Monday, April 25, 2011

And so quiet becomes the day just as the night...

On and off for the past two months or so I have been without internet due to some of the financial hardships that all Peace Corps volunteers agree to endure. What it has come down to, for me is internet or heat?!? You see Peace Corps only pays a higher utility bill for its volunteers until February, though technically they would claim that they pay us the higher rate in March as well, but as common sense tells us money given at the beginning of March would pay for February Utilities and not March utilities… Anyways the point is we are still getting snow in Spitak on an off and it is the end of April, so obviously when our utility stipend goes from 20,000 to only 12,000 and there is still snow on the ground, sacrifices have to be made. So I chose to cut my internet.
Weeks without the internet were difficult but I listened to music and watched some movies and listened to ITUNES University lectures from Berkeley and UCLA about the history of ancient Rome and Israel. All in all the sacrifice was most likely more of a strain for my family than it was for me. However over a week ago when my computer broke down, and my IT friend told me I most likely crashed my hard drive, I think I finally became a real Peace Corps volunteer.
My whole world became books and social interactions. I could not even turn my computer on, and after two days, my Ipod died. My life became silent and pretty boring. All I had for entertainment was Sophie and my books. In three rainy days I quickly burned through three books! I took Sophie on long walks and played ball with her at the nearest thing Spitak has to a public park, a memorial statue. As I threw the ball and she fetched it, small crowds began to gather and watch us. Sophie, not being much of a people dog would immediately stop playing and come sit on my lap. People would try to encourage her to fetch again. They would take the ball themselves and throw it, and seeing that it had no effect would mostly walk off. Once alone again Sophie and I would continue our game of fetch. When Sophie would lose interest, I would take out a book and read as she would smell around and chase cats. My days all began to blend into one. I found myself not knowing what to do with myself.
That is when I realized I could work more. As it is I only stay late on Mondays and Thursdays for my clubs. Well out of boredom I decided that I would start a vocabulary word building club for my third graders. I asked the class if they would like to stay Wednesdays after class to play some fun games and practice their English words. They all agreed happily. So I have been spending my Wednesdays with my tiniest little English students. We play around the world, jeopardy, bingo, and many other made up games that have no words. I have also begun to teach them word families to help enrich their reading skills. As the bell rang after our very first club, I kid you not, the kids begged me to stay for one more hour!! They absolutely love their English club, and I have to say I actually love it too! The best part is that after the club the kids all wait for me so that they can walk with me home. They actually live in the opposite direction that I do, but for whatever reason they love walking me part of the way home. I have a feeling it is because it’s the only opportunity they get to speak Armenian with me. They ask me questions about my dog Sophie, America and my family, all in Armenian and only on our walks home, do I answer them in Armenian. Sometimes they giggle because I have a horrible accent, or I say something wrong, but most of the time we understand each other.
I have to say that not having a computer at times was really difficult, but it did force me to work a little harder which in turn showed me how much fun little kids are and reminded me how much I love teaching! It also gave me another opportunity to show Armenians how amazing animals can be. There wasn’t a person who walked by Sophie and I playing that didn’t stop to watch. Everywhere I go with her I hear how good she is and how people want a dog like her. I am happy to say that in the recent days I have seen on two separate occasions how Sophie has affected my community. One day as I was leaving school a group of boys were waiting outside the school gate, with them was a little dog wearing a collar made of leather and with a leather strap attached to it as a leash. They were taking their little dog for a walk!! This is not something that is common here at all, in fact I’m almost positive from all the attention I get, that I am the first person they have ever seen walking a dog around on a leash. A few days after that, as I was walking to school I saw a puppy with a collar on. He seemed to be following an old lady. I stopped to watch as the old lady walked across the street into the hanoot and held the door open for the dog to follow. I stood on the street amazed. After she made her purchases as she was walking out of the store the dog jumped up on to her. I cringed a little expecting to see the dog get kicked, as that is the usual response for this kind of behavior, but instead I saw the little woman bend over and cup the puppies little face. She then reached into her pocket and pulled out a little piece of bread for the pup and they continued on walking home… I don’t know how to express to you how unusual this behavior is for this area. Usually tatiks scold me for petting dogs, as they are seen as dirty. Even when they know Sophie is clean, they tell me I shouldn’t pick her up or I will get sick. While everyone in Spitak treats Sophie with great care and respect, I have never seen them be kind to other dogs, and I have defiantly never seen a situation where they treated their dog like a pet rather than a guard dog meant only to be chained up and bark if someone comes near…. So all in all this has helped me to see that even when I feel that I am not doing enough here in Spitak, the way I live my life does have an impact here. Sometimes it’s very annoying to be watched all the time, and for people to know everything I do, but the other side of that is that sometimes people can learn things that they have not got the opportunity to learn living in such a confined culture. I’ve even had a few people ask me if I will breed Sophie because they want little Sophie puppies of their own!

Friday, April 15, 2011

For my Family

a good neighbor

As much as I try, I just haven’t been inspired to write about my trip to Istanbul. You would think that since I had the time of my life that I would have so many stories to share, but I the thing is every time I try I end up erasing it all because I feel it is inadequate. The truth is I could never do justice to the trip with my words. The experience was one of the best of my life and only Ashley and Darren can fully understand everything that we experienced. So I’ll just move on.
Life for the past few weeks in Spitak has been exceptionally quiet. Imagine how your life would be without any sounds… not even electrical hums from a tv or computer. I have had no internet this month and have used my computer very little. Back home the sound of stillness would drive me nuts! If ever I was home alone I would turn on the tv, even while I read, just to hear sound. Here there is nothing but the sound of Sophie’s epic battle with her favorite stuffed bear.
So imagine how startled I was the other day when I heard a knock on my door while I was taking a bath. I tried to ignore the knock, but after a few minutes of it not going away I got dressed and took a look through the peep hole. Outside a neighbor who I have never talked to was waiting for me. I opened the door, honestly wishing she would go away. Armenian neighbors like to find something to complain about, and trust me there is always something they can find. I once got a complaint because I hung my laundry at the same time as the neighbor below me. She complained that my cloths dripped onto hers… well what was I suppose to do? Apparently if I had done my laundry the correct way there would be no water dripping… anyways the point is I am not an Armenian and am not use to people knocking on my door at all hours and coming into my house whenever they would like, so I was not very happy to see her.
When I opened the door she asked me if I understand all Armenian, I told her no I don’t understand very much. She went on as if I said I was 100 percent fluent. She told me that she had a friend that lived in a building in Spitak that would like to meet me. The friend wants me to come over to her house because she has a daughter that studies in Michigan and American families are always so kind to her daughter so she would like to repay that kindness. I told her that would be fine. She just stood there as if waiting for something. Now? I asked her. Yes now she said. As it was 8 pm and I was already in my pjs I explained to her that I was busy and had things to do. So she grabbed me by the hand and took me into her house. Armenian women can be very very pushy.
Once at her house she called the women on the phone. Speaking Armenian on the phone is the most difficult because you cannot rely on hand gestures, but I gave it my best anyways. The lady asked me over for dinner the following day. I agreed and went back to my house as my neighbor called after me telling me that I am alone too often and should come to her house when I was home alone. It is not good to be alone, she told me. I told her I really like to be alone but that I would come over sometime. Armenians have no concept of how nice it is to be alone. In fact the number one complaint I hear about Americans is that they go home after work and lock their doors. Neighbors don’t come over for coffee and they don’t eat dinner with anyone. How can you eat alone they ask me.
So today as I was walking home from school I was thinking about my dinner date with dread. I mean being a Peace Corps volunteer is the most awkward experience ever, so I am use to it in a way, but imagine how weird it would be if someone you didn’t know called you to have dinner at their house for no reason. It’s a strange experience. As I was lost in my thoughts I heard someone call out my name. I looked but did not see anyone I recognized. I kept walking. Again I heard my name and this time I saw a woman who I had never met. In a way it’s not unusual for people I have never to know my name, but it is unusual for them to call out to me. Often people I’ve never met will call out Sophie’s name, because everyone in Spitak knows my dog, but most only know me as the American.
The lady ran over to me and explained that she was the lady I had talked to on the phone the other day. She had just come from the store where she had bought stuff to make pizza and chicken for dinner tonight. She showed me her house and told me to come back at five. So much for calling and canceling. This meant that I would have to go.
So at five I showed up at the building that she had pointed out to me. As I approached I looked up and saw a bunch of women standing on a balcony staring at me. I walked up the stairs to her floor and just about every neighbor was standing at the top waiting to meet me. I guess they all wanted to see the American. One asked me where my Sophie was… it’s a very strange feeling to know that everyone knows everything about you. I guess people in my Long Beach neighborhood knew Lucca’s name, but that was mostly kids and I did walk Lucca on the same path for three times a day for three years. But this is different. My hostess brought me into her house and welcomed me in English. She apologized for not having a better grasp on the English language. She took my coat and brought me into a living room where she told me about her two daughters who both speak perfect English and who always chide her for not speaking it. Her youngest daughter lives in America where she is a student and will most likely never return to Armenia to live. The oldest daughter lives in Yerevan at the moment but in September will move to Texas to work. The she set a huge table of food as if all her neighbors were coming to eat, but it was only the two of us. I haven’t ate like that since New Years! All in all the food was great and it was actually nice to have a little bit of company. I really have become a hermit up here in Spitak, and I actually like it, but it is nice to have dinner at peoples house from time to time!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

12 camels and the magic begins!

Day two in Istanbul is where I believe the magic began! My day started at 4:30 am when the call to prayer was sounded. Not being able to get back to sleep I got ready for an early day. By 7 am we were out and ready to see the sights! But not before a Starbucks run. The addiction was back in my blood that quickly! After having Carmel Macchiatos we headed to the Haggia Sofia. Along the way we stopped and bought beautiful scarves for about ten dollars each, which we thought was a steal until we later saw them for about five dollars! Eeeya.
As we walked we ran into all kinds of things we didn’t even expect to find. There was a beautiful green and gold dome that was just sitting in the middle of a construction site. I still don’t really know anything about it other than its inscription said it was the fountain of Wilhelm. As we continued along to the Haggia Sofia, I was surprised by the lack of people at the museum. We walked all around the building taking in the beauty of the exterior when we noticed the gates were locked. A Turkish man saw us in our confusion and came over to explain to us that the Ayasofya was closed on Mondays. A quick note: when the Sofia was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian it was named the Haggia Sofia, meaning Holy Wisdom. In the 15th century Sultan Mehmet laid siege on the church and took it over. He converted it into a mosque and renamed it Aya Sofia. I still choose to call it Haggia Sofia because that is the Christian name that it was given and also that is the name it bore when it was the most beautiful cathedral in the world.
So not able to see the Sofia we walked away and thought of new plans for the day. As we were standing on the sidewalk discussing our plans another Turkish man approaches us. Are you from Canada he asks us. We quickly tell him that no we are Americans, and he then asks Darren if he is a Mormon missionary. We laugh. He explains to us that he loves Americans and loves to practice his speaking skills with them. He asks us what our plans are and we tell him we are not sure. He then tells us to follow him and he will show us where the Basilica Cistern is. We agree and as we follow the man begins speaking about some shop he owns that is on the other side of the cistern. (This should have been a warning sign right?!) He tells us we must see the cistern and that when we are done we can meet him at his shop. We thank him for showing us the directions thinking we probably will never see him again.
As we walked underground to enter the Cistern our eyes have to adjust to the darkness. The Cistern was built in the 6th century for water filtration. It’s another one of Emperor Justinian’s beauties. When you enter you are amazed by the enormity of the columns and the cascading lights that give off an orange glow. I was so humbled to stand in a place that was built centuries before I was born. I am certain that it is the most ancient place I have ever been to.
As we excited the Basilica Cistern the Turkish man who had showed us where to go was waiting at the door for us. He explained that he didn’t want us to get lost on the way to his shop and he invited us to follow him for some Turkish tea. As we were following him Darren said something to me about this not being a good idea because he will try to sell us something. At the time I didn’t really see the harm in it because I had absolutely no interest in buying Turkish Carpets, or any carpet for that matter.
When we arrived at the shop we were seated at a coffee table and hot apple tea was brought to us. The tea was served in strange tiny tornado glasses, not tea cups. Usually I am not a fan of fruity tea but I have to say Turkish apple tea is fantastic!! One of my biggest regrets is that I did not buy any to take back to Armenia with me. While we drank tea we asked our new friend all of our questions about Turkey and its culture. To be honest it was actually really good conversation. I began to consider Amar our new friend. Then men began to bring carpets out, only for us to look at they said. So we looked and when asked for our opinions we told him the ones we liked. Then he would order more of the kinds we liked to be brought out. He left them to just stare at us as he ordered the traditional Turkish tea to be brought to us. He asked us questions about our life, what we do, where we live, why we are visiting, the normal questions you ask people when you meet. Soon the same tiny tornado class filled with traditional Turkish tea was brought out to us. As we sipped on our tea he asked the one question that always throws me off, even though by now I should be used to it. Are you single? Darren explains that he has a girlfriend and then he turns to look at me. I know looking back that the easiest thing to do is lie and say no, but for whatever reason I have never been able to lie on my feet like that. So instead I just laughed and told him I am single. Of course this means he immediately singles in on me. I don’t think I have ever heard more ridiculous lines than I heard in Turkey.
“Yeah I can feel that. That is why I am drawn to you. I like everything about you. The way you walk, your sweet voice and your hunting boots. Do you hunt?” All three of us erupt with laughter. “Do I hunt? No never” and we keep laughing. He continues on about how he likes American girls, the whole time smiling at me, super creepy! Then “How many camels would you sell your friend to me for?” Ashley without even missing a beat “Oh I don’t know, maybe 12” 12 CAMELS! My best friend in the world is willing to sell me for 12 camels!!! They make a deal and it is done, I am sold for a measly 12 camels!
As we finish our tea our friend begins to pitch his sales to us. He makes us come touch the carpets and tells us about how well they are made and what kind of discount he could give us. He tells us the carpets make for a great dowry and of course we all laugh hysterically! After about two hours of chatting with him we begin to feel bad that we have no money to buy a carpet. We begin to think of him as a friend who’s been so hospitable toward us. So when all is said and done we each bought a carpet and ash and I were also give two free pillow cases because I asked for them. Our new friend demanded that we stay for one more Turkish treat and Turkish coffee was brought out. We drank our coffee and made dinner plans with our new friend. He promised to take us to the best seafood restaurant in all of Istanbul.
After we said our goodbyes we headed back to the hostel to leave our bags. As we were walking we began to notice that all of a sudden we were targets for every sales man in all of Istanbul. “Excuse me, excuse me, yes we have carpets” they shouted at us from every shop we passed. All of a sudden it became obvious to us that they were targeting us because we were carrying carpet bags which means we are pretty much suckers! We quickly decide to go back to the hostel to drop the bags off but before we do Darren stops at a shop to buy water. The shop is like a target of Istanbul, it has everything in it and for cheap. It also has the carpets we just bought at a way cheaper price!! Albeit they were not the same exact carpets but they were very very similar. We were completely suckered!! Sufficed to say, we never made it back to that shop for our dinner date. We just weren’t up for being the biggest suckers in all of Istanbul.
Feeling a little bit angry and pretty stupid, we made our way to the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque is absolutely stunning from the outside.. It was exactly what we needed after the day we had. Ash and I covered our heads and we all took off our shoes and entered the visitors entrance. We then walked into the building and fell silent. Great beauty in the world has a way of making you speechless and pensive. We took a few pictures of the tiled and golden interior and then we just sat and let the peace of the place fall over us and calm our souls. I think we ended up staying for almost an hour, just sitting and watching silently.
After we left the Blue Mosque enchanted, we made our way to the Galata tower where we took an elevator up to the height of the tower which overlooked the city. Istanbul is truly a beautiful place, and we are truly blessed to have the experience that we had. I think we all went home that night with the same thought in our minds… Istanbul is magical.
I do have to say, even though we were ripped off, I wouldn’t take back a minute of my time at Amars shop. We had such a great cultural exchange and were introduced to such an important Turkish custom, tea time. All in all it was a great time, besides, how many people can say their best friend sold them for 12 camels?! Oh and there is the fact that I now have a lovely dowry!