Leaving Early; Leaving On Time

Upon landing back in Chicago and venturing out on my weekend with my friends, everything felt normal. It was almost like I had never left. My roommates and I bantered and cheerfully insulted each other like we always do, I ate too much food, and I rode public transit like a professional as I did before I left for Armenia. It was almost like an episode of the Twilight Zone. I had been gone for a year and a half, but everything was almost the same. In such a significant amount of time, I had journeyed through so much of life so quickly that I didn’t even take the time to realize what life continued to be like back in the United States.

Everything felt normal until I walked into the local Walmart in Charleston, Illinois- the town my parents live in in central Illinois. Walmart is a fine line between necessity and excess and obesity. Walls are lined with bags of chips and corresponding dips, aisles of condiments in every flavor and every brand stretched out for at least two football fields. My dad looked at me, “are you okay?”, he asked. “Woah,” I interjected. Overwhelmed and foggy, I replied, “This is weird.” It was odd. I had gone directly from Armenia to Chicago, one of the largest cities in the United States with a population of the entire Republic in which I had been living, and it was this Walmart’s abundance that caught me off guard.

I had been thinking about leaving Armenia since August. I could feel myself getting deeper and deeper into depression as the first part of the school year began. I felt myself struggling to go to classes, disinterested in lesson planning, and I wasn’t investing the time with my students I felt I should have been as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I found solace in practicing yoga, and I was able to maintain a sense of mental neutrality for a few months by ending each day with routine breathing and fluid body movements. Yoga made me feel warm and healthy. Then, once winter hit, and my cement apartment became a refrigerator, it was difficult to get out of my sleeping bag, difficult to leave the embracing warm, loving heat of my electric radiator heater. I was becoming cynical towards my life, and eventually began to despise my surroundings.

People told me while I was leaving that they didn’t know I was so unhappy because I had been able to maintain such positive posts on my social media accounts. The truth is I posted things that truly made me happy. I loved, and I still love, Kapan. Living there was wonderful. I had a great placement for a Peace Corps Volunteer, and my conditions were Versailles compared to what other Volunteers in Armenia experience. What I posted online was to show the world what I loved about Armenia and to show myself that even though I was feeling dark inside there were still beautiful things to share with the world about the situation in which I was living. However, when I wasn’t happy with a great placement, with a wonderful counterpart, and excellent students, I knew I had to begin to seriously consider the changes I could make with myself in order to continue service or make the ultimate decision to leave.

What I considered:

I know I love children. I love seeing their eyes question the world and think about the encounters they are having with people. I love seeing them act like little adults and seeing their irrational decisions make so much sense to them in their young state.

Simultaneously, I learned that I may not be cut out with working with young children. I accrued so much more patience in life while living abroad, but I don’t think I’ll ever have enough patience to try to teach a classroom of 32 ten year olds in their third language. That sh*t’s hard. I also began to experience extreme compassion fatigue working with children. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you want to see your children succeed and make changes while feeling purpose living in your community. When the calendar months become fewer, and the time to leave approaches, sometimes you don’t necessarily see those changes you had hoped to experience while working with your students. I want the best for all of my students, but with time, it is hard to not see the writing on the wall to the kind of lives some of them may live due to the conditions in which they live culturally, politically, and geographically. A common phrase with Peace Corps is that you are “planting the seeds for a tree’s shade you won’t get to sit under”. That couldn’t be more close to the truth. As Peace Corps Volunteers, all you can do is provide an image of opportunity and then hope that it clicks with some students and someday they can use the knowledge you shared with them to provide opportunities for themselves.

I also eventually began to feel extreme amounts of guilt. As an American in an underdeveloped country you are bombarded with questions about how to get visas to the US, how to get green cards, how to get jobs in “America”. “I don’t know…”, I would reply. “I didn’t even know there was a green card lottery until a year ago. You probably know more about it than me.” In this political climate, I also found it hard to tell people they should try to go to the US. “Try Canada, or the EU, people there are nicer than in the US right now.” There I was, trying to represent the United States and its values when I wasn’t (and am still not) even sure about them myself. I met people trying so hard to make ends meet every day, and I knew that I had a ride back to the “land of the free and home of the brave” whenever I wanted it. It brought me to tears one night while talking to a friend. “Why can I not survive here? Why must Armenians work so hard and maintain their positive mentality when everything is working against them? What is wrong with me that I am so unhappy?” Walking through Walmart, I realized I took much of Armenia’s simplicity for granted.

So, when it came down to it, I realized I needed to separate myself. I had dug myself so deep in emotional and mental despair that the only way I could leave Armenia positively was by leaving early. I wanted to leave my service at a high point. I wanted to leave knowing that I would be leaving Armenia as a place that I could continue to look positively on; I wanted to leave knowing it was a place I wanted to return to. I deserve that; Armenia deserves that. Armenia deserves the best because it is a beautiful country with good people, but I couldn’t provide them with the service I had committed to, so I knew I had to leave.

I leave knowing this:

Armenian women are so wonderful and loving. Through adversity, they make it all work somehow. They are those who are affected most by war. They raise sons they know they must one day send away to a conflict zone, yet they keep such strong faces in situations that would leave most emotionally devastated. Their intuition is divine. They are the safe havens for many Volunteers I have worked with when they have felt unsafe and alone. They are loving and open and sharing and their humor is unique and incomparable.

Armenian children are not the best behaved, but they are so willing to be kind and to learn. They are good humored, they have yet to be corrupted by much of the political strain that umbrellas their country, so they look at the world with bright eyes. They are loving, and they see beauty in their environments. Even though it was frustrating sometimes, it was such an honor working with them. They taught me more than I could ever have taught them.

I know that Peace Corps Volunteers in Armenia do the best developmental work than any other organization in the region. These Volunteers put themselves in situations many diaspora Armenians wouldn’t even consider living in, yet they do it with love, they do it with patience. They struggle, yes, but they persevere. They’re frustrated, yes, but they overcome. They have grown to love the country they continue to live in for the little joys. I look at all of them and I say thank you for your service. You are doing wonderful work, and I am so proud of you.

I am grateful for Peace Corps Armenia and the opportunities it provided me, but I am also glad to be back in my comfort zone for a while. I am happy I got on the plane, I am happy I stayed for 18 months, I am happy that I was able to touch lives and my life was able to be touched, but when you know- you know. You know?

 

 

 

Stepping Out of Armenia; Traveling Another Part of the World Well

I have never understood the term “well-traveled”. This term people use to define themselves has always seemed to go way over my head. What does “well” mean. And where does one have to have traveled to in order to be deemed “well-traveled”. Sure, some people have seen more parts of the world than others, but does this necessarily mean that they have “traveled well” or better than another individual? From Facebook, Instagram, and every dating app out there, individuals say they are (and are looking for) others well-traveled. Why does this descriptor define so many people, and why is it often used to single out others who may not have traveled as much?

Before leaving for Armenia, I didn’t consider myself well-traveled because I had never left the U.S. While living in south Texas, we did do family trips across the Mexican border to shop and for my dad to get his cheap prescription for Prilosec before it was over the counter. This was, however, before I was 12 years old, and then after that I didn’t cross an international border for another 10 years. Meanwhile, I traveled to 42 of the 50 states- but still others, and myself, wouldn’t consider me well-traveled.

People often say they join the Peace Corps to travel the world, but that’s a misconception. Peace Corps service isn’t traveling- it’s living in one country. With the exception of leaving for a twelve-day vacation to the northern bordering country Georgia (a place more famous for its wine than its peaches), I hadn’t left a geographical area of about 300 miles in over a year. This can begin to feel very enclosed to someone who usually went to three or four states all over the North American continent annually. Finally when I left for Mother Russia, I began to feel like I was traveling.

I can’t say that I have been to “Russia”, though, because- if you haven’t looked on a map, no matter what projection is used- Russia is big! So, I have been telling people I went to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Two very different cities, I was able to feel like I was in a different place than anything I had experienced in either Armenia or Georgia. I was beginning to experience things I had never experienced in the U.S. Signs were writing in Cyrillic without any English transliteration. Thankfully, I have been able to pick up the alphabet while living in Armenia. I was able to read the Metro signs and street signs. It was a fun experience. Then in St. Petersburg, a city more geared for international tourists, everything was written in English transliteration again, and I begin to feel a little less out of the Russian influenced world (still highly present in Armenia, some of Georgia, and ubiquitous in Moscow…obviously).

In St. Petersburg, I stayed in the coolest hostel (Soul Kitchen Hostel– look it up if you ever go to St. Petersburg), and for the holidays I hung out with Russians, a Korean, Germans, a group from France, a group from China, a girl from Sri Lanka, a guy born in Lithuania and living in Scotland, among others. Hostels are the greatest places in the world because you meet people from all over the world. In St. Petersburg, my traveling friend and I spent much of our time in the hostel because we were comfortable making friends there, in a comfortable environment, and didn’t want to leave. Still, we were meeting the world. I would say we were traveling well.

Once we arrived in Budapest, my friend’s friends came to meet us. A Polish girl and a French guy joined the Russian/American duo, and for four days we explored the banks of Budapest. Budapest coming more into the American tourist peripheral, I was surrounded by more Americans I didn’t know than I have been exposed to in a long time. It was a big culture shock for me. I was more comfortable hanging out with my friends from other countries because, other than my small Peace Corps community in Armenia, that’s what I have been exposed to for a year and a half.

In between, we were in Helsinki one day. I’ve technically been to Finland, as is noted by the stamp in my passport, but can I technically say I have been there. I experienced a whiteout blizzard- how one may picture Helsinki. But, because it was so cold, my friend and I went to see a movie. An American movie shown in English with Finnish subtitles. We were (probably) the only foreigners in the movie theater, we were doing something locals do. We ate Finnish candy, and we went to a café. We used Euros. I would think that is traveling well.

In Vienna, a place we were for less than 24 hours, we were led by a local who had lived in Vienna his whole life, and guided by his wife who had lived there for years. For brunch the next day, we ate at a café that was away from the city center. I sat at a table with three languages being spoken, and I was the only one who knew less than three languages sitting at the table. I felt like I was traveling well.

So, what this trip taught me, was to never feel like I am or other people are “well-traveled” because that doesn’t mean anything. Take the way you like to travel, adapt it to the sights you want to see, and how lazy or scheduled you want to be, and go with it. At the end of a trip you should feel like you enjoyed yourself and like you had experienced something new. My personal quote for my Tinder profile I’ll never make: Don’t feel well-traveled, feel like you’ve traveled well.

 

 

POLITICAL RANT:

Individuals in the United States who get angry when others are not speaking English, remember this: The United States of America DOES NOT have a constitutional official language. English is not the official language of the United States. If you feel this way, that English should be the only language spoken in the country, go to Europe. In countries that have official languages, you can go into any café and find people speaking a variety of languages, and get this: NO ONE CARES. So, if anything, us Americans should feel cheated for not having been exposed to several languages or required to learn more in childhood. We all would be better and more aware for it.

 

The End of the Year; The People Who Have Passed Through Here

For me, the only good thing that the 2011 film New Year’s Eve brought to the American film criterion was Lea Michele’s performance of “Auld Lang Syne”. Please enjoy it on YouTube here (https://youtu.be/3jO2tlzIBg8) and listen to it while you read the rest of this blog.

I sit alone in my apartment for the last night I will be here this year. I am taking a break from packing for my trip I will be taking through Russia, Helsinki, Budapest, Vienna, and Tbilisi for the winter holiday. (“There is something about living in the Caucuses that makes you want to travel to cold places in the winter”, said no one ever.)

As I sit alone, cuddled by my heater, I listen to this song and think about the wonderful memories I have made in this apartment this year. Back in February while I was looking for independent housing from my host family, I had opportunities to move into nicer, more updated apartments. My counterpart, with her wise experience with other Peace Corps Volunteers, however, recommended I go with the apartment I would eventually move into because it is larger and I can host my friends.

She was right.

Over the year, I have had a pretty incredible roster of guests to help me nest in my apartment.

Since February, I have hosted around twenty-five other Peace Corps Volunteers including walkers of the Border-to-Border South Route, which included two Armenians. I also recently had the opportunity to host thirteen PCVs for Thanksgiving at the end of November, and together we made my little apartment feel less like a Peace Corps dwelling and more like a home.

Also, due to the location of Kapan being the largest city coming into Armenia from the Iranian border, I have had the opportunity to host guests from various countries:

There was the first English guy in April. He actually wasn’t going to Iran, but he was hiking throughout Armenia and a few Volunteers and I became friends with him one weekend in Yerevan, so I offered for him to come to Kapan with me so he could enjoy the beauty of Armenia’s south. He was super nice, he made great stuffed peppers for dinner, and walked off with one of my iPhone 4 chargers. It was okay- I had an extra.

Next, in April, came the French journalist. He had met another Volunteer in the north through Couchsurfing, and she referred him to me. He was one of the most genuine and humble people I have ever met. Paige- my sitemate- and I were quickly drawn to him. We had some really great conversations I still think about today, and he made me look at traveling and the world in a whole new way. He’s the type of person I hope to have the chance to meet again in life.

In July, I was walking through the center of town, and there next to Kapan’s magical musical fountain sat seven tired wanderers. They looked exhausted and worn, and they needed a place to stay and shower. I had two other Volunteers staying with me that night, so I asked if it would be okay if I invited them over. Seven Iranian backpackers followed me home, they all took showers, had a warm dinner, and they were so kind, gracious, and wonderful. Living in this part of the world has made me truly appreciate Iranian people and fascinated with Iran. Every one I have come across during my time in this region has been so kind, sharing, and accepting. Released from their governmental limitations of alcohol consumption, they asked if they could share a bottle of vodka with my friends and me. We agreed, and they taught us about toasting and drinking customs that are common in Iran. My house was full that night, but, honestly, I couldn’t have been any more honored to have such great guests in my presence.

Then, two Danish boys were biking from Iran, and were referred to me by a Volunteer who lives just across the border (or, as we jokingly to call it: Peace Corps Iran). I had a few other Volunteers visiting me that week, and we invited them over for dinner. It was one of those interesting nights that unexpectedly turned into a I’m-way-too-old-for-this-college-party-behavior evening, and that’s probably all I should say about that.

I then hosted another French guy my sitemate met lost and wandering in the park. She approached him, looked at him, and asked, “You’re not Armenian are you?” Tourists in Kapan stand out blatantly; it’s easy to spot them in Armenia. He was stranded after crossing the border too late in the evening and wasn’t able to exchange money until the next day, so I offered him to stay in my apartment. I didn’t like him as much as the other French guy, but that’s okay. He was pleasant enough, and Peace Corps has taught me the honesty and importance of understanding that it’s important to always act pleasantly to everyone even if you don’t like them very much.

And, most recently, two travelers who fatefully met traveling in Georgia were referred to me from another Volunteer further north in the southern region. One girl was from the U.K. and the other was a girl from Germany. They were both so great and shared stories from their travels with me. The girl from the U.K. and I would probably become fast friends in any context we met. She indulged my horrible English accent as we laughed about having watched The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE) while simultaneously impersonating the featured stars, and she shared my obsession and adoration for the TV show Girls (especially for this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GT3ksv6UBSk that is featured in one of my favorite episodes). She is a food blogger, and she posts really great pictures and posts about food that make me someday, maybe, possibly want to learn how to enjoy cooking. The girl from Germany was so excited about everything. After having seen so much of the world, she was still so amazed by the smallest details of places and things. She was an architecture student in University and commented on little details of a monastery I had already been to a few times that allowed me to appreciate it in a new way. This made her the happiest person to be around. She really lifted my mood and helped me enjoy being in Armenia through a different lens. “Please come visit me!”, she kept saying to me, “You’ll really love Germany, I have so much I could show you.” I hope some day I will. She made the best pumpkin soup one evening. I’d go visit her in Germany just so she could show me how to make it.

So as I reminisce, and as I think about the year, I sit thankful for the world coming to me in my little apartment in little Kapan. I think of the people I have met from all over the world and how they have allowed me to learn and think about the world a little bit differently. I thank them all for that. I may never, and probably will never see many of them again, but as this year ends I “take of cup o’kindness yet for days of auld lang syne”.

 

 

 

 

The Time in a Taxi; Road Trip Nostalgia

It was a late fall day- Halloween day, actually- and I was woken by my head being jolted back and forth as my taxi driver swerved into oncoming traffic to pass a slow moving car in front of us. This is a common practice on Armenian roads. My iPhone had played through my music and I had been subconsciously listening to Bon Iver’s new album in my sleep. (“22, A Million” is incredible, by the way.) My heavy eyes rose slowly to green hills and mountains releasing fog into the autumn morning. We were coming out of the pass between the dry, desert(ed) Ararat Valley and slowly winding our way into Vyots Dzor Marz. “Vayots Dzor” in Armenian, I’ve been told, directly translates into “the gorge of despair”, and, honestly, sometimes it can appear that way. But this day, of all days, it was beautiful. It was green and peaceful, and Bon Iver’s eclectic sounds of track number 6 (I don’t the names of the songs because they all are written with symbols) harmonized in an oddly transcending way. Maybe this was in part because I was sitting in the front seat on the left side of a Japanese car. It was as if I was driving (which for the sake of any Peace Corps staff reading this, I wasn’t) without a wheel. It was as if I had just come out of my sleep and was floating into a cloud of not despair…but peace.

Okay, I know this is cheesy. But, let me tell you why I must take notice of all of the memorable little moments of my trips between Yerevan and Kapan. The trip is roughly six hours long on a good day. If it is any faster, you feel like you are going to die. If it is any slower, you feel like you are going to die. So, safely, the ride should be six hours long.

I did some math. Me doing math is a stretch, but my internet was out one night and my phone wasn’t working, so I had plenty of time to turn through the pages of my memory over the past year and calculate how many times I have gone north and south between Kapan and Yerevan. I have made the six-hour, one-way trip forty times. Forty multiplied by six is 240. I have spent 240 hours of my service thus far traveling between Kapan and Yerevan! That is 10 days! That means by the end of my next year of service, I will have spent, probably, one month of my 27 months of service in a car.

It’s times like this I miss my van. Growing up- well, until I was seven- my family owned a giant, blue, Ford van. It had two reclining front seats, a bench seat in the middle, and a bench seat in the back that folded back flat and became a bed; it was perfect for our family of seven. It had the beautiful, American luxuries all families took advantage of until they were deemed unsafe and, later, illegal. It drove us back and forth to California several times, all over the state of Utah, moved us to Corpus Christi, Texas, and it was the perfect companion to our yellow motorboat. It was another home for us. Tragically, it died one day on one of our family trips to a border town in Mexico shortly after we moved to Texas in 1997. It was a sad day. Road tripping was never the same again, and the coined phrase, “at times like this I miss my van”, was often muttered when we couldn’t travel with the same spacious luxuries we had before.

I want to say that Americans have mastered the art of traveling on the road, but I don’t think I know how all Americans road trip, so I will say: The Clowards have mastered the art of traveling on the road- my parents especially. We don’t wear nice clothes- we wear sweats, we leave so early that no one has time to get ready in the morning, we only strategically stop and we stop for short amounts of time. Gas stations are used to pee quickly, and they are the only places on earth you can get your parents to buy you chips, candy, soda, and dad’s favorite: chocolate milk. My favorite trips have been taken on the road: traveling to Texas when I was five, across the south between Texas to Florida just after my oldest sister Rebecca joined the Navy, between Salt Lake and Chicago visiting Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore, my first road trip with friends driving to D.C. from Chicago, and driving down the North West Coast with Sara. I’ve seen almost the entirety of the United States just by sitting in a car. That’s a lot of land. That’s a lot of memories.

I have also seen almost the entirety of Armenia by car; however, I will never dread road tripping in the United States again. Armenian roads will leave me with a few scars- some good and some bad, nothing physical- that have made me feel that I will rejoice the next time I have to take a twenty hour road trip across six states.

Armenians always dress flawlessly, and almost effortlessly, and they are always in heels and makeup, and polished shoes- even when a taxi leaves at seven in the morning. I get in my taxis some mornings looking like…an American. I am in my sweats- as my parents taught me while road tripping. Once I was traveling with my counterpart, and she said to me, “You know, it’s from traveling with Americans that I have learned to wear comfortable shoes and pants.” (Goal number 2!) Getting gas- natural gas, by the way- takes no less than thirty minutes every time. The car stops, everyone gets out, uses the restroom, sits down, gets coffee, eats, and the men smoke half a pack of cigarettes. Everyone at these stops seems to know each other, and they use this as time to catch up on the latest M-2 gossip. This, after just wanting to get back on the road and on our way, I am proud to say, has tested my patience for the better: I have finally learned to accept the cultural differences between traveling with Armenians and Americans. Now, I am so accustomed to everything, I (knock on wood) don’t think anything else could phase me about traveling with Armenians anymore.

I dread a lot of the trips because they are long, but sometimes they surprise me and are exceptionally memorable. One trip we stopped three or four times in a mountain pass and an older man insisted we stop. “Stop here!” he yelled in Armenian, “this is the best water!” All passengers got out of the car, walked across the road to a puddle in the side of the rock, and sure enough there was a small, clean, natural spring pooling on the side of the road. It was fresh, mountain water. “Stop here!” he would yell a few miles later. “These are the best pomegranates!” He got out, disappeared into the hills, and came down from the shrubs with a handful of wild, fall-ripened pomegranates. “One minute!” and he disappeared into the woods on the other side of the street. Next thing, we see him in the trees shaking them while wild walnuts fell to the ground. We had a whole feast that day. This man knew all the right places to stop.

“Now you call me if you need anything,” one woman said to me after previously giving me her number and following me on Instagram earlier in the trip. “My sister is single and can clean your house for you really well.” She, the driver, and I all laughed. You will most likely leave every trip with a new friend and maybe the possibility of getting married.

This is Armenian road tripping.

Thanks to the forty times I have taken this trip, I know where to buy the best road wine, I know where the cleanest rest stops in Armenia are, I know where the best lavash and gata is made. I’ve almost seen it all. These are little things that make the 240 hours meaningless. They collectively make it all worth it.

A Paige Gone; A Page Turned

Exactly one year ago this week, Paige and I sat in the back of a green four-door-hatchback shared taxi and rode our way down to Kapan for my very first time. There are a lot of things I remember during that ride. Some of the things I remember include riding down most of the way on the wrong side of the road (because the road was nicer over on that side), being advised to always wear a scarf (because the driver was surely going to smoke and you need a scarf to use as a face mask), never ending switchbacks (something I’ve gradually become used to), the warm, fresh lavash and gata we bought in Goris, and Paige and I talking nonstop for the entire six hours down. The conversations were mostly about us getting to know each other better, but they weren’t superficial. They were sincere, Paige was blunt and honest- something I appreciate most in her- and they really prepared me for my service at site.

I was so blessed to have Paige as a sitemate. I always had someone to talk to, I always had someone to commiserate with, I always had someone to laugh with, and I always had someone to make sure I was fed properly. Thankfully, I still have my wonderful sitemate, Anne, to take care of my poorly developed cooking skills. Keeping me fed may or may not have been a discussion between the two women before Paige left. But, it’s still hard to let people go. I am definitely beginning my stages of grief. I not only lost Paige in country, but the group of Volunteers who were in country when I arrived are experiencing their Close of Service (COS) this month, and my perception of Armenia as I know it is [again] going to change. Many people who I’ve depended on and look-up to as senior Volunteers are no longer in country, and I am again going through the forever-promised adjustments of Peace Corps.

So, a final thank you to Paige. Thank you for being wonderful- a true friend. Thank you for finding random little gifts to let others know you are thinking about them, thank you for showing me the difficulties of true love and the beauty of love in this world through your relationship with Jeremiah, and thank you for your many, many words of advice. I’ll miss the cozy late-night chats in your one room apartment, hearing your swearing from the 4feet by 4feet kitchen while you cook, and laughing at ourselves trying to fit in in Armenia and speaking Armenian and often failing successfully. But, I can’t wait to see your life post Peace Corps. I will probably cry when I see the reunion pictures of you and your husband. Tell him his countdown on Facebook every day made all of us Volunteers too excited to see you two reunited. You both made it!

Until next time, “Oh no, Paige!”

And like the winds of autumn, the second year of my service blew in. Summer was great. Armenia was beautiful and often too hot, but I had an awesome vacation in Georgia, my friend from Chicago- Elise- came to visit me there, and I got to return to school being told the building was going to be torn down and the kids would be put into three different buildings in two ends of the city. Changes are sure and promised in Peace Corps, and a second year of service doesn’t mean you’re more adjusted, it means you only have more adjustments to make. Thankfully, though, you get less thrown-off by adjustments and **maybe** learn to adjust better.

A positive of having to walk to different buildings for classes is that my counterpart and I will be in great shape by the end of the school year! This walking will be a necessity because I would otherwise, surely, be overweight due to my developing addiction to gata- the Armenian sweetbread full of a sugar glaze and heaven.

Lastly, I am teaching the 3rd grade for the first time this year. Not only does this make me exhausted, but I must teach the following British English word with a straight face:

Cc, cock, it is a cock, cock.

I can’t make this stuff up, people. (I promise, mom, that’s the most I’ll swear on my blog ever.)

A Fountain; A Community

Last year, Kapan finally finished construction on a singing and dancing fountain to commemorate its 70th year as a municipality. Two unfinished buildings sit on two sides of the fountain while the “Syuniki Marzpetaran” (or the Syunik Region Governor’s office) sits to the other side. The river runs past coming down from Mt. Khustup finishing off the square. This is Kapan’s first summer with the fountain.

It was a Tuesday evening, around 7 o’clock, and it was overcast. Mt. Khustup was hidden in a blanket of clouds, but even though it wasn’t sunny, it was comfortable enough to be outside in only shorts and a t-shirt. I walked into the square, retrieved a cup of coffee from the vending machine by where all the cabbies park, and went towards the cascading fountain to try to find a place to sit. All of the benches surrounding the fountain in the square were full, so I placed myself upon the granite siding of the fountain with my notepad and cup of coffee and began to observe people. It was my own little Kapan-esque Starbucks.

These are some things I saw:

  • A mother and a child. The child is maybe two or three years old. The mother holds the child up steady, with the child’s arms above their head while the child tries to walk slowly on the ground. The mother shadows the child’s steps as to make sure he does not become unbalanced or try to run away.
  • The fountain is a societal track of sorts; people- mostly teenagers- walk circles around the track (or fountain in this case) for hours on end without any purpose. It is an opportunity to be seen by comers and goers as they approach the social center of the city.
  • A grandfather sits with his granddaughter on a bench. They, too, are just watching people go by.
  • In the distance, you can hear the piano playing in the Cultural Palace- one of the two unfinished buildings. During my time sitting by the fountain it plays a variety of songs; most notably, it plays “Let Her Go” by Passenger, the “Edward and Bella Piano Ballad” from the Twilight movies, and the Titanic theme song- all of which are very popular in Armenia.
  • Every so often, one of my students will recognize me, they will gather up the courage to approach me in the “it’s awkward seeing a teacher outside of school kind of way” and say “Hello, Mr. Daniel.”
  • Young couples walk side by side without touching, but they still manage to keep eye contact the entire time they are walking and continue to smile at each other.
  • A family takes a portrait at the front of the fountain. Two men, maybe brothers, in this group embrace and hug for a long time as if they haven’t seen each other in ages.
  • Mothers push their children in strollers.
  • Children with hoverboards roll around. (I secretly hope one of them falls. I don’t want them to get hurt, but I just think that would be *probably* funny.)
  • Sitting by himself on the wall by the river, a man eats popcorn by himself.
  • Popcorn is the concession choice of the evening, and a few people also pluck away at their cotton candy.
  • Men pull up and ride away in their remodeled Ladas.
  • I realize I really, really want cotton candy.
  • A baby in a blue jump suit runs away down the stairs from his mother.
  • A little boy with a blue newsboy cap wraps his hands around a yellow wheel and runs around as if he is driving a car. As he passes me, I can hear him humming the sounds of his own engine. In his own imagination, he is maybe driving his very own Lada?
  • I realize I really would like my own Lada, too.
  • A guy rides by on a motorcycle. A blonde woman holds onto him as they breeze past.
  • A honeybee, as if broken, rolls around down the steps by my feet. It is as if it cannot fly.
  • A mother slowly walks by with her daughter with disabilities. She gently hands her daughter pretzel sticks to eat as they wander past.
  • A mother and a daughter take pictures of each other standing in front of the fountain with their cell phones.
  • I get the look-down from a tatik. She frowns at me until I smile, and then she, too, smiles back to me.
  • It is now 8:00, the crowd is becoming more populated now.
  • A young man who had arrived at the fountain in a sweater has now taken his sweater off to reveal a sleeveless hoodie that, in turn, reveals his bulging biceps.
  • A brother, sister, and mother trio sit on the far side of the fountain. The brother wraps his arm around his sister and begins to tease her and hug her tight without letting her go. He repeatedly kisses her on the cheek. The mother laughs.
  • A little old man in a blazer and white baseball cap slowly walks by.
  • Off towards the front of the fountain a circle of teenagers hit a volleyball.
  • People keep staring at me, and I can hear them and see them commenting on my left-handedness.
  • I still really want cotton candy.

There is also a great array of graphic tees tonight. Some of my favorites read:

“RISKS”, “MANGO”, “BASIC TEE”, “NOOO PLEEEASE NOO”, “BOYS”, “IT’S NEW LIFE”, “YEAH”, “I’VE BEEN TWELVE FOREVER”, “WRITE A BOOK ONE DAY”, “VISUALIZE 25”, “CHOOSE TO HAVE A GREAT DAY”, “HAVE A GOOD TIME FOR YOU PARIS”, “JOHNNY TUPY TACO”, and two separate Green Bay Packers shirts.

It is now 8:30 PM, and the fountains have begun to sing and dance. My particular favorite is to the Moulin Rouge! version of “Roxanne”.

In some parks in this world you can see the world go by you, but here it is just one community. Not a lot is changing or happening, it simply just is and it’s happy to be thereand that is pretty nice.

Happy Summer, Kapan.

(I never got cotton candy…maybe next time.)

 

 

An Ambiguous Identity; Pride

By definition:

Identity- the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.

By definition:

Ambiguous- open to more than one interpretation; not having one obvious meaning.

 

Here I am, almost one full year into my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and only one thing stands true: Peace Corps is a really, really good arena to allow yourself to feel vulnerable. I think the reason Peace Corps helps people “find themselves” is because it forces individuals to search for, find, and then challenge every ounce of their being.

June was a really big month for me. I went into Border-to-Border with Volunteers who had experienced it last year telling me that “BtoB is really service changing” and “gives a lot of meaning to your time here in Armenia”. Just before departing on my walk through half of Armenia I experienced heartbreak for the first time. Believe it or not, I believe I fell in love for the first time here in Armenia with an Armenian, and our separation as lovers was inevitable. I thought that walking an average of twenty kilometers a day for three weeks would help me get over my heartbreak, but I guess heartbreak isn’t healed with physical exertion or Adele. We were destined for failure because there were just too many cultural and identity aspects of ourselves we couldn’t get through individually and together. (Border to Border was service changing, by the way, and it really made me appreciate the geographical beauty of Armenia as well as its diversity in larger and smaller communities.)

I have always felt, as a Mormon-raised boy from Utah, that there were some parts of my identity that have always felt like a huge walk-in closet that I couldn’t get out of. In that closet, I have searched for many, many things about myself, and just when I think I feel comfortable with who I am as an adult human being- just when I think I have found the door to exit- I find myself in other new aspects of life that could metaphorically mean walking through that door to an extra closet added onto that walk-in closet in a mansion full of closets.

Coming to Armenia, I knew there were parts of my identity I couldn’t openly share or express with other Armenians for my own safety and simply to avoid cultural misunderstandings that would restrict my immersion at work and in my community. This was a challenge I was willing to accept as I was applying for Peace Corps, and it was something I talked seriously about with friends and my Peace Corps interviewer before embarking for Armenia. Some other aspects of my identity that had never truly been challenged- pieces of my identity that I never really considered my “identity”- came into light as soon as I entered Pre-Service Training.

 

I’m white– that’s obvious; however, I have never realized how easy life is as a white person not only in the United States but also internationally. I get a lot less unwanted attention being white living in a homogenous community. The concept of white privilege was something I was learning to acknowledge during graduate school and while living in Chicago.

I’m male and I choose to express my gender in the way that society has deemed appropriate for me. I have short hair, but because I am losing more and more hair every day, I don’t think this counts. Male privilege is obvious here in Armenia, and my whole perception of gender roles has been shattered and challenged since living here.

I’m a native English speaker. I have learned the value of the English language. Being a born and raised American, it’s impossible to realize the international value of English until you have actually been abroad. In 2016, what success can you have without knowing and having access to the language in which most of the world’s information is released and published? In Armenia, a small country where most nationals find success internationally, it is apparent how much English is valued here [in larger communities]. I have had many opportunities to speak on the phone with someone’s niece, granddaughter, or daughter because someone wants to show off that someone in their family knows English.

I am an American, and as an American who had never been abroad before Peace Corps, it was really difficult appreciating my citizenship because I never had to…because I had never been abroad. I have had people from all over the world tell me I “am so lucky because I can travel so easily because I have an American passport”, but then I feel guilty because I didn’t even have a passport until I had to get one for Peace Corps.

The reason I am saying I am challenged with my identities- and these are only a few of the most apparent ones- is because I can’t necessarily say I am “proud” of them. Because of selfish people [AKA: white, American, English speaking, men] throughout history, I have to truly figure out who I am as a person and not principally from the facts that I am a white, American, English speaking man. I have seen and witnessed the oppression that these identities have created for so many other identities all over the world. And I know, I know- not every white, American, English speaking man is evil or has inflicted evil on other identities; however, I must acknowledge the role these identities play in the universe as a whole, and how they, too, influence my experience in this world.

I must find where I fit in. Like in Peace Corps, you must find your niche in this community- I am still trying to do that. Like in life, you must find your niche in this world- I am still trying to do that.

I don’t like the word “identity” because it is, by definition, stating that who I am must be certifiable.

I am proud to be the ambiguous me.