplated sitting around some more and found the idea abhorrent, as I could see how sunny it was outside, and the birds had been jostling each other at my windowsill all morning long. Also, I still don’t really have anything to do, classes won’t start until this Thursday, so I’m spending a lot of time, after the fashion that I often imagine retirees do, wandering about, both mentally and physically; I think the last 10 times or so that I’ve left the house, I’ve had no idea where I was going until I was at least half way there and the idea sprang up. Today began like that, I left the house thinking of walking to Vike, to see what was going on there, but I decided, about half way through town, that I was going to walk through the mountain pass that led to Martuni instead.
Unfortunately, either the trip was simply unremarkable or I don’t have the journalistic prowess necessary to turn a warm February day, and a winding, but otherwise uneventful, mountain road into something worth reading about. I walked over old, crunchy snow drifts, melting in the sun and pieces of dirty wool alongside piles of grey and broken sheep bones. Kids shouted at me and everyone I passed kept asking me where the hell I was going. Every time I answered “I don’t know…there I guess,” pointing further down the road, hoping that would be enough, but it never was, in fact saying this only made them more confused. “There? Where? There’s nothing up there!” Whereupon I’d reply “sure there is, this is Armenia, there’s got to be a monastery up this way eventually.” Everyone conceded to that point. After today I think I will begin using ‘going to the monastery’ as a euphemism for wandering around aimlessly; I’m sure to avoid a lot of complication that way.
I never found any sort of monastery, but then again I wasn’t really looking for one. I did meet a couple of bored-looking restaurateurs, shuffling around outside the ubiquitous, immaculate-looking place with no one inside. All over the country you have places like this, really nice restaurants that seem to pander, not cater, to tourists, all thirty or forty of them a year that make it this far from the capital. Most of the time these places are empty, and when they’re not there’s only one party in them and the wait staff, so accustomed to sitting around, usually act annoyed at having to do anything. Still, if you’re just walking down an mid-afternoon, sun-warmed street, these bored waiters usually make pretty decent conversation, and I was glad to baffle them by explaining that I was going ‘there’ when, apparently, there was no ’there’ to go to.
I eventually reached a town that seemed like as good a destination as any, and perhaps if I’d known the name of it, it could’ve served just fine as such, but I learned long ago that telling people here you’re going to the next town, without knowing what it’s called, will never be accepted as a sufficient answer.
Later, when I described the town to Paige over the phone, I felt like an idiot for saying something to the effect of “well you know it was in the mountains, and those mountain towns are always a little more rustic.” It was perhaps the most bourgeois thing I’ve ever said, luckily I caught myself and made some joke about how well-to-do people might use ‘rustic’ to describe anything from ‘gently used’ to ‘squalid boxcar full of junkies,’ just barely turning the joke around on myself.
Possibly in retribution for my aristocratic turn of phrase, I was nearly mauled to death by a wolf-like husky on the way home. Seeing the dogs around here that have been taken into people’s homes really helps one to see the Buddhist line of thinking on the strife caused by possessions. The dogs without owners, gallivanting around, eating out of the trash and not feeling tied to any particular piece of property, seem quite content and are generally pretty friendly, but, damn, all the dogs that have some kind of setup are all waiting to chase you down the street, biting at your ankles. Every time this happens to me I can’t help but to think of the dog’s thought process, and I imagine that s/he imagines that I must covet the old tire they live in, or the saggy, dry-rotted porch they sleep on, or the grisly people who keep them chained up all day. This is indeed a funny thought, but after I have it my mind immediately moves on to people who act damn similar over their own garbage, and it sometimes seems that perhaps possessions and even desires (which usually stem from possessions) are all crap and all of us are just barking frenetically in front of junk that has no value, trying to keep others away from our patch of matted grass and scattered holes.
After the first dog, I turned up the hill that would take me home. About halfway up the road I spotted a huge dog barring the way. Like I said he was a husky, mostly white with German shepherd-looking ears. I had passed this dog once successfully when he had been dozing in the sun a few months ago, and although he was alert and blocking my path this time, I hoped I could skirt him. Just to be sure I picked up a few small rocks to scare him off, should he get too close. Sometimes all a dog has to do is see you pick up the rocks and he backs down. I hate using this cheap tactic, essentially relying on someone else’s malice to deter the dog, it always makes me sad when it’s effective because it must mean that the dog has had rocks thrown at it before in order to step back when I bend down, but still, I guess it’s better than being bitten. This dog, however, had either never had rocks thrown at him or was too big and bold to care. I could hear him growing at me and made a show of picking up some rocks, but he stood his ground. I was too tired to try a different way and set my eyes straight ahead, moving to the far opposite side of the road. As I approached the dog stood still in the middle of the road and I continued ahead as though I were alone, but right as I came to the same point in the road as the dog he made a growling lunge toward me. At that moment I turned and faced him and nearly froze as I realized if he kept coming at me this dog was clearly powerful enough to at least maim me pretty good. Luckily it had been a bluff and I walked on, still clutching the rocks in my hand that would’ve been completely useless against a dog of that size. Before making it home I came to one last farmer who asked me where I was going. I told him I was going home, to Yeghegnadzor, but even this succinct description wasn’t enough for his bucolic curiosity, and he proceeded to ask me a few more questions, continually eyeing the rocks I still held in my hand.
Sometimes, after nearly 9 months, you lose whatever it is that makes a foreign country interesting, everything is still slightly incomprehensible, but you feel like it’s always been that way. It doesn’t feel different anymore. But at this moment it does, because the baby in the apartment above me just stopped crying and someone’s playing some dissonant vocal music, where the tone waivers between asynchrony and some piteous weeping sound, less intense than the upstairs baby’s, but with a haunting refrain that makes it sound like it’s awaiting an answer. In the other rooms people are bumbling around and speaking to each other in a language I still don’t understand very well.
Sometimes, wondering through the pasteboard landscape of the town I live in it’s easy to forget how old this place is. The February clouds drifting through the streets full of knock-off designer clothes stores that will probably be out of business in a few weeks and the occasional new SUV that breaks the monotony of an endless noisy parade of Ladas and Nivas, these things often strike me as gross and sudden attempts to look more occidental, less Caucasus sheep herder, more apparatchik, more Wall Street. I can understand how most people would gladly trade in the difficult life of an itinerant livestock herder, or any other simple pastoral title, to at least feign success and prestige, but, from under the heel of so many Italian designer knock-off shoes it’s often quite hard to see where Tigran Mets, Mashtots and proud heritage fit in for the most part, but sometimes you hear small connections between things like old warbling records and tired babies and for a moment the past comes rushing out through the future, for a moment you’re in a place thousands of years older than the United States of America.
Then, probably only a day later, I was on my couch, chain-smoking and drinking some tepid Kool-Aid, feeling totally numb to the experience and all the crying babies and wailing near-eastern music couldn’t bring me back to any level of fascination, because I guess there are times when we simply don’t want to be fascinated, when it’s preferable to think of other places and other opportunities and to feel stuck. And I went on doing that for a while, sinking deeper in the night and making a mental list of all the things I don’t like about being here, just as I’m sure any Peace Corps volunteer has done at one point or another, no matter where in the world they find themselves.
The next day I had my first day of classes, which meant that I went down to the university to wait for my students that never came, but the day was bright and clear, and, even with nothing to actually do; I felt a renewed sense of purpose.
The second day of classes went even better and, as it is, I think it makes for a pretty good record of what a good day in Peace Corps Armenia is like.
With nothing else to do, I went into the university for the first period, in hopes of kicking back in the teacher’s lounge for a few hours, alternately reading and conversing with the other professors who will deign to talk to me. Since yesterday the entire town seems to be under one of those rare spells where it seems like everyone’s in a good mood. The weather has been particularly nice and most of the old, craggy dirt snow has melted, leaving little piles of wet garbage and pale leaves to be kicked along the streets. All the people that sequestered themselves inside throughout the winter have begun to reemerge and some spring-sounding birds have returned that lighten the already bright atmosphere with their singing. I actually tried to feed these guys by putting old bread crumbs outside my window, and it worked to some degree until the neighbors began to complain that all my food garbage was raining down upon them. I told them I put the food out for the birds, which they found quite funny.
I was going over a few language notes in the lounge when I got a call from the administrator asking me to pick up the classes of an English teacher who had called in. Since I had nothing else to do until the forth hour, I went out to meet my senior class for a nice hour long conversation that could be called a class. They informed me that today was a holiday and proceeded to enumerate the traditional aspects of the festivities. After their description was finished I found myself drawing all these parallels to Halloween, which probably only bolsters their perception that I’m crazy and obsessed with this holiday, as earlier in the year I had a Halloween party where I cavorted around with a sheet over my head, moaning periodically. Then, I made them all watch The Nightmare Before Christmas before the semester break, (I think they had been expecting a more legitimate Christmas movie,) again walking around the room moaning, but this time dressed as Santa Claus. Suffice to say, after they had mentioned kids going from house to house in masks and asking for candy, I was already ranting about the ubiquity of Halloween traditions, and as today was Friday the Thirteenth, I had plenty of motivation.
I had a few more classes that day that all went very well, which is almost a miracle when you’re substitute teaching in a foreign country. After class I escaped into the vernal arms of the warmest day since sometime last October and, for a moment, I recalled the ebullient feeling I used to have back when I was a high school student upon leaving classes for the day and finding that the weather had improved while I’d been trapped inside between ringing bells and rather noisome lockers for most of the day. I walked back home, carrying my jacket under my arm and frequently sighing as we are all wont to do on what appears to be the first day of spring. I listened to some music and made some kind of gruel at home and then went out to take advantage of the nice weather by skateboarding around, which always confuses the hell out of most people here, but the kids seem to really get a kick out of seeing the normally graceless American bum/teacher cruising around on a children’s toy. Of course I was immediately surrounded by such kids, and I surrendered my deck to them, while answering questions, holding on to little, cautious hands, and explaining how to best position one’s self on the board, not that anybody really listens to what I’m saying about that. It seems like every group had at least one kid who’s daring enough to just run up to the thing and jump on. I’m always worried that this persistent daredevil is going to bust his head open and then I’m going to have a mob of angry mothers calling out for my blood. Thus far there have been no major accidents and the skate session was completed when, for the first time, a little girl came over to join us. The greatest thing was that she wasn’t even that little. Here, little girls usually play alongside the boys, doing most of the same things until about 9 or so, so a little girl wanting to skate wouldn’t be so odd, although it’s never happened, but after the 9th birthday apparently some Pied Piper rounds up all the girls, sits them down, and presumably, lectures them on the wondrous world of feminine demure. So, quite heartbreakingly, one does not often seen little Armenian girls over 9 playing with the boys. Of course this is probably androcentric as hell, but I can help but to think that anybody who is 9, 10 or even 12 years-old wants to slide around on their butt in the mud, fall out of trees and chuck stuff at things. Am I wrong? Is this a childhood legacy or merely a little boy legacy? Regardless, I was happy to see this little girl come over with obvious curiosity. I asked the tumbling, yelling and laughing ball of boys if I could have the board back and handed it over to her.
“Sure, why not? Do you wanna’ try?”
“Ok, start by putting your foot here…”
Of course, once again, I’ve got to remind you this is all in Armenian, so forgive my tendency to make it sound like I’m a damn swimming instructor everywhere I go. I probably sound more like this:
“Yes, me. Why no? want you to [incomprehensible]?”
[Here it’s amazing that she even understood me enough to say, “yeah”]
“Good, your leg for there…”
Despite my bumbling language attempts, I had a great time with the kids and felt how, at one time or another, any clown, ice cream man or anybody whose very appearance makes children bound around yelling and laughing must feel.
I skated by myself for a little while, parading my ridiculousness all over town and trying to clear away all the stray rocks that the snow brings into otherwise clean parking lots.
After I got home I became gradually aware that some big deal was going on out in the streets. As twilight settled in my windows and I sat there wiping the sweat from my face, I began to hear traditional Armenian music booming down in the streets below. I changed into my nerd clothes and ventured out, leery of another holiday that might involve throwing buckets of water on people.
In front of the cultural center there was a large bonfire and a group of children dancing in a circle, as with any Armenian celebration this was all accompanied by an ear drum-damaging level of music and a bunch of guys standing around smoking. I saw a few people I knew and asked the same questions I ask any time something is happening, even when I’ve already read all about it, just to make conversation.
“What for this?”
“Pleased are you?”
“I think…interesting”
Unfortunately, the great time I was having talking with one of my students in this manner was interrupted by a guy who kept asking me to become friends with him. Normally, I’m cool with the idea of such instant friendships but this guy made it quite obvious his sole purpose for befriending me would be to either get him into America or to bring him back a car from the states
“How to bring car back? By boat?”
“Yeah, sure by boat”
“I think expensive, very expensive. I am poor.”
I kept trying to impress this guy with my poverty and total lack of important connections, but to him, I was the only American around, and therefore the only one worth talking to about his car importing ideas. Still, at the end of the festivities I went home still feeling pretty good. But any remaining mirth slipped away when, minutes after I had gotten back home my doorbell rang. I was standing in my kitchen, debating with myself on whether or not to eat more potatoes, when the damn thing squawked (it actually makes a sound like a dying bird) at least ten times in rapid succession. I was thinking, “oh great that guy followed me home in order to solidify our new friendship by barging in, messing around on my computer and reticently chain smoking for about 20 hours. Reluctantly, I went to the door but “…darkness there and nothing more” Hmmm. Then it clicked, oh the Halloween-like holiday, they have something like trick or treating tonight. Only I had thought a bag was to be hung on the door knob for me to fill, there was no bag, but, crap was I excited. I bounded back into my greasy kitchen, scouring the place for something that could at least pass as candy-like if the kids came back, in the meantime I left the door wide open to let them know I was participating should they return. The only thing I could find were cough drops, and I felt like a bastard when, I came to the door, after the bird squelched some more, to greet a masked little kid and his little sister putting their bag on my door handle on the wide open door. I asked the kid if he wanted candy and tossed what may as well’ve been toothbrushes or pennies in his bag, while he stood there grinning at me in a homemade Zorro or traditional burglar mask.
“Spasiba,” he said, ‘thank you’ in Russian, and darted back down the stairs with his little sister doing her best to keep up.
I’m gonna’ buy a whole damn candy store to give to those kids if they come back next year.


circle me confused said...

the throwing buckets of water on random people is my favorite holiday here....such as it should be your least. why oh why akhber.

mike said...

Keep the yarns coming, Jon. I miss having you reading your words keeps me going and fills that void. It also serves as a productive distraction to my masters project....

Anonymous said...

I used to go to the community swimming pool to take my swimming lessons. I must say the trainers there are very professional and friendly.