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.
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.