Swearing In, Moving On

*“Yes haghaghootyan korpoosee kamavor em.” And with those tongue-twisting words, on Nov. 12, 2015 I became a Peace Corps Volunteer.

After 12 weeks of training I and 38 of my closest friends gathered in a beautiful concert hall in Yerevan to officially be sworn in as PCVs. We are the 23rd group to serve in Armenia. I couldn’t have felt prouder when I received my lapel pin with the American and Armenian flags crossed over the Peace Corps globe. Our group is the most diverse ever to serve in Armenia, with members aged 22 to 75, and naturalized citizens from Africa, South America, the Philippines and Russia. They are all smart, compassionate and caring individuals.

Newly sworn in A23 volunteers, with U.S. Ambassador Richard M. Mills, Jr in the center.

Newly sworn in A23 volunteers, with U.S. Ambassador Richard M. Mills, Jr in the center.

The week was an emotional roller coaster, from excitement about finally beginning our service, to fear of the unknown (or at least nervousness), to many, many tears at leaving our host families and dear friends.

My host family made me take the coffee mug I used every morning, because they said it would make them too sad to look at it in the cupboard. I said it would make me sad too, but they won. And they gave me a heat sensitive mug that when filled with soorj (coffee) or tay (tea) revealed a photo of the family and my fellow trainees at dinner. Around the rim it says “We love you Marcie!!!” How could I not cry at that? Less than three months ago I came into their house a stranger. I left as family. As I’ve said before, family is everything to Armenians so to be taken into the fold is the highest honor.

My lovely host "parents," Lusik and Maise Meharabyan.

My lovely host “parents,” Lusik and Maise Meharabyan.

A Peace Corps home stay is not without its challenges though. I had not yet learned enough Armenian (hayeren) to converse beyond basic needs, so trying to communicate was a daily challenge. The food did not always agree with me, and I had “food-poisoning-like” symptoms twice. “Heevand em” — “I am sick,” was one of the first phrases the language trainers taught us. I learned that I was probably to blame for my sudden and violent illness because I wasn’t wearing socks and did not have enough blankets on my bed (this even though it was still hot outside). Cold=vomiting, of course.

But we didn’t need language to express our mutual sadness, and mutual joy as we celebrated at a large party the night of swearing in, and the night before departure. I knew how to say “siroom em barel” — “I love dancing,” as my handsome host father two-stepped me around the living room.

Armenians know how to party, with piles of horovats (roast meat) endless toasting and dancing to loud music. There is a joy of life that seems to come only from knowing deprivation; deep sorrow/deep joy. There’s probably an Armenian expression for that.

Over three months of daily language lessons and seemingly endless training sessions, I had become very close with two of the three other volunteers in my small village. We seemed an unlikely pair when they first announced the village groupings — three women over 50 and one young man with a Citadel ring. I remember telling Paul at the time that we probably weren’t the harem he would have chosen.

Friends forever, me, Paul Whitten and Cathy Steward.

Friends forever, me, Paul Whitten and Cathy Stewart.

As it turned out, we could not have chosen better. Marti, 70+, was sort of in her own world, with a very active host family to keep her busy, but Paul, I, and the third member of our trio, Cathy, a former lawyer from Arizona, became fast friends. Our language and culture facilitator, or LCF, Satenik, and her adorable son, Abel, became the fourth and fifth members of our tribe. There wasn’t a lot to do in our sleepy village, but with friends like that, doing very little seemed like a lot.

So with tears, hugs, and more tears and hugs, the morning after swearing in we departed for our permanent sites, scattered across the country. Armenia is a small country, but right now it feels pretty big.

*I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.

 

Sweeping Dirt: Just Another Day in Taperakan

My host mother likes to wax nostalgic and tell me how, during the Soviet era, the streetlights of our little village used to all be lit up at night. The roads were well-paved, water sparkled in the fountains and golden apples hung from the trees in the park.

One or more of those things may not be true, but I know this: most of the ornate streetlights are broken, providing spotty light by which to navigate the crumbling, pot-holed pavement; the fountains are dry and, well, there are no apples of any kind on the spindly trees in what passes for a park.

The people of Taperakan take pride in their village.

Taperakan street sweepers bend to their sisyphean task.

But every morning without fail there is a pair of village ladies who attack the crazy quilt of a sidewalk with their short but effective brooms. The concrete slabs are lifted and broken by tree roots, or crumbled into dust, but this pair sweep as if it were the floor of the Sistine chapel.

The morning stillness is broken by a gentle shoop shoop shoop as they whisk cigarette butts, candy wrappers, beer cans and plastic bottles into the ankle-breaking gutter, leaving behind arcs of broom tracks in the dust. Up one side and down the other they stoop and sweep, stoop and sweep, clearing away the debris from the day before.

And they don’t stop at the pavement. All along the streets women — and it’s always women — dutifully sweep the dirt in front of their houses, sometimes wetting it down with the water left over from mopping inside (with rags draped over sticks). For a few hours the streets are clean and all is right with Taperakan.

During the grape harvest a few weeks ago dump trucks loaded with grapes lined the main street, waiting to deliver their pungent loads to the processing plant on the edge of town. Word was that the fabrica had gone bankrupt, and was promising to pay the farmers in the spring for what they had to deliver or lose now. You didn’t have to speak Armenian to know they were not happy about that. To them, it probably felt like one more nail in the village’s coffin.

Most of the villages in the shadow of Mt. Ararat subsist on farming and almost every home has a male who is working in Russia or elsewhere. Families in Armenia rarely move to another village or city. But when they go, it’s for good. There are many empty homes in the village, the owners having moved away to find work and a better life for their family elsewhere. Tattered curtains flap out of broken windows, but sturdy locks bar would-be intruders.

To someone coming from a land where lawns are green and spacious, streets are paved and there are cars parked outside garages stuffed with useless crap, Taperakan can seem like a drab and even depressing place. But today in the English class we volunteers are teaching, the students were asked what they liked about their village, and every one of them said they loved their village because it was home. It was where they were born and where they wanted to always live.

I looked at the room full of very bright young women and secretly hoped that they would discover the world beyond Taperakan, and a life beyond sweeping dirt.

 

And the winner is…

You know that moment when, after careful consideration and a large dose of courage, you take a deep breath and step out onto a suspension bridge, and get to the midpoint where it’s swaying as you tread softly, your legs shaking a little as you looking down at the yawning abyss below you, but you know that the other end, the blessed solid ground, is just a few more steps? That was this week.

While we reached the midpoint of Pre-Service Training on Sept. 30, this week we learned where we would be living for the next two years of our lives; our permanent sites.

Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 1 p.m. all 40 trainees gathered on the playground of the grade school where we have been holding classes for the last month. Spread before us was a map of Armenia, painted on the asphalt playground, with the names of all the places where we would be placed. The plan was that as we learned our site, we were to stand on the place name on the map. It was a great visual of how close or how far we would be from our fellow volunteers.

The PC directors put a great deal of work into choosing who goes where, matching community needs and requests to volunteers’ skills, abilities, desires, goals and personalities. For seven weeks we’ve been watched and evaluated, tested and scored, sometimes overtly, most often surreptitiously. Volunteers cover two sectors, Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and Community and Youth Development (CYD).

We have become close to our fellow PCTs, forming friendships (and sometimes more) that now threatened to be split apart as we awaited our fate. As the program directors called our names we stepped forward and were handed a thin, fortune cookie-like strip of paper. One small piece of paper with our future writ large. Mine: “Syunik marz, Goris high school.”

Peace Corps Trainees stand on their permanent sites. I'm in the second row, next to my site mate Pat, who is in red. Photo courtesy Peace Corps Armenia.

Peace Corps Trainees stand on their permanent sites. I’m in the second row, next to my site mate Pat, who is in red. Photo courtesy Peace Corps Armenia.

And there it was, nearly two years of waiting boiled down to a few simple words: the region, the city, the school. And to my relief and joy, Goris was exactly where I wanted to go. While some trainees weren’t thrilled with their sites, I felt like I’d won the site selection lottery.

I first learned of the existence of this town in the southernmost part of this small country last summer in Seattle, at a Peace Corps sendoff party at UW. There I met Liana Sahakyan, a bundle of energy who was attending the University of Washington on a fellowship for the summer, and who runs a non-profit women’s organization in Goris. In the warm, welcoming Armenian way, she immediately invited me to come and visit and even work with her in Goris. I think she may have had something to do with my placement, but the Peace Corps is keeping mum on that.

Goris, pronounced Go-REES, is a medium-sized city by Armenian standards, but oddly almost the same size as my hometown of Port Angeles: 20,000. It’s nestled between two mountain ranges at about 4,000 feet, and is famous for its unique cave dwellings. That’s right, cave dwellings. People don’t live in them anymore, but they are still used for storage. You can bet I’ll have my eye out for a rehab project.

A view of some of the caves carved into the spires of Goris.

A view of some of the caves carved into the rocky hillsides of Goris.

Goris is ancient even by Armenian standards, first mentioned in records going back to the 8th century B.C. In 1870 the “new” town of Goris was built on the opposite river bank, designed by a German architect. It’s called one of the most charming towns in Armenia, having escaped the Soviet Union concrete block construction that blights the rest of this beautiful country.

This coming weekend we will go with our Armenian teaching counterparts to our sites for a three day visit, where we will meet our new host families.

My current host family is very sad to see me leave, but that’s a good thing. I will miss them too, and have been told I must come back for every holiday, but I’m looking forward to what’s on the other end of this suspension bridge. One step at a time.

 

 

Skip to the loo. Or not.

Let me just state the obvious here and say that Peace Corps is not known for sending volunteers to countries with modern amenities such as indoor toilets and/or running water. In some postings volunteers are lucky to have anything other than a hole in the ground. While every interviewee says they would be delighted to dodge vipers and hyenas to use the non-existent “facilities” in the middle of the moonless night, every interviewee also secretly dreads drawing the unlucky loo card.

Which brings me to Armenia. In many ways Armenia is far posher than many postings. We have fairly dependable internet, reasonably good Soviet-era roads, electricity and running water most of the time, and refrigeration. Usually.

But when it comes to toilets, it’s still a crap shoot. (Come on, you know I had to say it.)

The grippy treads give a clue where your feet should go. This public toilet is clean, just very old. The tank is on the wall above, just like old-style Western toilets.

The grippy treads give a clue where your feet should go. This public toilet is clean, just very old. The tank is on the wall above, just like old-style Western toilets.

Of the 42 PCTs spread out in four villages around the Ararat region, the facilities in the host homes range from Western-style toilets to Asian-style squat toilets and even Asian-style squat outhouses. There are at least two volunteers with such not-so-fresh air facilities. Fortunately for me, my host family has a nice modern set up. Close the door and you could almost be back home.

Most public buildings here, including schools, still favor the squat toilet. For volunteers these present two challenges: how to use them without splashing, and how to use them while battling the inevitable newcomer’s diarrhea. Oh, and you can’t put toilet paper down any of the toilets here or they will clog, and that’s a conversation you don’t want to attempt in broken Armenian. There is a small waste can provided for used paper disposal. And yes, there is toilet paper, although it looks more like layers of cardboard than the downy white product we spoiled Westerners are used to.

This might be taking "glasnost" too far.

This might be taking “glasnost” too far.

Squat toilets do have their advantages, once one masters the art of hovering properly over the hole. Hint: face the stall door (or where one would be) just as if you were sitting on a toilet. It’s the same shape. With squat toilets there are no body parts making contact with surfaces of questionable cleanliness, which can be a huge plus. Citizens of many countries consider “sit-down” toilets to be barbaric and filthy, and in some places this is very true. All a matter of perspective.

In the once-grand culture center where we hold our daily four hour-long language lessons, there are only squat toilets (see pictures above). After our instructor got firm with the cleaning lady, they are now cleaned on a fairly regular basis. I think. I live a block away so I’ve gotten good at waiting it out.

We recently visited a village school to observe a PCV teaching, and were told that the school had NO, that’s right, NO toilet facilities — but if need be the volunteer’s house was nearby. Suddenly, a squat toilet didn’t sound that bad…

 

 

Awash in Lavash — About the Name…

I felt I needed to experience Armenia first hand before I picked a name for this blog. After three weeks and many, many meals, I decided nothing represents the Armenian experience better than the national mania known as lavash. It’s a simple flatbread made from wheat flour and water, rolled into large ovals and baked by slapping it onto the sides of a clay oven, much like Indian naan is made. For Armenians it’s nothing short of manna from heaven. Cultures around the world have similar breads, from naan to chapatis and tortillas. It’s the dough that binds us together, if you will.

Here's a picture of my host sister, Christina, with a batch of fresh lavash. What looks like a massive amount of bread will last our family of 5 about a week. You do the math.

Here’s a picture of my host sister, Christina, with a batch of fresh lavash. What looks like a massive amount of bread will last our family of 6 about a week. You do the math.

Lavash is eaten at every meal and is used for everything from scooping up soup to shoving gartofil (potatoes) onto a fork. All foods can be wrapped in it, much like a burrito, only  slightly smaller. The large ovals are cut up with scissors into manageable squares and piled into a bread bowl. It’s sprinkled with water to keep it soft. At the table the diners grab a handful and stack it on the table next to their plate where it is readily accessible throughout the meal.

One morning my host mother, Loosik, filled large rectangles of lavash with fried potatoes, rolled it up burrito-style, then rolled them in egg and bread crumbs and fried them. Carb and fat overload aside, they were really, really good. I quickly learned the Armenian word for “delicious” — hamove.

We arrived at the height of harvest season in the fertile Ararat valley, so fresh fruits and vegetables make up the bulk of our meals. Every meal includes a large plate of ripe tomatoes and cucumbers, and there is frequently eggplant, peppers, cabbage, beets and okra, as well as watermelon, grapes, apples, peaches, plums and other melons for dessert and between meal snacks.

Armenians are the most hospitable people on the planet — a guest barely has time to take off their shoes and put on guest slippers before the coffeetable is laden with plates overflowing with the fruits of the earth, like a still life with knives and forks. Coffee, tea, cake, ice cream and candy round out the groaning tableau. Fortunately we learned that guests are not expected to eat everything — it’s enough to have been offered and sampled a few of the offerings.

Khor Virap monastery is just a 15 minute drive from my village.

Khor Virap monastery is just a 15 minute drive from my village.

I do of course do other things besides eat. Last weekend my host family took fellow PC trainee Cathy and me to the beautiful and ancient Khor Virap, the sacred site where Grigor Luisavorich (St. Gregory the Illuminator) was imprisoned for 13 years before curing King Trdat III of a disease. This caused the conversion of the king and Armenia into the first officially Christian nation in the world in the year 301.

The church is still in use — my host brother got married there just last year. Nice choice of venue!

Awash in Lavash: Two Years in Armenia

My time as a Peace Corps TEFL volunteer in Armenia has come to an end, and with it this blog. If you’ve stumbled upon this perhaps while googling Peace Corps Armenia, I hope you find it useful, or at least entertaining. And as always, thanks for reading.  Marcie

Landing on My Feet: Host Family Week One

Outside my open window there is the sound of a child crying, long listless wails. A woman’s voice responds. A hammer pounds on steel, tires shoosh on the wet dirt road and splash in potholes. Horns honk. Dogs howl in chorus.

The house is quiet. It’s Sunday, a day to sleep in. Although, the lady of the house, my host mother Loosik, has already made my breakfast and showed me how to do laundry before going to her job for a few hours. We use a lot of sign language interspersed with my faltering Armenian, and lots of nods and smiles.

This is the end of my first week living with my host family, where I will stay for the three month Pre Service Training (PST).

The 42 trainees who make up A-23 have been divided amongst four villages, matched with host families who will help them settle in, learn Armenian and integrate into Armenian life. How well we do that will determine if we will be invited to stay on as full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteers, or hop the next plane home.

There are just three other trainees in this village with me, two other older women and one 26-year-old man. Another trainee quickly dubbed us “Paul’s harem.” Poor guy.

First dinner with my host family in Taperakan.

First dinner with my host family in Taperakan.

We are in a village called Taperakan, which is very near Mt. Ararat. The mountain where Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest is in Turkey, a fact the Armenians are very bitter about. Border be damned, it is still THEIR mountain. Walking down the main street Ararat looms over the town, tantalizingly close.

The housing provided for the volunteers varies widely, but the one thing we pampered Americans all feared was getting a house with a “Turkish” toilet – the dreaded porcelain hole-in-the-ground squat toilet.

Only two volunteers drew that card, one of which is not even in the house; squat toilet in an outhouse. Combine this is the inevitable traveler’s trots, and you can see the challenge.

My host house is plain on the outside, a concrete block exterior tucked behind a small grocery on the main street. Only the lovely carved wooden door hints at what lies beyond. The house is large by any standards, and well equipped with hot running water (most of the time), a washing machine and TV. My room is brand new, as they proudly told me, and has a queen sized bed. It almost seems too grand, but I’m not giving it up.

The Peace Corps did an amazing job of matching up volunteers with host families, as almost all of us think we got the best family. I certainly do! My family is a mother and father who are a few years younger than me (although they are still my host mother and father), their 29-year-old son and his wife, and their 28-year-old unmarried daughter. The young wife is newly pregnant, but there are no other children in the house. That was a little disappointing as I am here to be a teacher, but it’s OK.

Ice cream in Armenian is baghbaghbaghak. I'll take two please.

Ice cream in Armenian is baghbaghak. I’ll take two please.

The 10 hours of Armenian lessons I took back home were quickly used up in the first evening. Since then it’s been lots of blank looks on my part, and polite frustration and repetition on theirs. We go to four hours of Armenian lessons every day, and I am slowly beginning to understand and converse with them. I keep telling myself it’s only been a week, be patient! Now how do I say that to them?

The village culture center, where we spend four hours a day slaughtering the Armenian language.

The village culture center, where we spend four hours a day slaughtering the Armenian language.

If we have one common language, it is food. My family feeds me constantly, and every house you visit is quick to put out food for their guests. It’s harvest season, and this region abounds in fresh tomatoes, watermelon, cucumbers, grapes, apples, pears and more. The food is fresh and simple, with every meal prepared from scratch, usually by the single daughter, who is also a cardiology resident. Every meal includes lavash, the flat bread that is practically the national symbol of Armenia. Every food item can be wrapped in it, one size fits all.

They put food in front of me all day, then wonder why I’m not hungry at dinner, which is served at 9 p.m. after the son gets home from his job as a web developer in the capital. I have learned to say “hamove” — it’s delicious, and “goosht” — full. I do my best to please them, just hope my clothes still fit in three months.

 

‘Cheaper than water’

Just finishing up the first week of the intensive 12-week Peace Corps training in Armenia. What have I learned? “Vodka is cheaper than water here.” That’s a direct quote from a presenter who would probably prefer to remain nameless. The point was that alcohol is available in abundance but that PCVs (that’s Peace Corps Volunteers) should not succumb to the lure of the demon rum. Er, vodka. And the water is fine to drink, although they are giving us standard PC issue water filters.

My village buddies and language partners for the next 11 weeks, and Language and Culture Facilitator (LCF) Sateenika. From left: Cathy, Marti and Paul. The cards are their names in Armenian. Photo Marcie Miller

My village buddies and language partners for the next 11 weeks, and Language and Culture Facilitator (LCF) Satinika. From left: Cathy, Marti and Paul. The cards are their names in Armenian.  Photo copyright Marcie Miller

After a year and a half of applications, interviews and interminable medical tests, now I “just” have to make it through these 12 weeks of PST (Pre-Service Training), and I will be sworn in and officially become a PCV. Classes are five and a half days a week and include intensive language training, TEFL training (so I know how to teach), safety and culture. At the end of the training we will be able to yell for help after we have offended and angered the locals, or “nationals” as the PC calls them.

There are 42 of us A23s (the 23rd group of PCVs in Armenia), the largest group ever. The trainers keep saying this is also the most diverse group they have ever had. Sitting around the large u-shaped conference table, we do fairly well resemble the United Nations. The ages range from 21 to 74, evenly split between male and female. Half a dozen were born outside the U.S. and there are 8 of us in the 50-plus bracket, far outstripping the PC average of 7 percent.

Diverse as we are, the bonding began immediately at staging in Philadelphia, as we shared “the most interesting thing” in our luggage, stared at name tags (while trying not to look like we were), learned a little of what to expect in the next 27 months, and role played scenarios we might encounter as a volunteer in a developing country. If I get cat-called while walking to school I’m set.

Of course there’s no better way to bond than a 24-hour trip via bus and airplane to parts unknown. After a bus ride from Philadelphia to JFK airport, changing planes and terminals in Paris while trying to keep 42 people together, we finally arrived in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, at about 10 p.m. Thursday. Only one unfortunate person lost a bag; pretty good for the roughly 120 pieces of luggage in tow. The cheering of the PCVs and staff there to greet us was uplifting, and gave us enough of a boost to make the final trek by bus to Aghveran Park Resort outside of Yerevan. A gift bag on the bus containing a warm welcome note (Bari galust Hayastan!) and much needed candy was a nice touch.

This is an oasis in the mountains, far removed from the reality of life in Armenia which we will face soon enough. The Peace Corps, in their ultra-organized fashion, has seen to every detail, from free meals to comfortable beds and hot showers. I suspect that when we are immersed in the day to day “challenges” of life here, we will look back fondly on these halcyon days, when we were all so fresh and green and our biggest worry was properly saying “bari looys” (good morning) to the wait staff.

Monday we will break up into smaller groups to move to the small villages where we will settle in for the rest of training. I’m looking forward to this taste of the “real” Armenia. It’s scary, but it’s nice to know I’m sharing this experience with such an amazing group of people. Go A23s!

The Pieces are Falling into Place

Finally, finally, FINALLY we got our staging information and the location of our training in Armenia. We will all be meeting in Philadelphia on Aug. 18 at high noon for staging, then departing en masse the next day – destination Artashat! Where? Yeah I had to look it up: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artashat,_Armenia

It’s a historic city right on the Turkish border, in view of the so-close-and-yet-so-far Mt. Ararat. For those of you who paid attention in Sunday school, yet THAT Mt. Ararat, where Noah landed in the Ark. It’s now across the border in Turkey, but the Armenians claim it as their national symbol. Long story, but here’s the awesome view:

The ancient city of Artashat was built on this hill in about 100 B.C. Courtesy photo.

The ancient city of Artashat was built on this hill in about 100 B.C. Courtesy photo.

Anyway, in addition to getting the information about the first concrete steps on this long journey, today I had the pleasure of meeting with fellow PCV (that’s Peace Corps Volunteer in gov-speak) Daniel Cloward from Chicago. He and his friend Sarah were in town, so we met up in my hood – Alki Beach.

Two Peace Corps rookies, pre-departure in Seattle.

Two Peace Corps rookies, pre-departure in Seattle.

Meeting up with Daniel made it seem “real” after so many long months of planning, planning, planning. We first met up on a Peace Corps Armenia facebook page, which has been a great tool for getting to know people who at this point are spread across the U.S.

There is also a special page for volunteers over 50, which has been really helpful. The amount of life experience that these people bring to the job is amazing. As we baby boomers enter retirement, it’s a sector the Peace Corps wants to develop. It’s a change that could alter the face of Peace Corps forever.

I’ve also started online Skype Armenian lessons with an instructor in Armenia and another volunteer in Alaska. Barev Dzez! That’s a formal “hello.” We take three months of lessons once we get there, but with my old brain, I can use the headstart! So far we’ve learned greetings and 20 of the 39 letters in the Armenian alphabet.

And again, THANK YOU to everyone who has donated to my Go Fund Me campaign – it’s up to an amazing $601! I’ll be sure to buy  Armenian tchotchkes for all of you. Wonder how you say that in Armenian…

And Now for Something Completely Different…

Barev! Welcome to my blog about my Peace Corps assignment to Armenia, Aug. 2015 through Nov. 2017.

I’ve been assigned to teach secondary level English as well as help the teachers there improve their English and develop new lesson plans. I chose Armenia because the assignment also includes earning a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate. That’s a great bonus.

When I tell people my plan, the two things they always ask are, “Where’s that?” and “Is it safe?” Armenia is a very small country sandwiched between Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east and a teeny bit of Iran to the south. It’s called the “crossroads of Europe,” and is on the fabled Silk Road. You can learn more about it here.

Armenia adopted Christianity as the national religion in 300 AD, making it the oldest Christian nation. It's riddled with amazing religious sites such as Tatev Monastery.

Armenia adopted Christianity as the national religion in 300 AD, making it the world’s oldest Christian nation. It’s riddled with amazing religious sites such as Tatev Monastery. Photo courtesy Tourism Armenia

And as far as “is it safe” goes, I always reply, “is anywhere safe?” Sadly, one is more likely to get gunned down or run over on Main Street , USA than in Armenia. And the Peace Corps is very, very safety conscious. We can’t even drive a motor vehicle of any kind!

Oh, and the third question: “Why??” That one is harder. Why would a 57-year-old woman want to endure the hardship of living in a dirt poor country, earning the equivalent of the local wage and struggling to communicate in a language spoken by virtually no one but Armenians? Glutton for punishment, hopeless romantic, chronic do-gooder, crazy, take your pick. At the two-hour candidate interview I think I blathered something about wanting to make the world a better place, serve my fellow man, make a difference. It’s all a blur, but really it’s a bit of all of the above. And, why not? The American job market has not been kind to me, maybe it’s time to try something different. Four years of college and 10 years of struggling to make it as a journalist had gotten me exactly nowhere. But the degree did qualify me to apply for the Peace Corps.

Most people think of the Peace Corps as something one does after graduating from college, but in fact they take volunteers of all ages — the oldest was in his 80s! If you can pass the physical, you’re in. Seniors are still less than 10% of the corps, but still, it’s nice to be wanted. There’s an interesting article about it here.

The Journey So Far

It’s still four months until I leave, but it’s already been a long road. I first got the idea in December, 2013 when I felt like I needed something else to live for other than my low wage dead-end job. I needed a Plan B.

I filled out the lengthy online application in January 2014 and was surprised to be invited to Seattle for an interview in March. At that time you couldn’t choose specifically where you wanted to go, but you could say where you didn’t want to go. I said I would go anywhere but Africa (been there done that, don’t care to go back), but that I would prefer Eastern Europe. Duly noted by the recruiter.

Several weeks later the recruiter emailed to say he thought I would be a good candidate and was forwarding my application on to Washington, D. C. I was officially a Peace Corps candidate! Mid-summer I found out the Peace Corps had made a radical change, and now allowed candidates to list their top three location preferences. The practice was to look at a candidate’s skills and decide where to place them, then issue a take-it-or-leave-it letter of invitation.

I emailed the recruiter and said I wanted to get in on the new deal! He said fine, just let them know. As I said, I chose Armenia for the certificate opportunity, but also because it looked like a fascinating country, and definitely off the beaten track!

In December I got the official invitation to serve in Armenia, along with a slew of paperwork related to the daunting medical clearance process. Clearance included a mammogram, colonoscopy, ECG, complete blood panel, tests for HIV, Hep B and C, and vaccinations for, or proof of vaccination for, polio, MMR, TDP and chicken pox (or shingles for the over 50’s), plus a TB test. They also wanted full dental Xrays plus all dental work completed before leaving the country. Whew!

My doctor said they make the paperwork onerous just to weed out people who can’t handle meaningless bureaucracy. She could be on to something.

It’s also not cheap to volunteer. With all the medical tests, shots and dental work, I’m in over $2,000. I have started a Go Fund Me page to try to put a dent in that, as well as go toward expenses such as my storage fees, and to buy supplies for the schools (I’m sure they will need them). The Peace Corps pays volunteers the equivalent of the living wage in the country, so that you will live on the level of the people you are working with. I think that’s a great idea, but I don’t think it’s going to leave any extra at the end of the month (kind of like now).

Many, many thanks to the friends who have donated more than $400 so far.

If you’ve read this far and are interested in donating, you can find it here.

The next entry will be far shorter, and if you’ve read this far, thank you very much!!