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?"