Thursday, October 25, 2012

Don't it always go that you don't know what you got until it's gone?

I have been back here in California for almost 2 months now. For almost two months I have been basking in the beautiful California sun, eating French fries, sushi, tacos, shrimp, chocolate chip cookies and even cereal. Drinking oversized mugs of coffee with cream, and of course indulging in everything PUMPKIN! Pumpkin beer, pumpkin lattes, pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie. California’s attempt at Fall is a heavy dose of taste bud nostalgia. We can’t produce the season, but we sure can produce the taste of the season!!
I have spent my days hiking, going to dog parks, visiting friends, and catching up on American Culture, i.e. watching TV. And most importantly I have been researching, and applying for jobs. JOBS JOBS JOBS. I had no idea what I was in for coming back to this job market!!
As I find a way to fit back into my old culture, learning to give people personal space, say hello to strangers and make small talk, I find a strange feeling inside me that is hard to place and even more difficult to understand. This morning as I poured myself a heaping portion of coffee, I found myself wishing for my jazzve and tiny little Armenian bajak filled with a tiny portion of strong Armenian coffee, grinds and all. How is it that this feeling is so difficult to distinguish back here, when for 29 months I felt that exact same bellyache very acutely in Armenia?
Dare I say it? I am in fact feeling a little homesick. Never once while I was living in Armenia did I consider Spitak my home. It wasn’t the place where I had grown up, it wasn’t the place where my family lives nor was it even a place where I fit in. It was simply a little community that I loved and hated in equal measure. Most of my mornings I awoke not to my alarm, but to a power outage that left me heater less in a freezing cold bedroom. I would wrap my sleeping bag around me, trying to keep any of the remaining heat insulated and make a dash for my freezing cold kitchen to put on a small pot of water with a table spoon of coffee. The whole time degrading stupid Armenian coffee and wishing for a French press, grinder and “normal” coffee beans… As I sipped the bitter, overly sweetened coffee I thought of how much I took things for granted back home. I thought to myself, when I am back home I will cherish everything. And those were the mornings that I had running water!
It’s amazing how much a cup of coffee has come to mean to me. The way it is prepared, the way it tastes and even the cup that it is served in, signify so much. As I sit here and sip on my watered down, automatic fresh from a coffee pot java, I can’t help but to think back on the past two years of my life. I can’t fight the nostalgia that spreads over me; the desire to return that is creeping its way into my heart and taking root. I am not saying that I don’t cherish the bold Latin American infused coffee that is currently sitting in my mug. The fact is I have developed a stronger, more discerning taste for it. However, as much as I appreciate it, every time I take a sip I am jolted out of my surroundings, and my mind drifts back to this home that I used to know and I can’t help but to wish for a trade. This faraway place that more and more is beginning to seem like a dream that I once had long ago. A place where life was at the same time more difficult and simpler. And I miss it. For all the good and the bad, the tears and the laughter I simply miss my other home or my other cup of coffee if you’d have it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Vay Shoonik Jans!!

Looking through my photos I have an overwhelming amount of photos of Armenian stray dogs... I told myself coming into Armenia that I would not get attached to dogs in this country. I knew they were treated horribly, I knew there wasn't much I could do about so why should I get my heart broken? I can remember the first time it happened. I was sitting outside in the tiny village of Alapars with my language class. A small black dog with big sad brown eyes who we named shoonik was sitting nearby, not quite ready to be our best friend but curious enough to follow us and let us give the occasional pat on the head. All of a sudden I hear a group of boys approach the dog. I look up as one boy (the dogs owner) begins screaming at the dog and gives him three swift kicks. I immediately begin to cry and yell at the boy in English, as I didn't speak any Armenian at the time. My language teachers explained that it was just that way here. My heart was broken, soon I became best friends with the dog and haven't turned my back on a single best friend since... And there have been many. I feed them when I can, but mostly I pet them and love them and teach them that not all humans are jerks... so here are a few pictures of my best friends in Armenia and a short story about each of them, because  believe it or not I remember every single one of them! My fiance likes to tease me because I even give names to the dogs in Spitak, when we are driving around he likes to point out random dogs and ask me their names. Sometimes I think the best job I did here was to teach people animal awareness. To teach them that dogs are our friends and that they don't have to be so afraid of them. It's amazing what a difference Sophie has made in Spitak, and how many people know her, love her, give her treats and pet her.

This was spence, he was a dirty, happy little dog my PST mates and I met on a hike. He was such a happy dog, the first I had ever seen in Armenia, but also very dirty!
This dog has no name, I only saw her once on that same hike I went on with my friends from pst, but she is just so sweet looking!
This was little ruben, I met him at our local Alapars hanoot. We all fell in love with him and taught him how shake!!
This was my grumpy little sasha. He had an Armenian name too but I couldn't say it. He was a heard dog that I saw every morning on my way to school. He would chase his family's cow out to the field in the morning and then come back and sleep on the path waiting for the cow to come back home. He is the only dog that ever bit me in Armenia, but it wasn't his fault. Another volunteer who he didn't have a relationship with came up to him while he was loving on me and he got scared. It took me a looooong time to win this little guy's heart
This is Shoonik, my first Armenian puppy love. This dog followed me everywhere and would wait on my host family's front porch for me in the mornings to walk me to school. I loved this little guy and so did all the other Alapars volunteers! 
This is Jack, who I have blogged about before. My Papik brought him home for me one day because he thought I was lonely. I spent the better part of a day de-fleaing him
This is little manook (baby). She was another pup that my papik brought me. We had her for 2 months and she never grew. Then one day she died and I went to school crying my eyes out! 
This dog I refused to give a name because I knew if I did I would keep her. As you can see she is already inside my house in this picture, which has been a rule for me never to do here in Spitak. Someone left this lil gal on my front door one night. Luckily I found her a home! The first of 3 dogs to be left on my doorstep while I have been here
This is Tigo or Lion or beast!! He is the biggest dog I have seen here in Armenia but also the happiest, dumbest, sweetest guy ever. Me and Sophie met him on a walk and he decided to make friends with us and follow us around. When I would go into the city center some people would run away screaming, but others already knew and loved him!! Then one day I took this picture and tigo ran away. Later he came back and I took another picture and that is when I figured out the click of the camera scared him and I never saw him again =(
These are the puppies that first broke my heart. I saved one from a well where he was trapped only to find all of them frozen to death the next week 

This is my Sophie jan!! My students had heard how upset I was when manook died so they got me Sophie as a present! Look how tiny she was!! 

This is Rasta. He was a really cool Yerevan dog that hung around our favorite resturant. Me and Ash always saw him and gave him food. He had curly dreads and liked to hump legs! 
My little monster all grown up! 

This is Soph on a mini bus!! I have never really had a problem with her on a bus until just a few weeks ago. On this ride to Yerevan we couldn't get the window seat so she sat by this guy! He loved it until she threw up on his leg!! Even then he was pretty good about it

This is Boris, me and Sophie's favorite dog! He was around last summer and would wait for us every morning so he could come running with us. And he would wait for us every evening when we would come sit out side and read. He never left my side if I was out and about. Eventually my neighbors even started to like him and sometimes would throw bread to him, calling him Boris. I remember once hearing a little girl explaining to her mom "don't be afraid mom, that's Boris, he is Sophie's friend. He doesn't bite" I'd like to believe Boris is in Doggie Heaven now as one day he was the victim of a Spitak dog killing. He along with a number of other dogs was round up and shot... The cool thing is a few months later another dog that looked just like him but female began to come around, Lady. She was just like Boris and was so protective of me. I like to think she was his daughter. Sadly she is now gone too... 

Monday, August 6, 2012

And so it ends

I did it! I finished my 2 years and 3 months service in the Peace Corps!!! It was a pretty unremarkable event. Basically I went to the Peace Corps office in Yerevan and signed a bunch of different papers and that was it. It was actually very disappointing but anyways it’s all over now. It’s such a strange feeling to be in Armenia and not be a Peace Corps volunteer now. I think most of my time here I have been a pretty independent person, in fact when I went into the office on my final day so many people remarked that they hadn’t seen me since I swore in and there were even a few staff members I had never met!! I felt it was really important to stay in Spitak and not get sucked into the city life. The funny thing is I did that in order to better integrate so that I could serve my community better, and yet I feel that only recently have I really even started to make a dent into integration, and so it seems now I am actually a spitakcian and not just a strange volunteer who is living in the community but really apart from the community.
The sad thing is that soon I will have to say goodbye to that and return home. I can’t even begin to express how sad that makes me or I will spend the night crying my eyes out. So instead I choose to laugh at the adventure that I have had. I want to go back in time and share some of the best moments that I have had here, and where better to start than with my first day in Armenia! Lately I keep thinking back to my first day in country and how I came here with a dislocated jaw!!  You can read about it here: HERE
My first impression of Armenia was a cold, dirty soviet hospital with a Russian speaking doctor who smoked as he examined my face and yelled at me if when I winced in pain… I remember a  russian sounding Peace Corps doctor talking to the other Russian doctor and being very confused as to what country I was in. Sinks were water stained and rusted and the water in the hospital was leaking. The whole place smelled like urine and I remember thinking what on earth have I gotten myself into.Then I remember finally being able to get in a taxi to go meet up with my fellow PCV's at the hotel we were all staying at. The doctor shut the taxi door on me and I was alone with this taxi driver who didn't speak a word of English. Twice on the drive up to the hotel we had to stop for the cows to cross the road. I was so amazed by the greenery and the simplistic idea of it all. I remember being so glad to be back among English speakers, but also so embarrassed that I wanted to hide my swollen, wrapped up face in my room.  Here is what I think is a previously un-shared photo because let’s face it, it’s really ugly! But now I see it as a badge of honor and accomplishment. I made it!! Even after this:

Monday, July 30, 2012

Hello!! Goodbye!

If describing one’s life were as easy as making a colorful cardboard collage, I would post a bright blue, green and pink hodgepodge of magazine cutouts of people I don’t even know to express to you how I am feeling right now. Unfortunately those things are best left as classroom projects and the only adjective I have that is really coming close for me, is overwhelmed! I have three days left of my Peace Corps service. 3 DAYS!! Yet I will not be leaving Armenia for some time as I will be traveling with Sophie Jan and I fear the August heat will be very bad for her health, so there is a part of me that doesn’t really even feel as if my service is about to be over.
In fact just the other day I was walking around Spitak and I thought hey I have a great idea for a new project for the young women’s group. We can host an art exhibit at the cultural center in Spitak that seeks to define who Spitak women really are. We can give cameras to our girls and have them capture Spitak women in all different positions in society and also we can ask the schools to participate in an art contest simultaneously submitting paintings of the strongest woman they know… I kept building and building on this idea in my head and thought how great it would be for the group but also for the town to walk around and see these powerful images of the growing role for women today. Then it hit me, I won’t be here for the next Woman’s day. In fact, I have only a few days left, not even enough time to try to throw in this project at the last minute.
Yet I continue to think of my life here in Spitak, not able to even imagine coming home to the US. It has been so long since I have lived in my own country, a fast paced, ever changing country that the truth is I am absolutely terrified to come back. America is no Armenia, in America things change, quite rapidly at that. I could leave Spitak and come back after two years to the same town, the same neighbors, the same school children shouting my name and feel welcomed. But the US is different. There is no place in society open and waiting for me, everything will have to start over. I can’t just fit back into my old life. My apartment is inhabited by strangers, my family home has been sold off, my trusty Nissan has been sold and my last position was filled a month after I left it.  Life in America as I knew it is gone forever, and if I try to grasp on to that old life I will inevitably fail.
All of this is not to say that I have delusions of staying in Spitak forever. In fact lately I have days here where would if I could, I’d hop on the next plane and just leave here forever. After two years and three months here, I have learned that no matter what I could never really be a spitaksian. If Peace Corps volunteers were scored on how they integrated into their community I believe I would really be at the top of that list. I have worked really hard to stay inside my community and live as an Armenian. Unlike many of my fellow PCV’s , I refuse to travel to the capital every weekend for my fix of ex pats, cheeseburgers and freedom. I make a labored effort to stay in Spitak and be seen in Spitak.  I have never wanted to be the American that blows in and out of town on a whim, because there isn’t a single Armenian here that could afford to do that. So I stay, and I play with the neighborhood children, clean things and shop the vegetable khanoots trying to find the best cucumbers in town. Yet, as much as people here may be used to seeing me, they will also be looking at me as an outsider, a stranger who is in fact very strange to them. Hard as I may try I will never wear the right shoes (I can’t live without flip flops) nor can I force myself to share their gender biases. There is a large part of me that will always be fighting against their culture and clinging onto my own.
I have loved being a teacher and a mentor here. I have loved the relationships that I have made with my students and some of the neighborhood girls who feel they can confide in me their problems. I love the peace I feel in Armenia, always knowing that there are no time limits, and no one is pushing deadlines on me. I have loved being able to dream of a project, plan it and make it happen all according to my whims and even when those projects have failed, it has only meant a lesson learned in life, not a life changing tragedy. I have loved short days of work and long days of eating bbq and laughing with a number of extended family members that I have made here. And I have even loved the hard work that comes with washing my clothes by hand, scrubbing my floors with bleach on hands and knees or cooking a meal with no short cuts. Believe it or not saying goodbye to all of this makes my heart hurt, more than coming back to America brings me fear. It has been such a difficult journey and there have been times that I have hated my town, my neighbors, the gossip and the judgment, but this Peace Corps life I have lived has truly changed me and it is so hard to say goodbye to it. I have one month left before I come home. I hope to travel to Georgia for some time and relax at the black sea, but mostly I hope just to spend time with everyone I care about here and say goodbye the Armenian way, one tiny cup of coffee at a time….

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

You know that you have been in PC Armenia for too long when...

So lately I have been feeling that it is my time to say goodbye to Armenia. I can just about hear my mom and dad's sigh of relief right now... It's not that I don't love Armenia, I do, it's just that I love my country too and I understand my culture better and I have come to a point here where I have realized that I can't magically fix things which makes a person feel a bit jaded. Good thing that I only have 17 days left of my service. I think people don't realize that most Peace Corps volunteers are not in PC for a cool vacation, (trust me after my first 3 months, nothing felt like a vacation anymore) but most of us really believe that we will be helping the community that we live in. For the last three months I have been in the position to evaluate my service, and the number one question that tugs at my heart is, did I really help anyone?? I know that I have influenced people, heck just the other day I was running at the park with Sophie when I saw a 9 year old boy running around the lake with a little white dog on a leash. I caught up to him and he told me that he got his dog after he saw me with sophie one day a year ago. So I do know that my way of living has influenced people, but what really matters to me is that I was helpful and that is more difficult to answer. It may take years before I can see if I had an effect on my students lives, if the young women's group that I started will continue on and finally move into a stage where real issues are discussed. I did the best I could do as a teacher and I am proud of my work as a teacher, but I can't help but to think of my time here and to feel as if there was more I could have done if only I had been braver.

So anyways as I have been talking to my mom in these past few months she has pointed out to me the numerous strange things I say or do now that I have been here for so long. This has got me thinking about all the indicators that it is indeed time for me to return home. So I made a silly list, that I hope will make you laugh. This is meant as a joke, though most of the things are true, I say them with a smile on my face and in my heart because I do love and respect Armenian people very much...

You know you’ve been in Armenia  too long when…

You can’t remember what the most important meal of the day is, all you know is that no matter what time of day it is Bread is the most important part of the meal
You can’t wait to eat last night’s dinner for breakfast in the morning
The minute you feel a cold/fever/sneeze/ anything irregular whatsoever you reach for the yogurt
Worm in your Apricot? Pick it out, keep on eating
A midnight snack is more like a midnight smorgasbord!! Tea, compote, cake, fruit, candy, honey and of course bread!!! 
You have forgotten all the old rules about eating after 6 pm, in fact two of your most important meals of the day come after that time, dinner and supper 
You can drink vodka almost as though it were water and in fact sometimes throw some in your water just for good measure 
Hot dogs have become sausages and can be added to just about anything… hot dogs and scrambled eggs, yummmo… hot dog pizza, why of course! 
Privacy, what’s that? My neighbor’s door is unlocked so of course she wants to me to walk in and have a cup of coffee with her
Drinking coffee 4 times a day is nothing! In fact let’s have a cup before bed!
You now recognize that we are going on a “small Excursion” is slang for we will kidnap you for a minimum of ten hours
Anyone not from your village or town is an “outsider” and it’s required that you stare at them intensely in efforts to gather information about them that you will later share with your neighbors
Upon seeing this outsider it is not uncommon for you to ask very loudly “who is that” forgetting that the said outsider may understand English and would consider it very rude for you to stare at him and ask who he is
You learn this so called “outsider” is a European or another American; you are equally excited to see them as you are annoyed that they are in your town.  
You hear water turn on you jump up and immediately begin washing things. Who knows how long it will stay on, and you have been deceived by its promises of longevity far too many times
You see something gold and shiny and think, yeah that really is nice
In fact “nice” has become the most prominent word in your vocabulary. Pretty girls are nice, things taste nice, weather is nice… it’s a one size fits all kind of word
You have learned all the grammatical rules of English and yet have somehow managed to speak English as a foreigner does. You often leave out articles, deciding that they are unnecessary for comprehension 
You have forgotten the words good and delicious, everything is tasty or not so tasty. 
You make weird sounds in conversation to express agreement, annoyance, surprise or just comprehension. In fact you are not really sure if you can actually speak Armenian, or you have just learned to imitate sounds. 
You can’t help but to wonder if that tickle in the back of your throat is due to the fact that last week you went outside without your socks.
You get into a random taxi from the street and without you saying a word he takes you to your house. In fact, you are not even sure if that taxi driver was from your town, still not strange. 
At one time you had a bus schedule for your town memorized, but now you can’t remember what the official times are, you just go when you feel like it
Standing in a van full of people for a 45 minute drive is nothing unusual 
You no longer reach for a seatbelt that is never there 
You don’t think it’s strange for people to watch you do mundane things. Getting a haircut is not a spectator sport? Could have fooled me 
You no longer try to create lines out of chaos. You need to pay your bills? Squeeze in front of the twenty other people standing in a crowd at the teller, then make yourself as big as possible by holding your elbows out, and throw money at the teller. Don’t make eye contact with anyone, and don’t show weakness. 
You’ve jumped onto a crowded bus and without even thinking hand your purse over to a stranger so you can grab onto the back of someone’s chair
A mother enters a crowded marshutka and there are no seats. You offer her yours, but she refuses and instead plops a baby onto your lap. You tell the baby that you want to eat it and smile as if this is the most normal thing in the world, and in some way it really is...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Second Year Memories

I've made it!! I have survived 2 whole years of the Peace Corps and I have this video to prove it!!! Here is a look at my second year in the Peace Corps!! In two months from now it will all be over and in three months from now I will be back in beautiful California appreciating all of the freedoms and luxaries that come with being an American, and man will I be grateful but I will always carry this experience with me, remembering how difficult it is to live in a developing world.