Tag Archives: Peace Corps

Appearances can be deceiving

Volunteers who serve in Africa or Asia have no problem describing how different their culture is from America — it’s the classic mud huts, monsoons and mosquito nets. Great photo ops of dark children with broad smiles, fishermen casting their nets from dugout canoes, or PCVs standing at cracked blackboards in makeshift classrooms.

Here in Armenia, the differences are not always apparent. I, like most Armenians, live in an apartment building. I have electricity, running water and a western-style toilet. I have a German-made gas stove and a refrigerator. I have a hair dryer and a straightening iron, both of which I bought here, and all types of makeup are readily available. I have internet 24/7 and can watch the latest American TV or Netflix. Some would call this an example of “Posh Corps.”

But my apartment building is a Soviet-era relic, falling into decay with no one in charge of maintenance. After the fall of the Soviet Union, all the newly minted citizens were given deeds to their home. Here, take it, the Soviets said as they walked away. What had belonged to the state was now theirs. Free and clear. But while people snapped up individual apartments and the homes their families had lived in for generations, no one was put in charge of the exterior environment. There are no HOAs or maintenance fees. People ignore the trash strewn in the stairwell and the pot-holed parking lot. It’s not their job.

My stairwell is dark and dank, with peeling paint and crazily slanting concrete steps. There are no elevators in the 5-story building, but fortunately I live on the second floor (or first floor in European parlance, the floor you enter from the street being the ground floor).

Inside, the once beautiful wood floor, laid down in a meticulous herringbone design, is stripped of varnish from long use and lifting in places. A crystal chandelier in the living room throws light on the cracked walls and peeling paint.

I have running water, but the only hot water is in a tank suspended over the bathtub. To heat it requires plugging in a cord, then waiting about an hour for it to get up to showering temperature. The tank is filled manually by turning a lever under the sink. For washing dishes I heat water in an electric tea kettle and pour it over the dishes while trying not to scald myself. Again.

There are no heaters in the apartment, only dirty shadows on the walls where the radiator heating system was ripped out after the fall — too expensive they say. I am grateful for the Peace Corp issued heaters. There is no insulation and winters here are fierce. Most volunteers spend the winter huddled around the heater.

When hunger strikes there’s no going to the freezer and pulling out a Lean Cuisine or frozen pizza. Those of us who live alone like to joke, “I’d offer you something to eat but all I have are ingredients.” Virtually all food is prepared from scratch by the women of the house, even if they too work all day. Cold lunches and sandwiches are unheard of, and an insult to a good Armenian woman’s ability to provide for her family.

No visitor to an Armenian house gets away without being served Armenian coffee and a wide array of sweets and fruit. Their hospitality is unrivaled. Some say the bounty they offer now is a response to the deprivation they have endured.

In the Armenian family structure the youngest son continues to live with his parents, bringing in his bride when he marries. Upon her arrival the mother-in-law usually hands the cooking duties over to her, even if there are other females in the household. So there is always someone to run the labor-intensive kitchen. Once I came home at lunch to find my host brother and father frying potatoes, as the daughter was ill. They looked like they had been caught red-handed, and my host mother rushed home from work to take over the lunch preparation and save their pride.


Even apartment dwellers nurture small vegetable gardens, looking ahead to winter.

The procurement and preparation of food is a full time occupation here. There are two small “supermarkets” in Goris, a city of 20,000, but most shopping is done at neighborhood ghanoots that the family has traded with for years. The butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, all are stops along the way home. Milk is often delivered fresh and then boiled to pasteurize. One store now carries milk in cartons for the Amerikatsiner. It’s spring now, and every available patch of land has sprouted a carefully tended garden. In the fall there will be canning, canning and more canning. The post-Soviet lean years are a specter that continues to haunt them.

Despite these sometimes challenging living conditions, Armenian women take great pride in their appearance. Form-fitting dresses and stylish high heels are the norm, even for teachers on their feet all day. Makeup is always perfectly applied, eyebrows carefully arched and every hair in place. Even our best “business casual” looks like barn clothes compared to them. I know the teachers hate my clogs. Or maybe they’re envying the comfort. Goal Two: check.

But while Armenians try to keep up appearances, in reality they are barely keeping their heads above water. Every family has men who emigrate, usually to Russia, in hopes of finding work. Intransigent unemployment hovers just under 20 percent. The average teacher makes less in a month than American teens might spend on prom night. Armenians know that education is key to their children’s success, and that learning English is part of it. TEFL volunteers are often asked to tutor someone’s child; the landlord, taxi driver or neighbor (which we politely decline).

And war looms ever present on at least one border. On the 5-hour drive to the capital recently, the taxi driver pointed out that what I took to just be an earthen berm was actually a sniper barrier; we were within shooting range of the contested border with Azerbaijan. Ahead of us snow-capped Mt. Ararat rose up majestically from the plains of Ararat. But again, appearances can be deceiving; Ararat is the national symbol of Armenia, but it is now in Turkish territory. Like a better life, it seems so close and yet so far to the Armenians toiling in the fields below.




My PC Armenia Blog

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!!