Monday, May 18, 2009

Rainbow Through a Battered Window or La Turista nella Verde

I was talking with a friend of mine a while ago who asked me why I hadn’t written any thing on this thing in a while. Other than “because no one reads it besides you” I really couldn’t think of a sufficient answer. That was over a month ago and I still haven’t even attempted to organize my thoughts into anything coherent just in case anyone is reading this thing from time to time. It’s odd, I guess, this business of writing blogs, where you sorta’ pour yourself out to an audience that you can be entirely sure of. I like to the experience of talking on the phone when you’re not sure if the other person is still on the line, which happens a lot here. When calling the states there’s a short relay period, so every point of call and response is given a neat set of ellipses, this also cuts the sound on the other line too, so it always takes a few seconds to be assured you’ve still got someone on the line. This used to bother me, but I’ve gotten used to it and am as inclined as I ever was to drone on endlessly, assured that who ever I am talking with is still there. A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend of mine, telling a characteristic long-winded story when I suddenly realized I hadn’t heard any kind of assent or phatic confirmation in a while. Sure enough the line was dead and I had been talking to myself, in my kitchen for at least 7 minutes.
Writing things and pasting them on the abysmal internet is something like the experience of talking on the phone when you’re not sure if the connection’s been dropped. In order to keep the conversation fluid you continue but, every so often, you have to pause and wonder if you’re talking to yourself. It’s like the moment when you realized you haven’t heard any kind of response in a while.
Now, I’m not writing all this as an exercise in self-pity. Really, I realized a while ago that, although I usually write with an audience in mind, I’m always writing for myself. I write long e-mails and letters because they feel therapeutic, when there’s no one to talk to it’s nice to confide in an empty room. To some extent everyone does this, I guess we all just have different mediums for it. It helps to understand a situation if you can turn it over in your mind through some physical activity.
I haven’t written anything in a while because I guess I’ve found enough people who are willing to listen to my attempts to understand things in tête-à-tête conversation. Lately, I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time mulling over my thoughts with various people in earshot. I was inclined to write more when I didn’t have this outlet, now that I do I guess I tend to use up most of my stories around them.
Another important factor, that I just considered is that of familiarity. Initially, I found this place interesting to write about because something new was constantly happening to me, something I wanted to write down before I forgot it. To this day interesting things continue to happen around here, but, I guess, they’ve become commonplace to me. Making a half-cooked vegan cake with my student and her mother that turned out to look like an illustration of pathos, while the birds chirped in the blooming trees outside in the growing twilight or discussing the geography of Damascus with a kid from Syria over a few Armenian beers or wandering the streets at night with a few stray dogs in tow and explaining to the local police why I was out at 1 am nosing thorough the trash, have just become normal enough events that I don’t come home and feel like to recounting them.
But, like I said, we, or at least, I, write because I like to examine certain feelings and occasions through some kind of concrete expression. A few minutes ago, I wasn’t too sure why I hadn’t written anything, having just written about it, I now have a better idea why that is. It would seem the process is still working.
In about a month, I’m going to cut out for a while, after having been here for a year I’m going to take a trip west to Bosnia, or possibly Croatia. As you can imagine I’m immensely looking forward to this opportunity. I’m glad that I’ve hung around in one place as long as I have now, but I think in order to find the impetus to work for another year, I’m going to have to get on and off a few buses and see a few palm trees, like those stocky ones, all bunched up down Guerro, or those lanky things that you can see from the BART, growing in people’s backyards in the East Bay, tangled up in a landscape of telephone wires and liquor store signs.


I went down to Goris a few days ago to visit a friend of mine on his birthday and to observe a poetry competition he was putting on. As usual, when I look back upon the overall experience, which only occupied the space of about two days; I see how the journey, both to and from southern Armenia, was the most memorable aspect of the trip.
My friend Paige and I had reservations for a marshutka (van taxi, overcrowded airport shuttle bus with no suspension, no heat in the winter and no windows to roll down in the summer) that was coming down from Yerevan. As all transportation here is routed through the capital it’s really hard to get a ride starting from any other point, there’s no official stops anywhere and the only solution is to try to flag down a passing marshutka that’s heading in your direction. They are, however, almost always full and remarkably unconcerned to your plight as a rain-sodden pedestrian trying to get a ride.
The best way to avoid this scenario is to get to know some of the marshutka drivers, call them, and ask them to hold a seat for you when they leave Yerevan, I’ve never bothered to do this, but luckily I’ve got some friends here who are a little more forward thinking than me.

I was hanging around my apartment, thinking about mailing a letter. The phone rang and the driver told me I had about ½ hour before he arrived, enough time for a few more songs, a few more absent looks out my kitchen window, the rest of the coffee and the post office (if there’s anybody there.)
A half an hour later, my letter mailed, I took my wayward place along the highway, standing at the end of a row of people waiting for their respective rides. The day was overcast so I decided to put my headphones on; the birds weren’t singing much and I got tired of listening to the roar of Iranian oil trucks barreling down the road.
About 20 minutes went by when I noticed a foreign couple getting out of a marshutka that had stopped about 50 feet ahead of me. Here, especially outside the capital, foreigners are especially easy to pick out, usually because the often have backpacks, which Armenians never wear, or they have light Northface jackets, which are about as tell tale as the fanny packs and Hawaiian shirts of yesteryear. After they got their stuff together they began talking with their driver. I could see there was some confusion so I headed over to see if I could help.

Now, since I’ve been here I’ve probably only seen a handful of tourists come through. There are almost none in the winter, except for the occasional round-the-world-on-a-bike type, and in the summer most people don’t make it too far from the capital. But the few groups of people who have come this far have been a great solace to me. For one thing, it’s great to be able help these people out, as many of them know no Armenian and little Russian. Plus, you get to hear all their stories about their experience in Armenia, not to mention whatever other countries they’ve visited. In this way, I’ve gotten a good deal of information on Iran without having ever been there. I’ve made some friends this way too, but unfortunately, friends that are very difficult to keep up with, as they often leave after a day or two for places too far to visit. But the best thing about meeting tourists is the realization that it brings about my own position in this country. The contrast between their level of interaction and my own helps me to realize how far I’ve come in terms of cultural integration. I’ve become a local foreigner, as opposed to the visiting foreigners and through this distinction I am able to see what I have gained from being a long term volunteer, even if my community relations are somewhat tenuous, I am at least reminded that they exist when strolling around town with someone who is traveling the world. For that I am able to see the benefits to staying in one place to formulate a better understanding of the culture, rather than trying to glut up as much traveling experience as possible (which I often want to do). Of course it also makes me wonder where the hell the balance is between sedentary and itinerant lifestyles. I don’t know if there’s any place I’d want to stay in forever, but, at the same time, its hard to really touch anything unless you stop moving for a while.
The tourists were looking for a local hotel. I don’t know where the got the name of the place they were looking for, but it either never existed, or existed only for a very short time, or possibly was the self-styled, elaborate name of someone’s homestay. I mentioned that we only had one crumbling, soviet monolith hotel in the middle of town, and given the price, was probably their best option, not to mention their only option. I’ll never know if they found it though, because I was trying to explain where it was my own ride pulled up and the driver didn’t seem to willing to wait for me to give clearer directions. Shame, they seemed like really nice people and I would’ve liked to hear more about their travels.
I crammed myself in between two guys and a frayed nylon bag that was taking up the entire aisle, realizing there wasn’t going to be enough room for me to take out a book comfortably. After a few minutes my seat companion began to ask me the usual questions about where I came from and such.
Perhaps it’s an indication of my weak Armenian, but I love getting these questions, mainly because I can answer them with alacrity, rather than stumbling through a bunch of obtuse phrases. I also feel comfortable enough with mundane topics to attempt a joke or something here and there, which makes the experience seem so much more authentic. Not like I’m just blundering my way through something but as if I actually had something to say.
We pulled into Vyke and Paige got on. As she’s a little more adept at talking to people she took over most of the conversation and I happily gazed out the window, watching the surprisingly green scenery pass by.
It was one of those occasions when you feel genuinely happy, though it’s hard to say why. Perhaps there was the element of doing something new, going to a different place and going to meet different people, or maybe it was just the weather, which was cold and rainy for most of the early spring and is only now beginning to look appropriately decadent. Either way, as I conversed intermittently between Paige and the guy sitting next to her, I felt a great lump of happiness in my chest. The kind of feeling that makes you want to laugh after everything you say, just to punctuate everything with a little bit of mirth.

On the way back from Goris I wasn’t feeling quite the same way. The weekend was over and everyone had gone much earlier in the day. I stayed behind to attend the poetry competition and missed the last marshutka running back to Yerevan. I was going to wait until the next morning to leave, but it seemed there was no way to make it back in time for my first class. The only other option was to catch a solo taxi ride, which is an incredibly expensive option. Rather than miss my classes I found myself riding back with a young man who spoke a heavily accented Armenian. I wasn’t very excited about the idea from the beginning, but seeing no other option I stayed in the car.
Our conversation never got very far. I was able to understand most of what he said, but I could never seem to think of an interesting response to anything. For most of the ride I just stared out the window. It felt rude to read, and I didn’t feel much like it anyway. The road in that part of the country goes through some pretty beautiful mountain passes and I decided to take the opportunity of not being balled up in a marshutka to actually get a good look at some of it.
The driver and I talked a little about the weather and the beauty of the scenery, but most of the time we just listened to the arrhythmic pop music he had playing. The car smelled like BO and I couldn’t tell if it was coming from him or me. I wonder if he was thinking the same thing. We passed nondescript towns and villages that he pointed out to me, saying their names and nothing else, as if they might mean something to me.
Not quite half-way we stopped to get some gas and, as tradition and probably safety demands, I got out of the car while he filled the benzene tanks. I walked over to the waiting area where a few other passengers stood and watched the rain that was beginning to drizzle off the roof overhang above us. The area that we were waiting in didn’t have doors, just gaps between the low concrete wall to let people in. A woman was cleaning the tile inside the shelter and this little dog kept infuriating her by continually slinking back in when she wasn’t looking and getting paw prints all over her floor. She was probably enjoying the extra work through, I doubt she had had much to do all day in a place like that. But you could tell the dog was confused, every time she swore at him and raised her mop he seemed to think she was calling him over, and began to cautiously approach her, getting the floor even dirtier. It was pretty comical for a while, but I felt bad for the dog so I pulled a half eaten sandwich outta’ the trash and called him away from the cleaning lady to give it to him.
Behind the building I noticed the first perfect rainbow I’d ever seen in my life. I wish I coulda’ seen it the day before when I was in a better frame of mind, but I guess you don’t really get to chose when you’re gonna’ see stuff like that, unless you live in Hawaii; I have the impression that place is more rainbows than land for some reason.
Back in the car, with the pop music and BO I couldn’t remember the Armenian word for rainbow [tseat-tsan] so I didn’t say anything about it; even if we had turned around I don’t know if we could’ve seen it. The rain had ended pretty quick.
A few miles down the road the driver asked how old I was. I told him, and he told me he was a year younger than me. I didn’t know how to respond to that, as when I first spoke to the guy I wasn’t sure whether to address in the formal or not. I was sure he must’ve been a few years older than me, at least, though I was not really consciously thinking about this. I only realized it after he said how old he was. Inevitably, I began to wonder if I looked as old and, to some degree, tired as he did, and as we drove on the rain clouds entirely lifted and in the grass around the mountain villages glowed an incandescent green, like algae, or that bright moss that grows on everything in the pacific northwest.
When I got home I invited the driver in for coffee. He told me he had to get back, but that he’d take me up on the offer the next time he drove me back. I wanted to tell him that it was far too expensive and that I’d make sure I never missed the last martshutka again when in Goris, although I had enjoyed the ride with him, but instead of trying to manage all that in Armenian, I just agreed and told him that sounded good, giving the customary wave one gives to an acquaintance, feeling somewhat awkward, standing back on my own street.

Today was the last day of classes for the week and next week will be the last week of the semester. It’s already been an entire year of classes. I can remember sitting on my 2nd host family’s porch sometime back in September or October, probably at the peak of my disenfranchisement, and thinking how great it would be if Peace Corps only lasted a year, that a year would be so much more manageable in terms of comprehension than 27 months, a total amount of time that just seemed reckless at the time, like an arbitrary sentence for an uncertain crime. I remember sitting up there, as I did every single night, watching the lights of the town drop off and the lights in the sky brighten, smoking and thinking how after 5 months I had still only just arrived. I still knew very little about the place I lived, I still hadn’t done much in the way of work, I still had a long way to go before I came to resemble a respectable Peace Corps volunteer. Of course, to this day I probably haven’t done much to deserve that title, but I no longer feel like someone who’s been dropped into something they don’t understand. I feel capable of understanding things well enough, although I occasionally lament that it seems I rarely have anything to say. I feel more like a part of where I am today, but it’s still a distant, and even slightly off-kilter part.
I still think back to that balcony quite frequently; all the time I spent out there reading, pondering and wondering what the hell I was going to do in Armenia. I remember exactly what it felt like in October, with the diner-plate moon coming up over the mountains, like something perfect to hide under and forget all the pressures of the day. I was always in someone else’s way, or at least in their space back then, before I had my own apartment to go to and I used that porch as an escape; a place to go to listen to my headphones and quietly mouth the words. I also used to sit up there and think about what it would be like now, when the school year ended and summer came again. Unfortunately I don’t really remember what I thought about it, only that I thought about it. Maybe it was some kind of goal of mine, to stay here for at least a year, maybe it was just interesting to consider what such an anniversary would be like. But since I don’t remember exactly what these thoughts were the only thing they succeeded in doing was connecting the present with the past, in a way that makes me wonder where all the time between the two occasions went. Also, now that the length of my time here really only is a year, as I used to consider, I find that it doesn’t necessarily make it feel more manageable.

Tomorrow is my last day of school, which ever since I was a kindergarten student, has been my favorite day of the year. No matter what my plans for the summer are, the end of the school has always felt like something monumentous. It also feels like it always comes just in time. I guess it’s the expectation. Kinda’ reminds me of the feeling of having to go to the bathroom and how it increases when you’re trying to get your apartment door open, even if you’ve been enduring it for hours, right before that door opens it seems unbearable. Also, the door always seems more difficult to open in these cases. Luckily, I’ve had a lot to do lately so the time has been dragging by too slowly. The nights away from work are, however, somewhat drawn out by my endless vacation planning, not really even planning but fantasizing. I lie on my couch thinking about riding on a train, hearing different languages, in the company of my friends, opening warm beers and drinking from them as the wind rushes in through the cracks of the old soviet manufactured couches and the dim lights blink on and off. Waking the next morning to the window’s filmy light, looking out on places I’ve never seen before, people I’ve never met.
It’s horrible though, in a few days I will have been here exactly a year and I can’t seem to drum up any valid reflective notes. Sometimes I almost feel like I forgot how it was when I came here. Lately I think of where I was at this time last year back in the states. Driving across the country with my friend Mikey. I think tonight we would have been in Minneapolis. But back then I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I still don’t, but it’s hard to compare that vacant expectation with anything that I now know here. Now Armenia is a very concrete place, with a distinct character that I’ll probably never be able to forget. That’s something I didn’t really expect from the Peace Corps, I guess I didn’t expect that I would be remembering these things forever. I can’t definitely say that I will, but some of these occasions burn pretty bright, effulgently even.
The most interesting thing is the obvious comparison I have to my trip out here last year and my up-coming vacation this year. Except this time I’m sure as hell not anticipating going into any intense training sessions, just one long dive of the peer of the Yerevan train station.
Your hand in mine, a ringing bell, the sea, jump.