Saturday, January 28, 2012

Societal Values

I am trying to be better at blogging seeing that I have only about 7 months left in country but sometimes it is a bit difficult as I can't always say what is on my mind. Peace Corps volunteers have a duty to be diplomatic. We live in our Host countries as a guest and so it’s best not to tear the culture apart. Obviously from time to time I have posted about things in particular that have bugged me, but they are always things that have occurred to me personally. I try not to make unfair judgments against Armenia and her people. However since I have begun a women's group in Spitak, issues constantly come up concerning Armenian's cultural perception of women that just break my heart for the women here. One of the biggest issues we’ve tackled in the group was domestic violence which is a common problem here. Since I have been in Armenia, I have dated a few Armenian men, and nothing has taught me more about Armenian culture than having these intimate relationships where nothing was out of bounds, conversation wise and where guards were let down. Most of the time here I am treated as an outsider would be treated, like a guest but not as an Armenian sister. If I ask about sensitive topics they are often denied and pushed under a rug, or admitted to, but with a clause that those sorts of things never happen in ______ (insert wherever I am at the moment). A common excuse is that bad things only happen in small villages, or where there are crazy people. So it can be very difficult to understand what really happens here. Having a boyfriend here changed things a bit though. Not only was I was able to talk to him about things that happened in our town, cultural values and his own views toward women, but I experienced what other Armenian women experience and learned exactly what a typical Armenian man wants from a woman. From my interactions with him I learned more about Armenian culture in 6 months than I had the previous year of my service. First of all it is important to state that I loved this man and still do, but our cultures are just too vastly different for us to ever have made it last long term. One of the very first arguments we had after becoming a couple had to do with me having male friends. He didn’t like that I had friends that were men at all. If I had to go to a Peace Corps event and stay somewhere that men would be, he didn’t really like it. I had to explain constantly that in my culture men and women are friends and nothing more and its ok. Finally he agreed to drop it, mostly because he could see that he didn’t really have any other options. Another argument we would get into concerned the way he talked to me. We obviously had more than our share of misunderstandings and miscommunications, as we both speak different languages and only speak a minimal level of the other’s language, but one thing that constantly bugged me was him telling me to do stuff. If he wanted a glass of water he would tell me to get him one. Now I have seen just about every other Armenian man here do that, so I don’t know why it surprised me so much, but it’s not me just to do what I am told. I constantly explained to him that if he wants something he should say please. He would constantly explain to me that if he is my boyfriend, we know each other and shouldn’t have to talk to each other as though we are strangers. Still to this day we have this argument, and I don’t see that it would ever be resolved. Along the same lines, he would become infuriated and offended whenever I thanked him for something. I have been sick more times than I can count since I have lived here and often times he would come over to take care of me, to make me tea or to bring me groceries or just to sit and keep me company while I was confined to my bed. Each time I would tell him how thankful I am and each time it was met with a look of indignation. Finally one day he told me that I shouldn’t tell him thank you; that he does what a friend would do and people shouldn’t be thanked for doing something for their friends. As an American, this was hard for me to swallow, I mean I come from a culture where we sell thank you cards, and now I am not suppose to say thank you to someone who has delivered groceries to my house and sat with me while I slept after working a 12 hour day… it was a very frustrating process. The most difficult thing though was living up to the expectations that he had of me. He expected me to want the same things as he did, but people from different cultures grow up wanting different things. He expected me to want to stay home if he couldn’t go out, to always have my house perfectly cleaned and to live dependent on him, something that is impossible for me. I mean you can’t take a girl that moved so far away from everything she knew and expect her to become dependent on a person, but it’s almost as if Armenian men don’t feel that they are men unless a woman is depending on them. From this relationship my respect for Armenian women and all they do for their husbands and families swelled, as I saw firsthand how much work taking care of an Armenian man is. Recently, the topic of relationships between Armenian men and women was brought up in my 11th grade class while I was teaching a lesson on stating opinions. Seeing that there were issues there to be discussed, I handed out papers with common opinions in Armenia about men and women. The papers had an opinion on them and the student had to tell me if he agreed or disagreed. The topics ranged from I only think skinny girls are beautiful and men with brown eyes are the most attractive, to men are more intelligent than women therefore a wife should do only as her husband tells her, and to a man has a right to hit his wife if she doesn’t keep the house cleaned. For the most part my students were more liberal in their answers and opinions. There was however a few topics that shocked me. The topic of a man beating his wife was hugely discussed in the sense of what rights he has. All the men in my class agreed that it was wrong for a man to beat his wife if she didn’t clean the house, but they said that if she cheated on him, the man has the right to kill her. I asked if they were serious and they were. I then asked if a man cheated should the woman have the right to kill him and they all said no. Also on the opinion, “a women should only care if a man provides food and shelter for her family and not if he has girlfriends on the side” the boys in class said that it isn’t right, but there were two girls in class who agreed with this. I was really surprised. It really told me a lot about what they feel that have to look forward to in marriage. I can honestly say this was the most interesting class I have had in all of my time in Armenia, and on this day I learned more from my students than I taught them. Anyways I think there is much to be said about the culture between men and women in this country but its best when described by an Armenian women herself. This blog is from my friend Vana, and she writes about situations in Armenia that only an Armenian woman has the passport into seeing first hand. I encourage you to read it because she shares so much more than I ever could and it’s such an interesting topic and gives a great insight into a kind of secret world of Armenian women… so click here

Monday, January 23, 2012

A life without...

The challenge should you choose to accept it: to live 2 weeks with only 3,000 dram. Ok now before you jump over to google and look up the currency exchange rate let me give you a few examples of how much things cost in Armenia. My rent for example is 25,000 dram. A bus ride to the city is 1,000 dram one way. A kilogram of apples is about 600 dram. A half kilo of cheese is about 1,500 dram. A small bottle of juice is about 600 dram. And chicken breasts are about 3,000 dram for 4. Internet is 10,000 dram. So now you should have an accurate understanding of the general costs of some of the necessities in Armenia so I can tell you that 3,000 dram equals roughly $7.75. Is it possible to live on such a small amount? Well the short answer to that question is absolutely not. But what does a Peace Corps Volunteer do when that is all the money they have to last them for 2 weeks? This mission was not a choice for me to choose to accept, this month I had to accept the mission because for the past two weeks that is all the money I have had to my name. Before you get so worried, it was an abnormal month for me, and Peace Corps does give us a decent amount of money to live on for the month, though arguably not enough to live very well on. In fact many of our senior citizens dip well into their pension money just to be able to live a comfortable life and eat the food that they want to eat, or use their heating as much as they want to use it. The major thing that Peace Corps doesn’t consider is that different places in Armenia cost different amounts to live. I for example happen to live in a very cold region, and it stays cold for months and months, whereas a friend of mine lives a half hour from Yerevan and has only in the past month needed to begin to use her heating system, whereas Spitak had snow in October. So obviously my heating bill is exponentially higher than her bill is. And when in March she has spring, it will still be a very cold winter in Spitak. Also things cost different amounts of money depending if you live in a town or a village, for example a taxi is three hundred dram anywhere you go in Spitak but in most villages it’s about 200 or even only 100. When I lived in a village I even paid less for grains and vegetables. There is also the fact that volunteers who live in a village often have their own home, which costs more for heating, but that home also usually comes with a garden or at least tons of neighbors who have gardens, so it amounts to free food. This simply isn’t the case in Spitak. This is why when you ask volunteers if they are given enough of a monthly stipend to survive some would say yes, and some would say no, and most would say they have used up some of their savings. Anyways, I digress. The fact is this month Sophie had her operation, which even though my brother and sister gave me money to cover the costs of it, (thanks Alyson and Scott) ended up costing me a lot of my monthly stipend. Sophie got an infection and ended up needing a lot of anti biotic shots, which at 5,000 dram a piece, cost me almost the same amount as the original operation. She also had to be given pain medicine when she got her stitches out which cost another 5,000 dram. Then there was the living in Yerevan for a week part of the costs. Its common sense that living in a city is a lot more expensive than living in a village, and Yerevan is no exception. When you are not at home you have to pay more money for food and transportation. Every day to get to the vet’s office I theoretically had to pay 600 dram each way, however twice I got ripped off and was made to give 1,500 dram or even worse 3,000 dram! Armenian taxi drivers are mostly jerks! They see that you are American or even Russian and they try to steal from you. At the end of the week I got so fed up with it that when a guy tried to charge me 2,000 dram to go about 3 kilometers I told him that I know the cost is only 200 dram per kilometer and when he argued I threw a five hundred dram piece and him and left. He began to scream after me but I was so fed up that I didn’t care. This however is not something I would recommend, usually you are better off negotiating a price before you even get into the cab, explaining to them that you know the fair, or even better taking a metered cab, but when you are travelling with an animal you have little choice in the matter. So it is best to just get ripped off with a smile on your face. So back to the question at hand, can you live for two weeks with only 7 dollars and .75 cents? The question was brought up one day a week ago while I was at school. Teachers, while not making a whole lot of money, love to spend every cent they make on cloths and makeup and things for their homes, just as Americans do. So a few times a month they bring in catalogs or sometimes even new cloths that someone has sent to them from America or Russia to sell. On this particular day I walked into the teacher’s lounge and saw sweaters and tights and dresses lined up on the sofa. Five or six women were picking at the cloths as chickens peck at their food, intensively inspecting each item for damage, asking how much it costs and then conversing about the item in whispers, careful not to offend the seller. My counterpart comes over to me. “Don’t you want to buy” she asks me. I laugh as I have never bought cloths from them because quite honestly I don’t have the money to buy them. “What’s the matter? Don’t you think they are lovely?” She asks again laughing. “Well, I have only 3,000 dram to last for the next two weeks” I tell her. She gasps, causing the others to look up from the cloths and ask her to translate. She explains to them that I only have 3,000 dram for two weeks, and they all begin to laugh. One says now you live like a true Armenian, while another is more honest and tells me that I will live off of bread only for two weeks and maybe by the end of the week I won’t even have enough for bread! The other tells me that I need to do as an Armenian does and buy now and pay later, though not being a Spitakian no store has ever allowed me to do that, though it is very common. Another teacher tells me it is simply not possible to do and that I must use other money. You see I am an American which to them means that I have money. They simply cannot believe that I have none. 3,000 dram they puff, not possible. So today is Monday and I have yet to make it till Thursday, payday. So far I have spent 340 drams on cabbage twice, last week and this week, so about 680. I bought milk for 360 dram. So 1040 drams. I had to buy toilet paper so I bought the littlest one I could at 280 dram as well as 10 eggs for 600 dram. That brought me to 1,920 dram. Where I have stayed until just a day ago I have a very strong craving for chocolate and bought a chocolate bar for 400 dram! I know, what was I thinking?!?!? 2, 320 drams I have spent in a week and a half and have 4 days to go with only 680 dram. Knowing that I had nothing this morning, I still managed to get out of the house late, meaning that I would have to take a taxi, which if you remember is three hundred drams. I began a frantic search through all of my bags to find loose change, but came up with nothing other than American quarters and dimes. Then I remembered a jar that I had stored away during the summer containing 10 dram pieces. 10 dram coins are the bane of Armenian money, they are like pennies in America. Yes by law you can use them as they are currency, but many times people will simply refuse to take them, and often, no make that all the time you will get major attitude for using them. I dug out the jar and counted out 300 drams worth. As I got into the cab, I felt so guilty, knowing that I was going to piss the driver off. Just waiting for that embarrassing moment where I would hand him a fist full of huge silver 10 dram coins. The whole 10 minute ride to my school, I felt my face burning red, hoping the driver wouldn’t talk to me, it would be much worse if he was friendly. I mean can you imagine paying for something in pennies? When we pulled up to my school, I apologized as I handed him a fist full of change. I waited for the scolding, eyebrows raised, a sweet smile on my face but instead I got a laugh and a problem chka. I was so relieved! So with four more days I have about 700 dram and a jar full of ten dram coins. I am pretty sure that as long as I don’t get a sudden unbearable craving for chocolate, or the need to go absolutely anywhere, I should be fine! So mission 3,000 dram in 2 weeks, not only accepted but dominated! This is of course my second winter here and I am well used to living off of nothing but cabbage, potatoes and eggs!! Could you do the same? Could you survive with say only 25 dollars for two weeks?? Or how about 50?? I challenge you to give it a try ;)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

It's a dogie dog world

The past two weeks of my life have been devoted entirely to my dog Sophie. You see Sophie is just over a year old now and has already been in heat once. Having a female dog in heat has to be just about the worst thing ever, especially during the summer when I had no other choice but to keep her locked inside all day. Luckily for me, I happened to meet a vet while celebrating a friend’s birthday a few months previously. Meeting him and talking to him about animal care in Armenia, the costs, the dangers and the stigma of having your dog fixed, eased my mind about getting the surgery for her done while we were here. I put it off for so long, not only because it is very expensive here but also because it is not such a common procedure. The cost is anywhere from 30 to 60,000 drams to fix a female dog which is obviously money Armenians just don’t have, especially not for a dog. Veterinary care in post soviet country is limited to say the least, justifiably so when health care is also limited. So early Saturday morning Sophie and I made our way down to the bus stop to catch our marshutka. I never bring Sophie to Yerevan with me, and the thought of her on the Marshutka makes me very nervous, but it had to be done. Luck was against me as the mini bus was full and most of the passengers were not too happy about having to share a ride with a dog! Once we arrived in Yerevan the vet told my taxi driver where to go, and when we arrived I was quite surprised to see we were at residential building and not an office. My friend instructed me to stay in the car as he took Sophie from me, my arms grasping on to her not wanting to let her go. Wait, I instructed him. I asked why I couldn’t go with him and wait for her to be done, and he told me that surgery was a very long one and that I must go. I was a little bit surprised and really quite frightened but I didn’t really know what to do, so I warned him that Sophie is not just my dog, she is my baby and to take good care of her. Leaving a dog with someone you don’t really know and have no credentials for is terrifying. It’s not as if I could look him up on yelp… I went to my friend Leslie’s house and slept a few hours, thinking that I would just take a nap and when I woke up I would be ready to go get Sophie. I thought the operation would take about 2 hours, three at most. Boy was I wrong. 5 hours later I began to panic a bit, wondering what could have gone wrong. After about 7 hours had elapsed I got a phone call telling me to come get my Sophie Jan. When I arrived at the vet’s house I was warmly greeted by his family, his mother, father and sister as well as their 5 dachshunds. Razmik introduced me to his father who he said was also a vet and specialized in anesthesiology. The father immediately came over to me with a huge smile on his face and a cigarette in hand. He told me my Sophie was a very good dog and escorted me into the living room where Sophie was laying on a table. As soon as she saw me she stood up and began to wag her tail again before she fell. She tried to jump off the table but was too drugged up. The poor thing looked awful. I looked around and thought to myself what the hell did I do to her. At the same time she was obviously high on narcotics and it was funny to watch her spacing out! She had an incision mark along the whole of her abdomen and was very weak. We sat for awhile as Sophie gained some strength and the Vet and his family talked to me and my friend who I brought along with me. The family told me how much the father Garik, loved my Sophie and how he just thought she was such a good dog. He told me how he asked her to sit in Armenian and Russian but that she didn’t understand but as soon as he asked her in English she sat right down. They also told me that when they called her Armenian pet names she didn’t respond so the sister came in and called her baby, to which she began to wag her tail! Then he told me a story I wish I never heard, he told me that as they were preparing to open Sophie up she lifted her head and looked at the doctors, scalpel in hand, and that they had to give her more medicine. My poor little puppy!!! The next day I was instructed to take Sophie back to receive some post-op care and a shot of antibiotics. This time I was on my own, not even the younger vet who spoke English was going to be able to be there. When she arrived at the vet’s house, the family was very happy to see her, everyone petting her and telling her what a good dog she is. We talked about how she had spent her night, how the surgery had gone the previous day and what I would need to do in the future for her. The whole time Garik was trying to get Sophie to come to him, but she wouldn’t. He explained to me that he had given her the narcotic shot and that it is a very painful shot, so she didn’t trust him anymore. He reminded me of a big kid, trying to get the puppy to love him. At one point he even made his wife bring a piece of meat so that he could feed it to her. Once she went to him he petted her and told her what a good dog she is, in the sweet coddling language that Armenian is. He then flipped her over on the table and began to treat her scar with peroxide and idodine. It was really difficult to watch as the mother held her head down and the daughter had a grip on her feet. She struggled but in the end realized she wasn’t strong enough to overtake them. The whole time the family spoke to Sophie, telling her it was ok, and that they wouldn’t hurt her. Not the cold, uncaring treatment I imagined they would give her. In the end the process took about an hour. We talked, paused for breaks during the examination, had coffee and fruit and the Doctor smoked, nothing extraordinary in Armenian business. At an American clinic the process would have taken ten minutes total. But this is Armenia, and Armenians are nothing if not hospitable and conversational. The next two days we repeated this process, each time was the same, good conversations, coffee and a little bit of veterinary care. At the end of each session the vet would call me a cab to take me back to the house that I was staying. Well on this last day, when we got to the cab, the driver refused to let Sophie in the car. It may surprise you to hear, but this never has happened to me before. The vet got very angry and yelled at the driver, telling him that he doesn’t ask if he has transported sick people in the car so why should others care if he has transported a dog a few blocks. He was very angry and when we went back upstairs he called to company to complain and told them that he has always used their service but would never use them again. It struck me how much this man loved animals as he began to rant about Armenians and their perception of animals, and how poorly they treat them. He told me that he and a friend of his go out every night for an hour and feed as many of the stray dogs as they can, and that he has even brought many home with him and found them a place to live. We began to talk about the stigma of having an animal spayed in Armenia and I explained to him that everyone in Spitak told me I was mean, for doing it. This got him into even more of a range and he made the same argument I have made many times, which is, is it better for me to allow her to have puppies that no one will care for and will starve to death and be gathered and shot out in the streets? There are a few things that impressed me about this experience. One was the availability that the Doctors made themselves to me. I had home phone numbers and personal cell phone numbers and was encouraged to call any time I was worried or had a question. Can you even imagine that in America?? Doctors would get so many phone calls from paranoid pet parents that it could never last very long. I mean I called the doctor the first night at 12 pm, of course he told me he would still be up at that time, so I knew it was ok. Also they treated me not as a paying customer, but as a friend. I felt like I was a friend and a guest in their home. We talked about many things, not just about Sophie. I also felt as though they loved my Sophie dog, they treated her as if she was absolutely their only priority, even when they had other patients and were running late. Yes, it was strange for this American to see a surgery performed in a house, and yes I did worry about sterility issues. Yes the equipment was old, and dated, and yes Sophie’s incision was 5 times as big as a dog would get in the USA, but I am living in Armenia now, and all those conditions are just part of life here. Doctors smoke while treating patients here, human or animal, and business moves slowly, not because they overbook as they do in America, but because they take the time to be personal. It was a very frightening experience for me, but Sophie is absolutely fine now even though she did get a slight infection which ended up costing me twice as much money. I am lucky to have had such great care here. Did I mention all of my interactions with the vet were 100 percent in Armenian!! At the end of these stressful weeks, I can look back at how far I have come, and the fact that I was able to take my dog to the vet and communicate everything about her history and her treatment and understand all of the vet’s instructions as well as in depth conversations about animal care in Armenia, and compare it to the care in the US. No my Armenian is not perfect, but I am doing the best I can, and for once it is enough.

Monday, January 16, 2012

New Year, Old things

Last year began with laughter, fire crackers, dancing, arms swaying in the air, Armenian style of course, a table lavishly covered in the best Armenian foods and good natured brother and sister teasing about who our tiny little puppy Sophie loved the most. New Years 2011 was a different kind of New Years for me, one I had never experienced before, an Armenian New Year. An appropriate beginning to the very uniquely Armenian life that I have lived the past year.
I spent the entirety of 2011 living in Armenia, something I never could have imagined myself doing before, life never tells us where it’s taking us! In the beginning of February 2011 I moved into my own Apartment in Spitak, and so began an interesting journey for me. A journey in which I learned to actually live in Spitak as a Spitakian and not as an American. I don’t mean to suggest that people don’t stare at me still, or that I 100 percent fit in. I merely mean that Spitak has become my community, the place where I call home, at least for now. My first 5 months in Spitak, I didn’t feel a connection with the community, everyone stared at me, talked about me and not to me, and I had no friends. Every chance I had, I tried to get out of here, to seek the comfort and understanding of my American friends. Things changed when I finally moved into my own apartment at the beginning of the year. I began to build relationships with my neighbors, shopkeepers, and the neighborhood children. At first everywhere I went people asked me who I was and why I was there, but by now, it is a rare occasion that someone in Spitak doesn’t know who I am or for that matter who Sophie is. Having Sophie has made it much easier for me to adjust to living in a village on my own. Not only does she keep me company, but she attracts attention, often deflecting it from myself. She has become a great way for me to meet people, but also a great excuse for me to get away from people when I need it. I am pretty sure that at this point, more people in Spitak know her name than mine!!
Not only have I become acquainted with people in my town, but I have also made many close friendships and even had a relationship this past year. I can honestly say that I fell in love with a Spitak man and the time that I spent as his girlfriend was some of the greatest time I have spent in Armenia. He taught me so much about Armenian culture, and improved my language skills immensely. We dated for 5 months out of the past year, and even though it ended quite some time ago, he has become one of my best friends not only here and now, but of all time. Obviously there were too many cultural differences to overcome for us, which resulted in us constantly fighting. This experience opened my eyes to the real life of Armenian women, and in part was the reason I became so determined to start a young women’s group here. The young women’s group, though newly founded and just underway, is the one thing I am most proud of this past year. I recently heard that the director of the YMCA, who was very cautious about us undertaking such a huge task, has sung our praise and told us he couldn’t be happier and wants more meetings and more involvement. It has been an amazing experience to see my vision coming to fruition.
As the year closes, I once again realize what an amazing opportunity I have been given, being here in Armenia has truly been much tougher than I ever thought it would be, but also much more rewarding. As I plan my last eight months in this country, I realize that it has changed me more than I could ever hope to change it, but that I still have so much more to give. I am not going to lie, I have even been thinking about extending for one more year, in hopes of expanding the women’s group and making my work here more sustainable. Whether that will happen yet is still to be decided, but one thing is for sure, 2011 has been the most influential year of my life. I have realized dreams I never knew I had, and have begun to dream that I would have never dared to dream a year ago.  I not only wish everyone a happy new year, but I wish you a year of self discovery, adventure, love and charity and of course, felicity, passion and rapture ;)

So I leave you with some of my favorite photos of the past year!  

*** I posted this blog before New Year's eve, but for some reason it never posted, hence the not so relevant topic!!