Saturday, July 17, 2010

Choose Your Own Adventure, or, Choose Your Own Adventure

I better write this now because it's beginning to be obvious that I'm not going to have another chance. I'm giving away my computer away tomorrow and, as I'm horrible at writing anything coherent in internet cafes, the time to conclude this long, rambling, at times incoherent, at times incohate account has come.
            I wish the last entry I wrote would've been a little more conclusive. I wish I could've just left it off there, because, really, there's nothing else to say. But, as a brief story of an interesting nocturnal encounter would be a lousy way to end two years of thoughts, worries and dreams I'm going to endeavor to write one last note, but I can't promise any kind of closure, I can't promise it'll even be worth your time to read (not that I ever made that claim before.)
            The last few weeks have seen so much activity it would be exhausting for me to recount all of it. I went back to the camp I worked at last year, saw some familiar faces, played some familiar games and concluded everything beautifully by walking up to the nightly disco after shooting a few baskets, dancing like a lunatic and then walking out, back to my room, to the sound of applause and my name being chanted. Not that this means much, you understand, those kids would chant anybody's name who was brave enough to join in their nightly bacchanalia. Still, it's always satisfying to know that adolescents still tolerate your presence; their praise is somehow more legitimate than that of adults, kids don't humor you, if they clap and yell your name you can be sure that they think you a decent human being.
Right now the thunder has reached a tremulous pitch outside my window, but the sun continues to shine and the birds are still singing, unmindful of the possibility of one of those crazy hail storms that spring up here from time to time, threatening to break the sad remnants of my Brezhnev-era windows.
            I returned from the camp to meet the next generation of volunteers. I remember, two years ago, meeting the departing group and thinking to myself that, quite impossibly, one day I would be in their place, figures of mythical proportions, people who had completed their two years and were now returning home. When I met the two volunteers who leaving I remember being astounded by their worldliness, the way they conducted themselves around, at the time, alien Armenia, was astonishing.
            Now I understand why they were so effortless, while we (the new group) were still totally encumbered with our thoughts of America, language lessons and uncertainty over the future. By the time we met these people they were finished. They had realized their ambition of coming here, working, making friends and accumulating memories. They knew it was all going to end and now I am able to see from whence the sleep-like placidity arises. Already I have nothing to do but remember and the thoughts crowd my mind to the point that everything else merely happens around me. While I am walking around town, I think of meeting Paige where the bus stop used to be, right before the first snowfall I saw here; when I am buying cigarettes I think of the packs that Elloit and I have burned away discussing Central Asia for nearly a year now; I think of walking through town, amidst the firework explosions for New Year's when I hear laughter, and when I look out my window I see a whole story behind me, the university classes, the homes in which I have eaten and the mountains I have looked down from, into this green valley town, ripe between the dry grass and dusty hulks of rocks.  
            Today was a day for goodbyes. I bought some toys, chocolate boxes, bootleg music video DVDs and some bottles of wine and drifted around town distributing them, like some kind of deranged Santa Claus figure. After all the time I've been here and all the meals, vodka shots and coffees I've been served it's felt wonderful to give something tangible back to my community here. I bought a generic Lego set for a little boy I know here who doesn't have anything in the way of toys and to watch him skip lunch and cease to pay attention to any possible distractions in order to try and put the dump truck model together was a wonderful feeling. Occasionally, he would get stuck, staring intently at the vague instruction sheet, and would look up to ask for some help. Not that I was much better at figuring out the zen-like simplicity of the Chinese instructions, but, again, to be useful to kids is a good feeling. When I left, I kissed him on the cheek, something I'd never done before in the states, but suddenly find myself doing a lot with little kids in my last days here.
            I should add here that the kids of Yeghegnadzor, at least the ones I got to know, have greatly helped me to get through this experience. When my language was still incredibly poor, it was the kids that helped me learn to communicate. I can still remember my forth day here, when I first went to live with my host family, walking around with my little host brother, Khachik, pointing to everything and asking what it was, and my, what must've been quite confusing, rapture over hearing the word 'meghu' or 'bee' for the first time. When I came to Yeghegnadzor, it was the kids around my building that helped introduce me to everyone, as we would often play with my skateboard together, in the fading light, while the parents watched from their places under trees and along low walls where they could sit and talk together.
            I'd really like to write something meaningful here. Something that describes the life I lived in Yeghegnadzor, something that illustrates these mountains, these empty factories and these dusty roads leading out to the nearby villages. I'd like to record the sounds of my neighbors, congragating below my window, the traffic of Ladas and Jigulis and the terse chirping of these birds that occasionally burst from the apricot trees and seem to dart through the sky for sheer pleasure. I like to bring more color into this journal than my pictures can provide to depict the tufa stone buildings, the bright yellow soviet ferris wheels, the single fiery dots of cigarette smoking pedestrians passing on in the night though a town with few working street lights, the milky azure of the afternoon sky, all roped off with steely, drooping power lines. I'd like to recreate the feeling of sitting in a cold January marshutka, riding up to Yerevan, when one's feet and legs go numb but the body is almost hot from the weight of a grandmother on one side, three guys on the other and someone else's bag on your lap. I'd like to give voice to the melancholy of the autumn sky stretching out before one, long and pacific, looking like two blank and mysterious years unfurled and the gloating summer sky that boils and rumbles with the evanescence of storm that will pass over this valley before it has begun.
In the end, the only thing to left to add, in case it hasn't been clear, and perhaps in case I am only now realizing it, is that, well, it was worth it.
            It was all worth it.
If you want to attempt to procure a last minute Azeri visa at the land border with Georgia and continue turn to page 451 
If you want to do the same thing, but with a little more class and a lot more pictures turn to page 128
either way, at some point you're going to have to flip back to the beginning to figure out how to actually finish the book.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Single File, or, Walks I have Taken/ People I Have Known

 Dilijan is in the middle of a wet, verdant explosion. Davor and I took a walk around though the meager lanes of the town one night, enjoying the cool air and the tintinnabulations of the river moving quietly through the dark. We had just crossed a vacant lot when we were suddenly accosted by a rather large man.
"Do you LIKE to night?" In perfect English, slightly drawn out and, curiously, without any trace of affect, almost like you would imagine a computer to speak.
"Uh, yeah, you?" I think Davor answered this guy, as I was feeling rather laconic.
"Yes, and to have a fun. Do you like beer?"
Davor answers, "Yeah, shot [which you probably remember is Armenian for 'a lot']" I was kind of annoyed that he answered this way as I knew this would lead to an invitation to drink beer with this guy, which I had no desire to do. And, of course, his response is,
"We can walk around and drink a beer and have fun tonight," which in the dark, in the company of this 2 and 1/2 meter guy who talks like a robot and seems to insist on walking directly behind, rather than to the side of me, does not strike me as being 'fun.' Still, maybe I was being unfair, I decided he, like, well, anyone else I've ever met around here, was probably a decent guy, meant well, but came off a little aggressive.
"So, what do you do here?" I tried, hoping to warm up to this guy a little.
"I don't like to talk about it."
Hmmm, ok I guess that's not going anywhere, still I persisted, "Why, is it boring?"
I looked at Davor, "Mafioso, KGB," I said, loud enough so that he could he could hear me, hoping this guy would get the joke and realize how weird his response sounded. Only he didn't even acknowledge my comment.
"I'm going to buy some beer for us here," he said pointing at a store. "I'll meet you here later, after you come back from seeing the hotel, under this tree [Davor had mentioned to him that we were going to see a resort hotel (unfinished) at the top of the hill]."
After we left this guy behind we began to joke about him, not in a mean way, just ribbing him for suddenly appearing right beside us in the dark, talking with no affect and spurning any talk of what he did for a living. We weren't afraid of the guy or even unnerved by him, it was just funny to consider the other odd things he might say, should we see him later, in that icy voice of his and as we walked on we lampooned him, for lack of anything else to talk about.
Davor and I walked around the hotel area for a little while, which is actually a really interesting part of Dilijan, there's a mock-Roman amphitheater up there and a promenade (of sorts) with interesting sculptures crowing all the balustrades along the walk.
As we walked our conversation gradually shifted away from the guy we had met earlier and we talked about various things until we forgot all about our new friend, presumably waiting under a dark tree with beers for us. I began to feel bad, which led us back to joking about the guy, we imagined him down there drinking all the beers alone and crying ( I know, not exactly a pleasant thing, but, at the time, it seemed funny, it's not like we wished this fate on him, sometimes exaggeration is just funny in and of itself). We decided to go back down and see if he was still waiting. He wasn't and I could tell Davor, who was getting pretty tired, was not exactly put off by this.
We continued walking back up to the place where we were staying, joking about this and that, the guy kept coming back into the conversation, we imagined seeing him on the bus to Vanadzor the next day, a fierce look of rage in his eye, saying something like "I waited for you all night!"
About the time that we were laughing over this, the subject of our jest appeared from the bushes (yeah, totally appeared, no noise, just a slight whisper of parting branches and he was behind us).
Our friend walked behind us for a while without saying anything. At some point, I remember asking Davor how long we were going to keep walking in this awkward single-file fashion without acknowledging him.
"It's dark," was all Davor said, which I took to mean, 'he doesn't know that we know that he's there and, at this point, it would be weird to turn around and acknowledge him.'
But as we walked on, this guy's presence began to weigh upon me, he was practically looming over me, not saying anything, how could he possibly think we hadn't seen him, and why wasn't he saying anything.
Just when I was about to turn around and say something, he sidled up to me, "Hi, guys, me again."
"Oh hey, man," I said, revealed that he finally said something.
"Here are your beers," he said handing me a plastic bag with cans of 'Botchka' and 'Baltika' in it.
Immediately I felt bad, "Where's yours?" I asked, knowing the answer.
"I drank it already." Meaning, 'I drank it thinking you guys probably weren't coming back.'
I began to feel more talkative, perhaps because I felt bad, perhaps because laughing with Davor for a while had opened me up a little more. "So," I tried, "you sure you won't tell us anything about what you do, not even a hint?"
"No," was his only response and he tried to change the direction of the conversation by asking, "Where did you walk to?"
"All around the main square," I answered.
"I know lots of good places to see in the dark," he said, again in that icy tone, "would you like to go? We could have FUN," as he said this he gestured vaguely toward the wooded area just beyond the road.
I quickly switched topics trying not to laugh, as with Davor right there, I knew we were both thinking the same thing, viz. 'shit, this guy says weird things.'
"Well," I asked, "when you say 'fun' what do you mean? What's fun?" As I finished my question a speeding car flew down the road. "Is that fun?" I said, pointing to the car, "driving fast?"
"Yes," he answered after a minute of stoic deliberation.
"What else?" I prompted.
"To have a walk, to drink a beer," he responded, seeming to take prompts of the things that were immediately around him, before adding, sotto voce, "and of course, to have sex."
I knew we were going to get to this eventually.
Before I knew what I was doing I found myself saying "yeah, but it can't be that easy here, right? I mean this place is pretty conservative." Usually, I don't prompt people like this, but after having to play the audience to a number of stories of sexual conquest I thought maybe I'd finally try to call someone on what could be a bluff.
"Well," he answered, taking time to chose the correct words, "when there's a, uh, human being, that likes that same kind of, uh, fun that I do, than, uh, we can have fun...together."
I didn't know what to say, but I began to understand that life must be kinda' rough for this guy. Davor asked if he liked it in Dilijan. He responded that he'd be much happier somewhere else, especially Latvia, not Lithuania, not Estonia, but Latvia, only Latvia, I guess he must've met someone from Latvia at some point.
I'm sure, by this point, the guy, had figured out that Davor and I didn't like the same kind of fun that he did, but, if he was disappointed, he didn't show it at all. We sat down on a bench together, talked a little more about life in Dilijan and Armenia in general. Davor and I recommended a few scholarship programs that would look pretty favorably on someone who spoke English as well as this guy. He listened half-heatedly, as though he wasn't really interested in applying for them, or already thought it to be hopeless. We sat quietly for a few minutes before finishing our beers and saying good night.
When Davor and I got back into the apartment building he asked, "So, he was gay, right?"

Monday, June 28, 2010

Haunted by The Sound of Broken Wings, or, a Cloud, A Rose, An Extinct Volcano

I went to my neighbor's kid's baptism party last night. Here they wait a few years before baptising the kid, possibly so that the child will have some kind of memory of it, possibler as a hold over from the days when the child mortality rate was pretty high during the first few years and the ceremony, which must be somewhat costly, was held off until the child was, essentially, in the clear.
I got a ride with my neighbors around 5:30 as I was on my way up to the village where the party was to be held on foot. After all the walking I've done around here, and all the rumors that must've been passed around about me walking half-way across the country, I'm surprised to find that people are still incredulous when I tell them I'm going to walk to the next village. The eastern frame of mind is that there is nothing adventurous or ennobling in walking. It's associated with poverty; it doesn't matter if you're carrying a huge backpack obviously loaded with camping equipment and you're wearing a 300$ North Face coat.
I tried to walk back home from the baptism party as well. Tired and sweaty after dancing around for hours on end I wanted to walk back home under the full (or nearly full, I can never tell) moon and think of the score of crazy uncles I had just danced with and the kid who followed me around most of the night, copying my ridiculous dance moves and asking me questions with incredible reserve, rarely observed in little boys around here. I wanted to play some of the Tamada's speeches back in my head before going to sleep, to remember the grandmother who seemed positively overjoyed that I spoke Armenian and, shortly afterword, ecstatically, pointed me in the direction of the bathroom, as if she had just finished the most beautiful work of art and had just been standing around waiting for someone to ask her where it was. There's always a few very attractive girls at such parties too. Most of them, in all possible modestly, cling to the corners of the room and hardly seem to talk to each other, but, every so often, while up-rocking or trying to pull off some incredibly lame break dancing move, they whisper and point and sometimes they smile. Are they humoring me? Suppressing a laugh? or as one girl said to me in the foyer, do they really think I am dancing well? Then there's the young boy, trying to copy my footwork and smiling up at me when I tell him he's learned it already, one of my neighbor's children, continually trying to get me to show her how I did that thing were I spun around on the floor, so excited she's unconsciously hopping around a little, the old men outside who smoke the cheapest cigarettes, holding them up with gnarled hands and waving them around, positing another point about France or Russia or Azerbaijan; the aunts in polyester dresses, hooting and bouncing all over the dance floor, which is the entire room, pausing occasionally to bring in thirty more plates of food, stacking them on top of the previous, as yet, unfinished courses, and there's always one rotund gentleman, who is impossible to imagine outside the party atmosphere, so well does it seem to suit him, who bellows things that make everyone smile, is constantly raising a glass and dancing around in a way so ridiculous it takes a lot of the pressure off me.
            I wanted to muse over the party for a while, walking through the still night, with little traffic, no streetlights, no bars with doors open, scattering particulate music through the night; in such silence, the voices of the night almost seem to follow one home in the dark, as the sweat and cigarette smoke cling still to one's clothes, what the band played, what the uncle told me about being a bee keeper "you're a language specialist, I'm a bee specialist," the boy's giggle when I told him he had ten minutes and then would have to dance, and that I was counting, the flaring noise of those firework candles they always put on cakes here, my neighbor, who always talks kind of loud, insisting that I do not leave before the cake is cut, all before a car, unnoticed, drives up and convinces me to get in by telling me that one of the children is crying, why this concerns me I do not know, but the walk has been long enough and no one wants to turn down a crying child. I got in the car, turned around and told her not to cry, she was quiet in the dark, probably sleeping, not even dreaming of crying. The ride home was short, we talked about my bizarre penchant for walking places, which everyone in the car praised, seeming to overlook that they had just practically demanded that I get in the car a few minutes before. I told them that a few days before I had walked over to Martuni...
            The walk takes one through a valley that slowly climbs higher into the mountains that surround lake Sevan, the villages taper off and with every one passed the traffic thins out further until it get so quiet a car can be heard, rattling down through the pass, engine off and coasting, miles away.
            The sun is bright, the winds that come down from the mountain have an emolliating effect, but the dried sweat has covered me with a thin cast, like the feeling of dried glue on one's fingertips, that seems to spin the wind off me without really letting it in. After dealing with the pack the entire day it's weight seems natural, like it serves as a counter balance, making my movements even more dexterous.
            Near the top of the mountain pass is the Selim Caravansary. I notice two Persian oil trucks parked on the road just behind it, and in front of them a typical soviet truck probably bringing fruit over the pass. So many hundreds of years later and, in a way, the caravansary is still serving its purpose as a resting and meeting place for travellers from different lands. Noticing the mustaches on the guys standing in front of the stone entrance I nod and test a 'Salaam' and they respond with something that I don't understand and smile. Just behind the caravansary are two old men sitting down with some food spread out on a nearby rock, this scene I've seen so many times that I can't help but to assume these men must be Armenian, especially after I see the food, lavash, tomatoes, pepper, dried fish and white, spongy and humid cheese. I say hello to them in Armenian, but then, just to be sure, I ask them if they are Armenian, to which they respond with such gentility and assurance that there can be no doubt. I am asked over to eat with them and I and my huge backpack saunter over to lean over their meal for a while. The men beg me to take some of everything represented on the oil cloth covering the rock. I take some cucumber and bread, knowing they will not be content with my selection, that cheese, at least, will be proffered as will the bug-eyed fish staring into the sky above, glimmering with a copper sheen. We enjoy a conversation with a little mutual questioning, this being one of the marks of the progress I have made as an Armenian speaker, that I am now able to ask as many questions as I receive, perhaps it's only that now that I'm leaving I find myself more curious about what other people are doing, when before I was comfortable just telling them about myself. The arak (vodka) is offered, but it seems awful to my parched and sweaty countenance and I joke with them, telling them that after living in Armenia for two years I have had this stuff enough times already to know exactly what it's like and that for this reason there's no reason to try and force it on me, as one would do to a tourist who doesn't know the taste of fruit and solvent, introduced to the body from a plastic cup cut from a one liter bottle, slightly filmy, but sharp enough to make the eyes water, no matter how smooth it might be.
            I part with these two wonderfully common goodwill ambassadors of this country and continue up the pass to where the sun is setting, which seems odd considering that I thought the top of the pass faced east. When I crest the summit there is a cloud-blurred fire smoldering along the horizon, which for the first time all day, falls in a straight line. It feels like I have been climbing all day to see this flatness, and to seeing it as the sun's last rays glance over it brings a feeling of accomplishment and I have no problem making the decision to stop and camp up at the top of the pass for the night.
            With the sun setting and light wind drifting over the alpine grass, whispering, a feeling of somnolence steals over me and I feel a certain respect for my own position and everything involved in it. Although I had eaten nothing but peanuts and raisins all day, I have no desire for anything but water and sleep, both of which I try to satiate myself with, first gulping down most of the water left and then taking off my shoes and rolling myself up in the meager covering of the sleeping bag liner I brought with me, thinking nothing more would be necessary, as it had been so warm in my own part of the country only a day's walk away. But about an hour later it becomes clear to me while vigorously rubbing my legs and rolling myself into a little ball that I am not going to be comfortable until the sun comes up again. I lie there, in the dark, waiting for the nepenthe of sleep, the sleep of the physically exhausted, that never comes. I try lying in different positions, my hat, hood and sleeping bag liner all pulled over my head, hoping to contain what little heat my body is still generating. I consider getting up and eating something but the effort seems incredible, and as cold as I am I really have no desire to move around, and then the sniffing sound starts.
            Now, every time I have ever gone anywhere the least remote in this country, there has been a shepard nearby to tell me that the place is "lika gayl" or, literaly, "full of wolves." Since I have gone so many places and never seen a wolf (and very few snakes, which they also constantly warn against)  I have always been dismissive of such warnings, but lying in the dark, suddenly aware of how alone I was, out in a massive wind-swept field, the nearest village at least a few hours away on foot, the sounds that began to draw closer and closer to my tent began to disquiet me. It suddenly occurred to me that I wasn't even sure what to do with wolves, I know that some kinds of bears you're supposed to play dead with, others you're supposed to fight, punch on the nose; I wondered if I should attempt to punch a wolf on the nose, if, say, a blazing muzzle, serrated by an open mouthed snarl, induced by the smell of fresh blood were to punch through the thin nylon of the tent, would I even want to get near that? Would it even do any good? I tried to remind myself that wolves rarely attack people and are usually pretty timid in human presence, but, the animal outside the tent was sounding bolder all the time, not at all like a timid and retreating animal. "Sniff-sniff-snort!"--long pause, as if contemplating the smell it just identified, "sniff-sniff." the muzzle of this animal was pressing into the nylon so hard I began to wonder if the tent would hold, surely it could only take so much weight against it. In my exhausted state I could not make a definite decision to do anything. I just lie there, hoping whatever was outside would go away, I was also somewhat worried that any attempt to shoo the thing away would only confirm my presence inside the tent, that, up until then, was not absolute. That is to say, that up until that point the animal outside, thought itself just sniffing around something that perhaps a person had recently been near, but upon hearing some kind of absurd 'yah!' or some such pathetic attempt to drive the animal away, that it would become apparent that something threatening was inside and there would be no other option than to immediately dispatch this foolish person who had been left behind by the heard in the field all night. That is, I imagined my shooing noise being immediately greeted by a fierce growl, and in my last moments, while the wolf readied itself for the pounce, I would have the awful knowledge that I no one but myself to blame. Considering this, I decided on a more subtle approach, shifting around lightly a little at first, and when that proved totally ineffective (there wasn't even a pause in the sniffing) I got out a cigarette, figuring if I was going to have to deal with this I might as well do as comfortably as possible.
I never figured out what actually was outside my tent that night. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a wolf, a little later on, feeling a little braver with the passing of time, I opened the flap and tried to see whatever was out there, but, opening the flap and springing out as quickly as possible, I saw nothing, nothing anywhere in the empty, moon-bright field all around, only to get back in the tent again to hear the sniffing return a few minutes later. Curiously enough, the more I listened to it, I began to realize that it really wasn't a sniffing, but rather more of a loose shuffling, as if a large bird with a broken wing was trying to upright itself using my tent as a brace. This sound drifted around the tent's perimeter all night long and nothing I could do would permanently drive it away, batting at the tent where it seemed to be, making noises or smoking cigarettes and muttering to myself. After a while, in the most desperate hours of a long, cold and sleepless night, I was happy to hear the noise return, remarking to myself that 'ol' floppy' was back, and other such nonsense that only someone really tired with nothing to do would say to him or herself.
            Around dawn, I finally fell asleep, and woke again later to the tent filled with the heat of the mid-day sun, which I felt justified in soaking up for a while and returned to sleep, glad to have warmth back in my bones again. It took until nearly noon to fully rouse myself and upon taking down the tent and trying to breakfast in the open field before getting back to the long road, I was again greeted by the clouds of mosquitos that I had ducked into the tent the night before to avoid. I quickly ate and packed everything up, hoping to put some distance between the offending insects and myself, but after about twenty minutes on the road, it began to be obvious that my walk for the day was going to plagued with that particular whine, that becomes almost unbearable after a long amount of time, especially when one is shouldering a heavy bag that limits how easily one can swat and try to shirk off the pests. I didn't have to deal with it too long though, as it soon began to rain.
            It started as a light rain, refreshing really, as my clothes felt salty and stiff from the long walk the day before. It washed off the grime that had cow-licked my beard in all kinds of crazy swirls of barbarity and left high water marks on my forehead where my hat had settled the day before. At first the rain was something that was probably necessary before going back to the civilized world, it did the grooming that I was reluctant to undertake since I was just going to get dirty again anyway. But the rain didn't just drift over me like a light shower and then depart leaving the sun to its turn of drying, rather, it steadily increased growing at last to near deluvian proportions; the water running in streams around my feet. Around this time I also began to notice that the warmth I had saved up from the morning in the sunny tent was quickly departing and soon I would be cold again, but as I had no water proof layers to put on it seemed ridiculous to try to alter the situation with clothing, as it would only get wet and would therefore be useless that evening when, once again, I would need every article of clothing I had on hand. (I forgot to mention that the night before in an act of sleep-deprived desperation, I wrapped the two pairs of underwear I had brought around my feet hoping the extra layer would keep them a little warmer.)
            As I was in the mountains I wasn't surprised to see hail soon coming down with the rain. It hails a lot here, and up in the mountains, in the summer, it seems to be a regular thing. I only hoped that this would be the usual mercurial summer storm, blowing in quickly as it had done, pouring itself out and evaporating quickly under a reinvigorated sun. The hail, however, did not let up, nor did the rain, in  fact they mixed together to form a miserable combination of precipitation that sluiced down the back of one's neck, soaked through the socks and, at once, pelted one with marble-sized pellets, as if annoyed that there should be any obstruction in its course between the sky and the ground.
            There was nothing to do but continue to walk through the storm, now an absolute storm with thunder and lightening crashing all around me. There was no place to take shelter and in every direction all that could be seen was the grey-blue confusion of hail and rain falling fast over the flat terrain. I began to wonder if I had some kind of masochistic kind of streak going on to be doing such things, walking all day long in the summer heat, freezing and listening to odd shuffling sounds all night and waking to a breakfast of mosquitos followed by a walk though a pelting hail storm. When a car came by and motioned for me to get in I realized that I had to take the offer, or be forced to confront what must surely be a self-destructive impulse in my consciousness.
            The car was brand new, smelled and looked it and, for that reason, immediately felt uncomfortable. The first question was, of course, 'what are you doing up here?' Followed by all the usual stuff that I was not really in the mood to describe. I wondered about the difference between the two young guys that I was now riding with and the old guys the evening before near the caravansary. Why had I felt friendly toward the old guys and felt annoyed that the young man should ask me any questions at all, especially considering the fact that they had been kind enough to stop and take me out of the hail and rain. The conclusion that I came to, somewhat later, was that the old guys and I were on equal footing, we had both stopped to have a rest together going over a long road, there was a sort of equanimity in our conversation, whereas the young man, now totally turned around in his seat, seemed to be interrogating me.
            I remained cordial and answered all his questions, but after about 5 minutes asked to be let out of the car, after so long outside it just felt really uncomfortable to be sitting in the backseat of a new car. In fact I had been watching the hail outside the minute I got in waiting for it to abate a little so that I could get back on my way, which is an interesting thought, considering that, in the car, I was making much better progress in the direction that I was going than I was while walking. When I noticed that the sharp 'tik, tik, tik' sound of hail had quieted and that the rain was no longer coming down in torrents I had the driver pull over.I wished the two young guys a pleasant journey and they returned the wish. Within five minutes of walking the storm, that I had done nothing but temporarily outpace, caught up with me again and began to pelt me with hail harder than ever, as if angry that I had temporarily escape its wrath. 
            This didn't go on for too much longer. Eventually, the storm tapered off and in its wake large bulwarks of clouds surged up around the peaks of the pass, still covered with the dull crust of summer snow. The sky was leaden but had ceased to precipitate in any way. A cool wind rippled the puddles left on the road by the recent storm. I walked through the lackadaisical weather and soon began to feel despondent. the walking, which up until that point had been enjoyable, became dull. With every passing car I began to think about flagging one down; there seemed no reason to continue walking rather than to prove a point to myself, a point I had already proven the last time I had walked over this pass about 15 months before.
            Coming down into Martuni didn't help my cause. The same iron sky hung over the town that I had already been walking through for hours. And I couldn't help but to remember a friend of mine who had lived here until he had gotten sick and had to return home. I found myself wishing for good company. A place to take my bag off and talk to someone for a while. The exhilaration of the previous day had passed.
            I drifted through Martuni, talking with the inevitable group of kids that began to follow me, hanging back behind me, walking single file, like the tail of a comet, the older kids clustered around the walking bulk of myself and my backpack and the younger kids keeping a safe distance behind, looking, big-eyed, from me to their older brothers.
            It seemed to take longer than it should've to reach the town's center, when I got onto the main street the sun was just starting to come out from behind the clouds and I stopped and bought a few apricots to keep myself going a little longer. Further down the street, I stopped again by an empty shop window and wrote my name in the accumulated dust, then walked out of Martuni onto the main road leading to Sevan. Before long the sun was setting as I passed a gas station outside the village of Yeranos.
            The gas station attendants hailed me as I walked by. I attempted to wave them off and keep walking but, considering it was already getting dark and I would have to stop and camp soon anyway, I decided to stop and talk with them for a while, see if maybe they had an old blanket they could spare to keep the cold of the approaching night off. I was greeted with the usual questions and answered the men fairly passively at first, not really too interested in their conversation, but as the conversation moved out from the usual, mundane, topics I found myself discussing politics and international positions. I soon realised that one of the men, who later turned out to be the owner of the gas station, was pretty well-versed in the outside world. I enjoyed talking with him and another one of the workers was so ingratiating and friendly that I couldn't help but to gradually become more relaxed in their presence.
            We stood in the parking lot, talking while the sun went down, I told them I had to find a place to stay for the night since it was getting dark and they declared that I would stay with them at the gas station, as the whole team (something like 6 men) worked throughout the night, sleeping and getting up to provide fuel for the occasional night customer. When the sun went down we retired into a small room where I was feted with cucumber and tomato sandwiches and coffee. One worker offered to have someone bring vodka but I told him I had no taste for it, and after a long day of walking and a sleepless night, wanted nothing more than to lie down. he seemed to understand this and soon dropped the inquiries. I stayed awake for a while talking to the men about their work, sitting up on a spring mattress, smoking and feeling comfortable and drowsy. Soon after the lights went out I feel into a deep sleep.
            During the night I woke up once with the feeling that someone's large hands were probing my neck as if to strangle me. I awoke with a start and realized it was just a dream. Everyone in the room was asleep and the road outside was quiet with the absence of any traffic. It had gotten cold in the room so I went over to the heater in the corner, turned it on and warmed myself up, letting the heat soak into my sweatshirt as I was sleeping without a blanket of any kind, knowing from the previous night's experience that my sleeping bag liner was totally useless. Soon I fell asleep again and did not wake until morning, when I heard the workers rise with the day's first customer, one of them placing an old and heavy coat over me as he exited the room and saying my name endearingly as he draped it over my shoulders.
            Around ten, the worker who had been particularly nice woke me telling me someone outside would give me a ride to the next town. I hurriedly got up and packed the few loose articles that I had taken out of my pack. Still drowsy, I said goodbye to the workers, promising them should I get rich in America I would send them money, and jumped in the front seat of a waiting car.
            The ride took me into Gavar, or K'var as it's locally known, perhaps and amalgamation of the old soviet name Kamo and Gavar, the new name. Within a few minutes I was on a marshutka heading toward Yerevan. The ride took me through the better part of the region, the northern part of the road that's more attractive for bordering lake Sevan. Still somewhat drowsy, but feeling refreshed after a full night's rest, I stared off across the lake over the heads and shoulders of the other passengers in the marshutka.
            I stayed out traveling around, visiting friends and talking with the new group of volunteers for another day before returning back to Yeghegnazor for the baptism party. As the latter part of the trip was much more comfortable, there's not so much to tell about it. I ate some great meals, had some good conversations, took some shorter walks in more climate weather and met some nice people. I stopped and visited my old host family for an afternoon and sat under the walnut tree where I used to study my Armenian homework when I first came here and talked with my host family grandparents. For the first time totally able to understand my host grandfather whose speech is often difficult to understand owing to his lack of teeth. We spoke of the crops and the weather and the sheep flock that he tends. I talked with the children about how they had done in school that year and joked with the boy for not having done too well in English when he had lived with a native speaker for three months, of course, that had been two years ago, two years ago---
so many things I saw over the latter part of that trip reminded me of the time when I had first arrived, how new everything had felt, how strange the weather and the customs had seemed, how a walk to the next village felt so alienating and how I used to take my headphones out into the field in the evening, listen to them, look up at the stars and imagine what it would be like when I returned home, unable to comprehend how one day, returning to the same field would actually feel like returning home. In the same place where I used to sit and re-read letters, pouring over every word, every scrap of information from the states, every syllable from the pens of my friends and family, where I used to listen intently to the music that I had left behind, playing in the hundreds of clubs and bars that I had known from Detroit to San Francisco, where I used to look at the sky and take solace in the fact that it was the same sky that suspended itself over certain American streets and American heads, in this same place, I long for nothing more than to sit quietly and see it for what it is. I want only to keep it as a memory, because I know that unlike so many other things and places I have known, it will not change and some day I'd like to find my way back here again.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Thin Rain on Poppy Petals, or, There Probably Weren't Any Bullets, Anyway

At least I was able to come home and eat something warm. That's always the nicest thing to return home to after going camping, a nice warm meal, that and a comfortable place to sleep, but I leave that out because my couch isn't really that comfortable.
A one day camping trip, however, doesn't really allow for these pleasures, one hasn't been away long enough, and even after carrying a large pack for something like 10 hours all together, the feeling of personal merit isn't there. But my camping trip didn't end through my volition. When you get too close to a border between two countries that have been at war with each other, and still haven't resolved anything, in fact, talk frequently about starting the war again, you really aren't left with much choice as to whether or not you're going to continue camping. You're lucky if you don't end up in jail or with a permanent rifle but indentation on your forehead.
I woke up outside the village of Zaritap where I had camped the night before coming from Vayk on foot. I'd tell you how far that is in kilometers but they confiscated my maps. Early in the morning it was still raining. I lay back down inside my tent and listened to the light rain sound on the nylon. For a while I dozed in and out of consciousness, trying to make up for a night spent sleeping on rocks with a thin sleeping bag.
Around 8 I decided that I had not come out camping to lay in my tent all damn morning. I got up, put on my clothes, shook the rain off the cover and began taking down the tent. As it has been more than a few years since I've put up or taken down a tent I was feeling really good considering what adeptness seemed to remain for this work in my muscle memory. And after I get everything packed in my bag I was quick to get on the road and enjoy the morning that was gradually developing all around me.
The village of Zaritap was still asleep behind me when I began moving further up the mountain, towards was a profusion and dancing around with color, like those spots that you see before your eyes after rubbing them too hard. I listened to the birds singing and tried to keep my eyes on the ground in case I should cross the path of another snake like the beautiful one I had seen the evening before.
With all these sights and sounds around me I practically entered the village without realizing it. I walked through the early morning streets feeling fairly light, but not particularly talkative. Although the village was peaceful, I wanted to get the water I needed and get back to the quiet, shattered concrete of the road that led on to the last village by the border. I stopped and filled up my water bottle at a local drinking fountain and said hello to a guy who walked past. He asked if there was anywhere he could help me in the usual hospitable way that betokens the village mentality here. I told him that if he knew how to find a certain road to a certain village I would be obliged to him and within minutes I was standing in a throng of men, quarreling, jabbing fingers at my map, and occasionally gesticulating wildly toward some empty field, as if the road was somewhere underneath all the weeds that had sprung up out there.
I listened to eight people give me directions they had agreed on, the essentially informed me what I already knew; I had to go back the way I came and the other route on the map was unheard of to these men. Since the walk had been so nice the way there I didn't mind going back, but, before I reached the intersection to turn off, I found a weed-choked tractor route and decided to follow it just to see where it led.
As I walked the sun had begun to pull out from the clouds and the fields around me reverberated with various insect tones and the skittering of lizards and field mice. Going straight up hill I began to get tired and thought of things to perk me up such as places I liked to eat at in the states. Before long my mind was stuck on an endless loop of visits I had payed to an ice cream place in San Francisco. While I was thinking of a time when my friend Mikey and I had walked there from downtown on one of those beautifully indolent San Fran. Saturdays, I looked up to find myself crossing a road that looked like it had once been paved, although now it wasn't much more than a flat road strewn with rock and clods of concrete. I took this road the direction I thought I should go and continued until I felt my pack beginning to pull my shoulders apart.
After a brief rest, that was cut short by flies, literally, piling up on top of me, I continued on my way. The road continued to drag on, rolling over the sides of mountains and down into bucolic valleys where a few scattered trees could be seen along the edges of the dried river.
As I was beginning to feel tired again I told myself that I'd try to walk for another 20 minutes to make it to the two hour mark since the last time I'd stopped. I hoisted my pack up a little higher and continued to walk. I was surprised a few minutes later when a sign for a village came into view. I was curious to know which village it was, as, if I was where I thought I was, the village must surely be another hour away at least. I thought perhaps I'd taken a wrong turn somewhere, but, at the time, this didn't worry me at all. I was happy just roaming around, and with the map I had, a village would help me locate where I was anyway. When I got close enough to read the sign I found I was on the right road, and had walked much further than I had thought over the last four hours or so. In fact, if there hadn't been a village there I probably would've walked right through the boarder thinking I was still well in Armenia territory.
I was interested to talk to the people in this village and rest for a little while. The walk had been long, unbroken by any shade and as this village is right on the boarder to Nacheijevan (Azerbaijan) I wanted to hear if more Turkic words came out in these people's dialect and they any stories related to living under the shadow of a hostile country.
The first person I met in town was a grandmother heaving bricks of manure from one place to another. I stopped and said hello to her, asking if there was a store in town where I could buy some water. She told me just to stop in somebody's house and ask for their water. I asked again if there was a store where I could buy it, not wanting to just barge in on someone and ask where their faucet was. It was difficult to understand her, she had no teeth and spoke dialect very rapidly, she was also down in a ravine and I couldn't hear her very well. I decided to walk further into the village and ask someone else if I didn't just run into the store on my own. I thanked her and walked on.
Turning around a corner to one of the main mud and water thoroughfares of the village I was immediately stopped by two men, sitting on a bench with a bottle of vodka between them. I couldn't help but to notice two women in the yard behind them working in the garden, backs bent at 90 degree angles, pulling weeds, while these men, probably their husbands, sat pouring each other shots of vodka, possibly congratulating each other on finding such great, hard-working wives. When they saw me their eyes lit up at the possibility of a third party joining their afternoon debauch. To make it clear that I had other business I asked them where the store was, one of them gestured vaguely to the head of the road and again bade me sit for a minute. Reluctantly, I slipped off my bag ( I had been looking forward to buying a juice of some kind and taking a nice break alone) and joined them. It started with the usual questions, "Where are you from?" "Are you married?" "Why are you not married?" "Do you not want to get married?" "How old are you?" and finally the closing argument "You should get married, you're old." After this perfunctory, but absolutely necessary topic was out of the way they began to ask me what I was doing there, but with slightly more curiosity then people here usually ask, they seemed very interested. I told them I was just strolling around, and that after two years living in this region I wanted to see some of these little-visited villages out by the border. "yeah, but you gotta' be careful they responded, eyes rolling in their heads from caution and afternoon shots, "the Turks are right up there!" One of them got up in deadly seriousness and motioned for me to follow him as he got up and walked to the middle of the road. He  stopped there, squinted and pointed at a mountain not far off. "You see that, they're right there!" There was nobody on the mountain that I could see, but I think he was referring to their land. "Wow," was all I could think to say. They laughed a little; we sat back down on the bench and the questions returned to my disconcerting unwillingness to marry immediately.
After a few more minutes of this talk I decided I had been polite enough and told them I was going. They warned me not to go up into the mountains and a few minutes later that's what I was doing.
I hadn't planed on going up the mountains, the map made it look like the road I needed went straight out from the village, but, before I knew what was happening, I was being led between mud, chickens and running children by a somewhat surely grandmother, who kept telling me how many grandchildren she had. Since the number had been high I wasn't surprised to see her latch on to some boy running by, wheel him quickly around to face me, and declare, "this is one of my grandsons." The kid didn't seem much interested in either her affection or my weak attempts to compliment her on her brood and ran off to join a gaggle of kids crowded around a tumbledown stable wall on the other end of the street. The grandmother continued to lead me along and I continued to actually trot alongside to keep up with her, when she abruptly said, "this is one of my daughter's homes, goodbye," and darted through a gap between two lengths of fence. "Is this the way to the next village?" I called after her. She turned around and made a shooing kind of motion which I took to mean, 'yes'.
It didn't take long to get out of the village, and soon I found myself walking down a loose gravel road that seemed to lead to nowhere. There was no one around and as I walked I listened to the sound of donkeys braying all around me. I came to a little stream and dipped my hands down into it, awkwardly trying to keep my balance with my pack on and doused my hair with water. While I was cooling myself off I stopped to consider which way to go as I was at a fork of sorts. From the look of my map the next village was close by on the right, closer than the one that I wanted to go toward on the left and I decided to stop into the nearby village just to try and get the juice or water I was hoping for and take a break, since rushing grandmothers and drunken gardeners hadn't allowed me to linger on in the last village. It was here that I began to follow a road up the mountain. As I ascended I told myself that if I did not see the other village soon, after the next corner, I would turn around and take the other road, rather than risk going too close to the border, where, apparently, they shot first and asked questions later.
As I was thinking about the vodka-tinted warning I had heard, I caught site of some soldiers coming toward me. I assumed they were just regular soldiers, coming into the village from where they were doing guard duty. I friendly inquired from a distance if this was the way to the next village, just so they wouldn't worry about my intentions. At this one of the guards took his Kalashnikov off his shoulder and placed it in his hand. No response. I tried again. He cocked the weapon and brought it down, leveling it at me.
The two soldiers continued to advance, one with his gun still aimed at me, and the only thing I could hope for was that they were Armenian, and that I hadn't somehow gotten into Azerbaijan, where I would not be able to talk or explain how I had crossed a heavily guarded border with no hostile intentions. I also began to think about how it would feel to be shot.
When the soldier reached me they were laconic, they asked me a few questions, but said very little, I kept repeating my question if this was the way to the next village and received no answer; it became clear that I was to follow them and stop talking, which, upon understanding I promptly did.
Luckily, they told me they were Armenian soldiers, so, although I knew I was going to be interrogated, I didn't worry too much, after all I was innocent, I was just out hiking around. Then I remembered that, usually, people here don't hike, and have very little understanding of why anyone would want to walk around and sleep outside when cars and beds were available.
We continued up the hill until we crested at a little place that was obviously their base, or lookout point or whatever.
"The village you were going to," the soldier with the gun said to me, "this was its school." And with that cryptic remark he gestured for me to go inside.
When I walked into the little barracks I keep thinking about all these Orwellian descriptions of soundproof cells, extorted confessions and silent bullets. I began to realize that I had essentially just walked into a war zone.
Armenian and Azerbaijan went to war in 1991 and although the war officially ended in 1994 peace talks have come to a total stalemate. Armenia refuses to cede any territory that it gained in the Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan refuses to accept that what was once it's territory is going to remain in Armenian hands. Since no resolution has been reached shots are occasionally fired across the border, just a few days ago some people were killed by fire coming across the border. I have heard that although the western border with Azerbaijan (the Nachijevan enclave) has no boundaries with the war zone, that here the mistrust and disdain runs the highest, perhaps because the Azeris living in Nachijevan are now isolated from the rest of their country. Where before southern Armenia was open and heavily populated by Azeris, it is now firmly closed and all its Azeris gone. Of course the Armenians have cause to be angry in this dispute as well, the massacres in Sumgait and Baku certainly hearkened by to the other historical pogroms against the Armenian people. And, I'm sure there were more than a few people that thought to themselves "it's happening again, 1915 is happening again."
What I found in the barracks wasn't quite so disconcerting as all the things I had begun to imagine. I sat down on a bed, trying to decide if I should be light-hearted (after all, I had done nothing wrong, at least not knowingly) or if I should just keep my mouth shut until I found out what was going on.
I handed over my camera and asked if I could smoke in the room. While the soldiers went through my pictures I smoked and talked to them about what I'd been doing in Armenia for the last two years. When they asked me if I wanted coffee I realized that either some good cop/bad cop shit was about to go down or that I didn't have much cause to worry about being shot anymore.
Eventually, I ended up being driven all the way back to the main army base. When I arrived, It was obvious by everyone's demeanor that they don't get too many prisoners or suspects or whatever I was. Nearly everyone was standing around, all the privates anyway, mouths agape.
I had to talk to a few sergeants or generals or whatever, repeating my story and trying to make them understand that Americans often go wondering around with no definite destination. I tried to explain how I had gone many other, less off-limits, places in Armenia, on foot, with the same intention of seeing what was there. No matter how many times I put this response forth it was greeted with "yeah, but why did you go there?" and the whole discussion would start all over.
In many ways it was a high point of my time here for me. Since I got here I've always wanted to go over by the border and see what it looked like. Nachijevan is such an inaccessible place I always wanted to see if I could maybe get a glimpse of it from the border. It's be like living about 30 miles away from the North Korean border and not being curious if you could see what was going on next door, if you could only get close enough. I was also quite proud of my language skills that I was actually able to be interrogated in Armenian and respond and understand most of what was being said. In high stress situations usually language skills shut down and I was happy that nearly everyone kept asking me how my Armenian had gotten so good. I never realized, back in my language classes, almost two years ago, that one day I'd have to speak Armenian to the barrel of a gun. It's a point of which I think any volunteer could be proud

Friday, June 18, 2010

Bari Galust Means Goodbye Now

The Kruetzer Sonata, or, When I Woke Up He Was Gone

Reading The Kuetzer Sonata was a lousy idea. If I had known that it was going to play a part in throwing me down some emotional stairs I probably would've left it alone.
I've already mentioned that it's hard to leave. I won't go into it again, but I should add that some days actually go really well, I mean, some things really confirm, or rather, justify, my experience here. A few days ago I went to the dentist to get some cavities filled. I spent most of the day skating around and listening to my headphones. It was one of those days when I was really happy to be in Yerevan, to be in a big city, where people are busy and don't pay much attention to the odd foreign skateboarder rolling past. Although the day was hot I wasn't feeling too fatigued. The music I had been tired of a few days earlier on my headphones sounded nice to me again, as if it had undergone some kind of remastering since I'd last listened to it. I felt friendly too, as often happens when the world seem to be smiling upon one. I remember joking with everyone, buying some food for a stray puppy and blundering an attempt to compliment the receptionist at the dentist office.
[I should add that where I live it would be unheard of for a single young man to just blurt out a compliment to a single young woman that he didn't know. I thought it might be different in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the capital, but it didn't seem to be.
I used to enjoy complimenting strangers because the few times I have received such unexpected compliments they have stayed with me a long time. It's one thing for your mom to tell you that your hair looks nice like that, and quite another thing for someone in line at the bank to turn around, notice your hair and say "hey, I like your hair!" Ok, yeah maybe nobody's complimented me on my hair in a decade, but you know what I mean.]
Anyway, you can see it was just the kind of day where things fell into place. The fillings went pretty easy, my dentist was a pleasure to talk to, being from Baghdad. On the ride home the marshutka had side windows that opened so we were able to dispel the afternoon heat pretty well and I got invited to a curry dinner and was actually able to eat it as the Novocaine wore off just in time.
That was only about five days ago and for the last three days I've been smoking constantly, feeling awkward even in previously comfortable situations and quick to anger. It's probably true that I have had many similar episodes, even over the past month, but going through this, Fortuna's latest downward spin, compounded with the memory of a very believable bleak story regarding that which supposed to bring us happiness in life is really playing at my nerves.
In the story the narrator (and Tolstoy's experience in a bad marriage definitely factors in) begins a story in a train carriage about how he ended up killing his wife. He takes a good 60 pages before reaching this climax describing all the petty misunderstandings, miscommunication and misgivings that resulted from his attempt to get married and live with a woman, who, in the eyes of society, he was supposed to cherish. He delineates all the things that make such long term adoration and even cordiality impossible. Eventually, the narrator and his wife are constantly arguing, while the narrator is, only half-unconsciously, trying to force her away from him, so that he can feel justified in his repugnance of her, and feel vindicated in, by that time what has become his hatred of her.
When he thinks about his wife from the perspective of other men he is able to understand how she could be beautiful although she has longed ceased to be for him. In the births of his children he finds no solace, saying that they, too, were only drawn into the battle between him and his wife. Both these points struck me as particularly depressing. To be able to see someone as beautiful but not have the courage or the means to appreciate them anymore, only to feel jealous that this person should still appear beautiful to others when she has long since ceased to be beautiful for you. I remember having somewhat similar feelings when I was younger in regard to my friends, who, having been friends with me, suddenly discovered some other crowd and left me alone. I remember thinking something like "yeah, I know you think this person is great right now, but you don't really know them. Not like I know them." That is to say, I can see what beauty you think is there, but I myself, have long ago discovered it to be false, as,no doubt, will you. At one time or another I think we have all had such a feeling.
In the end the narrator leaves the house, becomes insanely jealous when thinking about his wife, although he positively loathes her, with someone else and rushes back to find her with another man whereupon he stabs her. The story ends shortly after this action with a debatable note of repentance.
Personally, I have always thought Tolstoy to be the master of characterization, he writes characters' inner lives as plainly as their physical actions. In Anna Karenina there are so many thoughts of hubris, fear and apathy that seem pulled out from one's own phyche. He writes all the little things that we think make us individuals, the reoccurring day dream, the awkward way we sometimes talk with a friend we don't see very often when meeting by chance, saying the wrong thing and then not knowing how to correct it and the little things that make us happy such as a proffered drink of water, an agreement, a comfortable silence or a frost covered road.
When he turns his powers of observation on a certain event its interesting to read, sometimes you find pieces of yourself amongst the foibles of his human characters, but sometimes, like in any novel, their actions seem ridiculous. But in The Death of Ivan Ilych and The Kuetzer Sonata, he focuses on a general situation of two people who thought they'd be happy together and ended up trapped, and living lives into which they felt forced.
There's no sense of agreement necessary here. The hardest part is that Tolstoy isn't asking you to subscribe to his idea that marriage is horrible and that everyone feels alienated by one's children. He merely shows you how the scenario, as it were, is entirely possible. Even if the reader doesn't believe in the possibility of this scenario, even if, as some unreasonably positive person, you choose to ignore all the correlations between this bleak story and your own life you are still forced to file it away in the portion of your brain where you retain memories and thoughts on relationships; and there it seems to fester, tainting the picture of happily-ever-after that's much more prominent, but somehow less convincing than Tolstoy's brutal depiction.
You read this and examine all the past relationships you've been in, and see how they all ended because there was a flaw there that couldn't stop growing a flaw that, unchecked, may have grown into something monstrous like in Tolstoy's vision. It's not that it's assured, it's just that it seems possible and it's awful to comprehend that such a miserable life could grow from something that initially was a great source of happiness; that one might find, in another human being, something so repulsive, just doesn't, itself, seem human.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Mantoux Test, or, A Tangle of Fountains

The days have gotten so long that taking a nap doesn't seem to take up any time, no matter how long it lasts for. You get drowsy around 3 or 4 and wake up, sweating to a six-o'clock world that looks exactly like the one you left. But, even after a week of siestas, the skin on your arms still has a burnt siena color to it and the hair that grows from them has a sweaty pomade kind of look. I spend more time than ever sitting out in the fields north of town, sometimes not even bringing any distractions with me, just sitting there and trying vainly to memorize the landscape and the feeling it produced over the course of two years of contemplation. I'd like to take some pictures of it but I know I'll probably forget before I go. I don't really want a reproduction anyway. Pictures of people are nice. They help one look directly into the eyes of the past, but landscapes often look like postcards of unfamiliar places no matter how new or relevant.

Everything Breaks When You Want to Move.

The water pressure has been vacillating incredibly since the summer heat set in. This caused me no small amount of irritation due to the malign nature of my bathroom facet, bandaged as it's been since I moved in with a piece of wire to keep it together and to hold the gush of the building's pipes at bay. Although the facet has always mercelessly dripped it never reached a deluge proportion until last month when I began to hear the pipes growning in the walls. I would wake up in the night to find the facet spraying water all over my bathroom and the meter faithfully recording this rediculous unchecked water expendature. Sure, water's not that expensive, but it just seems so wasteful to watch it swirl pointlessly down the drain and leave rust deposits all over the place. I'd try to tie the wire tighter, but often this would permit an even more devulian quantity to belch forth from the useless facet. Aftet fighting with it for weeks I finally got tired of the whole farce and just punched the damn thing.
I immediately regretted it.
Everything in this building came from Brezhniv. None of it's reliable, none of it's sound or even secure. The windows drop out of thier frames when storm winds blow through the staircase, the drywall/whitewash combination drops in chunks from humid bathroom walls and nearly every time I go in my bathroom there's a party of large roaches in there that have gotten stuck inside the slick and steep washtub basin, like skateboarders skating a pool they dash madly up one side only to slip down and be carried by their momentum up the other convex side. Yeah, they're big enought to have momentum.
Considering all this I shouldn't have been suprised when a light punch of irritation suddenly bathed my bathroom from floor to ceiling in water. And in fact I really wasn't that surpised, but even when one intends to splash cold water on one's face it's still shocking, the mouth still opens suddenly as if seeking a final source of air before going under an enormous wave. The facet, now rendered completely useless, ratteled into the sink and the water, free from and obstruction at last, maddened by its lengthly captivity, roared from the open pipe socket.
I stood there stupidly for a while, trying to block the flow and replace the facet. The pressure only angered the rushing cataract and the facet acted as a conduit to get the most water on my ceiling as quickly as possible.
I believe it a good indication that something of the pace of life here has effected me that I was able to actually stand there, in front of the raging torrent, and contemplate what to do next. It wasn't until I noticed my weight had changed due to the amount of water I had taken on, that I decided I had to get someone else's opinon. My neighbors weren't home so I went upstairs to the apartment of one of my students, a nice kid who's helped me out with apartment problems in the past. As he was apparently not in a hurry either we slowly made our way downstairs to where my bathroom was beginning to seep out into my hallway.
When we met the water outside the bathroom door my neighbor regarded it quite stoicly, merely glancing down at it for a second, looking at me and saying,
"Jure ka" [There's water here].
I responded my saying, "ghist eh" [that's correct]. And nothing in this exchange felt odd to either of us.
After this appraisel I almost expected him to turn around and return to his apartment, as if he'd only come down to make sure I was telling the truth about my broken facet, but had no deside to help me do anything about it. Luckily, he went in for a closer look and I soon found him, trying, just as unsuccessfully as I had, to cram the broken facet back into the rushing stream. I told him I thought we should turn off the water. He agreed but kept trying to get the obstinate facet back into the hole it had produced. Once again the water was blasting the cobwebs off my ceiling and raining down amidst the flaking paint and dead bugs that had peacefully been reposing up there.
When we got outside by the main shut off switch (I didn't have one in my apartment) he pointed it out to me and walked rapidly away, as if to secure a place of innocence when the water screeched to a halt in the two adjoined buildings. Luckily, I was firm in my resolution to not flood out my downstairs neighbors, and much to my neighbors' irriation, pulled back the hubcap that served as a cover for the water shut off switch and cranked the thing around until I heard voices lifting from every window in dismay.
"Inchi anjetel es?" [why'd you turn it off?] a chorus of balcony voices demanded to know.
"im ban@ jartvel eh" [my thing broke (I didn't know the word for faucet)].
I like to think how it must of looked for them. One minute you're washing clothes, or running bathwater for the baby and suddenly the water is ktrats [cut-off, it sounds so much better]. You look out to see if maybe the guy from the water board is down there doing repairs, or if someone's tapping the pipes to wash their car, and instead you find the foreign kid from the next building over, grunting with effort and totally soaked with water.I can't help but to think it looked like some really ill-concieved sabotage effort.
My neighbor's father, sitting in the gazebo-type of thing that's usually staked out by the old men, playing nardi in the afternoons, called me over and told me to go buy another facet. Soon he was in my bathroom with an acetylene torch blasting away at my pipes with a bunch of old and battered tools all over the place. My neighbor and I watched while he banged tool after tool down on my pipes to clear out the facet threading that had broken off inside of them due to my careless punch. Although the work was rough, my neighbor's father showed a deft familiarity in his trade and soon knocked all the offending objects out of my pipes.Within minutes my facet was in perfect working order and I was upstairs eating strawberries with my saviors, trying not to think about the huge mess that awaited me downstairs.

The Kind of Person that Always Adds 'Right?" After Saying "We're Friends."

Yeah, I neglected a bunch of friendships, to some degree I even neglected my family, simply because I had to if I wanted to remain here. I know this might sound pretty sevire. And I'm sure many Peace Corps volunteers would disagree with what I understood as an inherent incompatability between the life one leaves behind in the states and the life one starts in a host country. Initially, I didn't give it much thought. Before I left I occasionlly considered the effects of two years of transitional living, but I wasn't able to really ask myself what that would mean for the life I had in the states. I thought of new and exciting relationships and letters back home that would make reference to them, and I did have both of these things at different times since I've been here, but not quite the way I had imagined it.
I have often told the story of my first homecoming back to Jackson, MI (my hometown) after my first move away at 18 in order to illustrate the importance of holding low expectations for any kind of return trip. I tell this story to my friends here and to myself when I begin to get too excited to see old faces and walk old streets. I've heard myself telling it so many times that it no longer disappionts me, no longer feels pathetic, but rather just seems like truth, and indeed reminding myself of this event before any kind of reunion has never let me down.

I moved to Chicago. I had been there for about a six weeks when I had to come back for my Grandfather's funeral. When everything was finished I still had a day before going back to Chicago and decided to drop in on my friends.
I can still recall the scenarios that played out in my head on my way over to the house where many of my friends had been congregating before I moved, and, as far as I knew, still were. I imagined all kinds of surprise and champaigne bottles popping as I walked into the room nonchalantly. I saw my friends bounding up and down in surprise; every handshake turning into a bear hug, actually lifting me from the ground.
I parked down the block to make sure that no one recognized my Dad's car and proceeded up to the back door. As I approached the house I could hear all my friends' voices lifting and falling like a fond but forgotten song. I was suddenly overcome with a sense of lonliness that I hadn't been aware in Chicago. I realized how much time I had spent with these people and how much strain our friendships had stood over the often turbulent high school years. I was beginning to feel relieved, happy just to be back around them. Still, I hoped for something in this way from them. I wanted reciprocity.
I found the door unlocked, exactly as I had hoped, and entered, trying to supress a latent grin. As I crossed the livingroom threshhold I found them all facing the TV, playing the same videogame I remembered them playing before I left, six weeks before. I walked in, they turned around, and the great reception I had expected barely leveled out at an enthusiastic hello.
For what it's worth, any of my friends that were there at the time might contest this. They might say that I actualy recieved a thoroughly enthusiastic greeting, but I don't remember it that way. I couldn't remember it that way because I expected too much. I had only been gone six weeks. To the people that had stayed behind hardly any time had passed at all. Life had continued on as usual, and suddenly, I was back. They had hardly noticed my absence. I, however, had been very well-aware of every passing day, thinking constantly to myself, "I'm going to make it, I'm going to start all over again and be happy." But, at first, this was not easy, I had no friends, I didn't know anything about where I was, and although I enjoyed a lot on a superficial level nothing had touched me the way a good friend's phone call or smile can.
I remembered this lesson well, and although I continued to pine after my friends long after returning to Chicago and living there for a while longer, I gradually learned to distance myself. To live with them, so far away, was just torment. they became figures of near-mythical proportions. Even the most drab memories became colorful stories, and I spent most of my time telling these stories to people I met who probably didn't care to hear them.

Although I never repeated this mistake with the same intensity, I certainly repeated it.When I moved back to Michigan I spoke of Chicago as a perfect and baffeling place, where everything one could want was easily procured. When I moved to California I hung out with other people who had moved from Michigan, true, they were all wonderful people who I'm sure I would've befriended anyway, but our shared Michigan past certainly didn't hinder things. It wasn't until I moved to a small town in Northern California that I began to truely see how I had always cluched to my recent past.
When I moved to California I had gone to live in San Francisco with a very good friend of mine. We lived together for a year and became impossibly close. Upon suddenly finding myself in the boonies of northern California, I longed for the companionship I had known in SF. I thought not only of my friends in SF but also those in Chicago, Lansing and Jackson, MI and all the other places to which many of my friends had scattered. I felt lonliness like I had never known and although I tried to make new friends I just couldn't seem to get close to people with the knowledge that I already had so many wonderful friends all over the country.
Eventually, I found myself in a realtionship that substituted for all the friends with which I couldn't be. I poured myself into it, overjoyed at finally having found something familiar in what, until then, had seemed a desolate place. What I hadn't realized was that I was setting myself up for prolonged longing. If I could have left northern California without having ever really attached myself to anyone, without having made any lasting friendships perhaps my Peace Corps service would've been easier at first, but once again, upon arriving in Armenia, I found myself without, I found myself missing something too strongly to truely look around and appreciate what was around me.
It took nearly a year, but eventually I began to open my eyes and see the country in which I was living and the people with whom I was living.
And now, with about five weeks left here, I know what I've done. I've established more relationships that will echo well into the future; voices without people behind them when I find myself back in northern California again, again a stranger, again alone. That's not to say that I've ever regretted any of this. In fact, I know that all these people have ultimitly made these places for me. If I had never met Viki in Arcata, CA I couldn't possibly think much of it, if I hadn't moved to SF with Mikey and met Sam there the bars and the bikes wouldn't have held my attention for long. If Bretton hadn't enticed me to move to Lansing and Mark and Akikwe hadn't been there it would've been a lousy five years and I probably never would've been able to get through college.
So as I begin to comtemplate some kind of return back home, experience has taught me not too make to much of it, least I find myself a half heartedly received guest at my own party, and, probably for the first time, I am truely conscious of just how much I am going to miss the friends I have made here. I can already feel it pulling at me, although I am still here. I can feel the echos of so many voices, that have yet to travel across the Atlantic and reach me in California, but certainly will, all too soon. At the same time, these echos have confirmed this place for me, and without them, as with other places, Armenia would mean nothing.
I did what I had to do. I have missed many things over the course of time that I have been here, but it was necessary, for me, to live here without constantly checking Facebook updates, or sending long e-mails of heartfelt longing. Now, as I begin to look more at the place to which I will return, I find these things confusing. My friends talk of things to which I can't relate. They post pictures of people whom I have not met. All of them smiling in appreciation of a life I have not known. And I talk with my friends here and feel comforted, they too understand this feeling of disorientation, they too know they are going to miss speaking Armenian and drinking hykakan s'rge, to mention nothing of oghe. It may have been awkward but we have built up lives here, we have places, that though we may be tired of occupying them, they still feel familiar to us.
If I neglected anything it's because I truely made it. It's because I became comfortable enough here to let go of the past. It's what is always needed, but, after an experience like this, I know that I cannot fully do it again. I will not go one living in Vyke, in Yeghegnadzor, in Yerevan, I will not try to drag these places back into an incompatable America, but where ever I go, I know that eventually I will leave that place too, whereas, in some way, I will always have Armenia with me; it's simply been too long and too seminal and, in many ways, too damn beautiful.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bleeding to Death on the Bus (heavily anthologized)

I wrote this story almost 4 years ago, but I really enjoyed reading it again so I thought I'd pull it off Myspace where it's been moldering, unread, for quite some time now.
Apologies to those who have already read it and didn't like it the first time.

The kid's looking at me like I've got leprosy.
"What do you mean 'damn'? How bad is it?" I ask, trying to keep the hysteria out of my voice.
"Man you've got a hole in you chin!" The kid lets me down gentley.
"Fuck." At this point it's all I've got. It's all I know: fuck. "Fuck."
I'm about an hour subway ride from home out in the middle of nowhere sitting on a bench trying to keep my blood from running all over the place. My shirt is covered with gore and hair from my unshaven face. Well, unshaven until now when the concrete did it for me. Taking just a little extra and only in one place. I've got no map or anything so I hardly know how to get home despite the fact that I did a bang up job of getting down here. Also, when your bleeding as much as I am now your thoughts tend to jumble around a little. The blood splatters down on your shirt making new red lines in the cloth. On your shoes the blood coagulates in the dust and forms little beads. When it hits the sidewalk blood looks so remarkablely red and opaque that it has all the visual power of a bright yellow wasp or one of those poison dart frogs, bouncing around the rain forest like fire globules. Stop signs are dramaticaly red for a reason, the color makes you pay attention. It's a warning and right now I've got warning spalshed all over me, from my chin down to my shoes.
"Do you know where there's a hospital?" Suddenly it occures to me that I should probably get moving.
"It's like a BIG hole, man" I've apperently impressed the kid with my injury but as flattered as I am I'm starting to get a little nervous. I lift the edge of my voice a little higher.
"No man, I have no idea."
This kid's been a great help. I'm starting to walk away when he suddenly snaps to.
"Those guys might though," he says pointing to a group of surly looking kids in the corner of the park.
Immediatley I'm walking up to the kids trying to control my steps afraid I might fall again. Everything feels numb. My finger tips are tingling. A trail of blood is following me around the park.
"Hey guys," I butt into their conversation trying to look as relaxed as possible, you know like I bust myself open everyday.
"Do you know where there might be a hospital around here?"
"Not really." The surliest looking one says without even looking up. And I can't help but to think about grabbing him, shaking my head and screaming like Tyler Durden did to his boss in Fight Club, flinging my blood all over the place, mostly on him.
'Not really?'
What kind of shit is that either you know or you don't. Look at me for shit sake. Do I look like I only kinda' need a hospital?
Another one takes sympathy on me, or maybe he just doesn't want any blood dripped on his new Emerica shoes.
"I think there's on on Valenica, like Valencia and 19th."
Ok that's enough I have a vague idea where that might be and I don't want to stand around anymore leaking like a faucet. I thank the guys and skate off in the direction I came.But the skating is slow under my wobbly feet. One of my shoes is all ripped up and the blood pouring down my shirt is taking my concentration away from everything else. After about three blocks it's all hills and I've got to get off and start walking. The kid's words keep echoing through my mind.
"There's like a big hole. Your chin. Big Hole"
It just keeps playing over and over again. making the injury in my mind worse with each repitition . By the time I'm out of the hills I'm seeing half of my face hanging off. I start thinking about debilitating scars and and amputations. My mind is abuzz with staples and stiches. If I do get out of this I'm going to end up looking like Frankenstein's monster. All the while my shirt is growing darker and darker with the blood its taking on.
After about 10 blocks of intermitant skating and running I begin to realize I realy have no guarantee there's going to be a hospital at the end of this road. Those kids didn't sound very sure and it seems like I would've seen a sign by now.
I'm back to that again now. Cursing my self for my exteme penury that won't even allow me to get a cab at a time like this. I've got blood all over myself but I can't stop thinking about how expensive cab rides are. It's a good thing I've got insurence or I probably wouldn't even go to the hospital.
After about half and hour of searching I'm moving up the lower Mission. I see a man at the bus stop who looks like he might know where things like hospitals are and, hesitating no longer I ask him.
"Well what kinda' hospital you looking for? There's quite a few. They got St. Luke's up on Chavez St. there's the General on...wait where's the General again? I can never seem to remember that one or maybe you want a clinic there's a shit load of 'em around here."

The man continues to drone on seemingly oblivious to the severity of my situation, as if he sees blood streaked guys around all the time. I finally cut him short and ask which hopital is closest.
"Well," He begins seeming kind of offended at my impertenence. "Well this bus here'll take you right to one of 'em." He gestures to a bus coming, about a block down the street.
"Thanks," I tell him fumbling for my change hoping I have enough for one of the costly San Francisco buses.
The Number 17 Valencia pulls up in front of me and I wait for everyone else to get on so I can speak to the driver.
The bus is packed. The seats are all filled and the people standing are all packed in like sardines. The windows are all up and the air inside is stiffeling, at least 20 degrees warmer than it is outside.
When I reach the bus driver he's yelling in Spanish for everyone to move back further,despite the fact that everyone is already shoulder to shoulder, even head to head, childern and elderly people are squashed in the middle of the crowd. I don't know what these people are breathing but it isn't air. I think air technically has to have some oxygen left in it and there's none what so ever in here.
"Dude, you got like a hole in you chin!" Ahh fuck. The kid's words again. Why did I ever ask him what it looked like? I should have just gotten up and walked out of the park to the donut shop down the steet and asked one of those nice old folks how bad the wound looked. Shit, they probably would've offered to drive me to the hospital too. Instead I...
"Come on kid get moving!" Oh shit almost forgot what I'm doing must be the loss of blood. the bus drivers scowling at me, either because I havn't payed my fare yet or because I look like I just robbed a liquor store and didn't quite make it out before the shotgun went off.
"Hey are you going by a hospital?" I stammer, no time for formalities now.
"Which one?" He asks looking at me from under his bus driver visor. A green plastic thing that makes his face look even less inviting.
"Anyone." I'm getting tired of this run around so I answer blankly hoping he'll get the point.
"Well if you get off at 16th and walk about 8 and 1/3rd blocks clockwise from the five-way intersection there's another bus that'll be coming by, you don't want that one but you want the one after it. you take that to..."
This seriously went on for about 10 minutes. Someone in the back starts to yell, babies are beginning to cry.
"You got that?" he asks, almost pleased as if hes been enjoying the convoluted directions hes been giving.
"No," I tell him. But I'll try." I don't know what else to say.
"It's easy!" He tells me closing the door and slamming down the gas. Sending my stumbling toward the back, blood and all.
As the stops go by I begin to notice that no one is actualy getting off the bus. Riders get on but none get off, there is no counter measure and within a few short moments I am engulfed by the crowd. They swarm around me edging by, stepping over the seats, hanging from the safety bars and crawling beneath the seats. Normally I wouldn't mind but I'still bleeding all over
the damn place! Doesn't anyone notice? I've got my shirt brought up around my chest trying to catch all the blood that seems loosened by the warm, fetid bus air. My shirt, is sticky with blood, it's all over my hands and running down my chest. A man is standing right in front of me with a brand new white button-up shirt on. The bus rocks and sways going over the bumps and around the bends. I am doing everything I can to stay far away from that white shirt, straining my muscles to compensate for the movements of the bus. I hear someone near me say 'Sangria.' I look up but no one is looking over at me. I'm trying to hold the bar with one hand and mop my face with my shirt with the other. The bus stops again, more people get on and the guy with the white shirt is even closer to me now. I notice a few mothers pushing there kids past me, quickly. A group of kids are learing at me. My skateboard falls and when I reach down to steady it five or six drops of blood splash on the floor. I pretend not to notice but I'm afraid that they've splashed on someone. The bus is getting hotter by the minute more
people get on. I feel like I'm saturated in blood, light headed, beginning to wonder why the hell I got on this damn bus.
"It's like a HOLE, dude!" Shut up, kid. I hardly even care anymore. I'm resigned to dying on this bus now, The Number 17 Valencia. I'll fall down, collapse in a pool of my own blood and these people probably won't even notice, if they do they won't care, probably just take my wallet or something.
"Hey Hospital Guy?" The bus driver is suddenly yelling at me over the din of the 3 thousand people on the bus.
"Hospital Guy, get off here ok?"
"Thanks" I stammer out shaking with excitment of finally getting off this terrible bus.
"Yeah," he adds. "Get off here and get on the bus behind us."
Great another bus probably packed even tighter than this one, everybody wearing brand new white shirts.
When I go to get off the bus everyone clears a path for me. I almost feel gratefull that they finally seemed to have noticed.
The next bus is almost empty. The bus driver is very cordial and there's even a place to sit. After about five minutes she nforms me that we've reached the hospital.
I walk in, check in, wait in the waiting room, still bleeding all over myself.
The nurse calls my name and I follow her to the preliminary room.She runs through all basics asking me how it happened, where it happened etc. while taking my blood pressure. I've got gauze packed in the wound now and I'm waiting for here to tell me they'll have to amputate or do a graft.
She doesn't say anything so I ask.
She looks at me, smiling like nurses do. "Oh you'll probably just need a few stiches, nothing major."
I practically collapse in relief.
"We'll have to do something though," she smiles " I mean you've got like a big hole in you chin."