Peace Corps Armenia: the bees came back, and we’re waiting

This is going to be a bit of a mess. Hang tight.

I was in the middle of writing a different version of this blog post, one with the words “everything is normal here”, when suddenly things stopped being quite so normal. Several things happed sort of at once.

Armenia reported three more cases of Coronavirus. (As of the time I’m writing this we’re at eight). Trump has taken measures towards limiting travel. Our incoming cohort, set to leave in a few days, was delayed for 60 days. School was cancelled through March 23rd.

I set my notebook down, opened up my laptop for real, scrolling through messages. (Are we… do you think we’re going to?? Do you think? No, no, that won’t happen.) So on. I called my mom.

“See you soon, maybe,” I joked.

“Oh don’t say that, that’d be so sad for you and your friends.”

It would be really, really sad. I worked so hard to feel good and safe here, to feel like I belong. There are people here I would really miss, and who would miss me. And I’m trying not to think too hard about it.

And so I want to paint a really, really vivid picture of what the last 48 hours have looked like. I also don’t want to ditch the stuff I was writing before. Hence the mess:

 

March 12:

I am working with a new counterpart, she’s never taught before and doesn’t speak much English. She’s shy, which means I can’t be. My scheduled is changed to help her, and we’re speaking mostly Armenian together: communication is hard. I have my two favorite third grade groups, and end up leading both of the lessons mostly myself, sort of showing her the ropes. It was kinda cool to work with someone who had never taught before and looked completely to me. But definitely draining, and overwhelming, especially with the language barrier.

I switch back to my primary CP for the fourth grade. Check my phone at the break.

Text: Three new cases in Armenia.

Text: Have you checked the news?

Text: Are you freaking out? I’m freaking out. Call me when you get a chance.

I scroll through a group text, which is sort of like reading the most sensationalized version of the news possible—like if you only read the headlines of Vice and nothing else.

The bell rings. I shove my phone into my pocket. A boy pulls Nare’s* hair so hard a little bit comes out and she cries. He goes to do it again, and I slam my hand on his desk. He jumps. My counterpart looks up from the front of the room.

“What?” She looks at me.

“He’s hurting her!” my voice cracks. I bite back a whole wave of emotion, not sure where it came from.

In the same class, two boys are pulled out of school by their parents. My CP keeps checking her phone.

“Where are they going?” Nare tugs at my sleeve and asks me.

“Home, probably,” I say.

“Why?”

“I don’t know.” I sneak a quick peak at my phone. More notifications than I can read quickly. My CP and I make eye contact and smile at each other—everything’s okay, everything’s fine here.

I move to help another student, but Nare catches my sleeve again. “Don’t leave me!” she says, looking back at the same boy behind her. So I don’t.

 

“Happy Birthday Miss Med!” students scream in the hallway.

“It was yesterday,” I call back. They run up and hug me, run fingers through my loose hair.

By the time I make it out of the school, I am exhausted. It’s loud in there sometimes, hard to think. Especially when there’s a lot to think about.

I make a quick lunch.

Text: you haven’t heard from your director about cancelling club then?

Me: no, should I?

Text: nah, don’t worry about it.

We play outside for club instead. It’s so beautiful out, and things start to feel less tense. You can’t be playing soccer with schoolkids during a global pandemic. Those things surely must negate each other.

I get back home. I start to write draft one of this. I’m not happy with it, I rip it out of the notebook. The peach tree outside my window is flung into bloom—the bees so thick they weigh down the branches. The sun is slipping behind the mountain and everything is dusty purple and bring melon orange. I get distracted by how much I wanted Spring.

I check Facebook—the incoming group has posted that while they were set to leave this week, they’ve been delayed 60 days.

Which for you guys, I am so sorry. I hope to meet you all this summer. I am still optimistic that will happen.

After this, I get about four phone calls. I’m glued to the screen, on the phone for the rest of the night.

That’s March 12, 2020. Yesterday.

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Last Week:

Spring Break came early here; so did Spring. Even last week, things were uncertain with COVID-19, but it wasn’t as much on my mind—I’ve had other things going on. I have been exhausted. Everything was feeling really messy, and writing anything that felt honest, but not jaded, optimistic, but still realistic seemed impossible.

So I was happy about the early Spring Break just a little. Early Spring Break meant an early start to hiking season for me and Karen (a27 volunteer and CHEF). We made American Style Caribou Coffee for my host mom, and baked an apple pie—Karen baked, I observed and offered emotional support.

It took about two hours longer than we expected, but my host family waited patiently and broke out the nice dessert plates to try it.

“Tastes like Thanksgiving,” I joked to Karen. My host mom nodded, and her eyes widened and she laughed for real—the way that you laugh when you understand a joke in a foreign language, with a little bit of pride.

The next morning, Karen and I got up early to hike the canyon near my town. My expectations were really low—site has always been, well site for me. I am a little skittish about straying too far from the places I know. There are big dogs out there, and I am small, and foreign, and blonde, and vulnerable. I’ve been reminded of that more than a few times lately, and that does start to get to you. Working up the confidence to do new things in a foreign country isn’t always easy.

But doing things together? The mountains, and whatever else is out there don’t seem so intimidating when you have a friend.

So out past the church and neat rows of apricot trees, across the river that right now is just a trickle, up through the dzor where the green fades out and to jagged peaks of orange and red and pink, we played in the early spring desert hills. Golden eagle overhead and swallows darting in and out of cliffs, singing just a little. We talked and joked and ran up and down the hills, spinning and shouting so it echoed. The sky there feels really, really blue. You can see the white tips of Ararat, the big mountain, over the red hills. My nose burnt pink.

We talked about the year that has almost passed here in Armenia, and the one that is still left. The last apple pie that we made together was in April, when we knew less of the languages, and about Armenia, and each other. So much has changed since then.

We found our way up the canyon, past the arch, to a tighter canyon, one that zig zags back and forth with turns like a maze. It all felt sort of magical, sort of special.

As we crossed the river on our way back, Shepards from either side of the canyon called down to us—

“Hello, I love you!”

It echoed through the valley. I smiled and shouted back in Armenian, feeling reckless and a little brave—

Inch ka, Vonts ek?” Hello, how are you?

They laughed from their separate sides of the mountain.

Where are you from how did you get here? We walked, from the town, we live here.

“Aprek vor khosank hayeren,” Good for you, for speaking Armenian!

“We’ve been here a year; we should speak it!”

We walked back, and have a mid-afternoon coffee with my host mom. I marveled sort of quietly at how there are really wonderful things all around us, sometimes we just need a little extra help finding them.

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March 11th, 2020:

 Also, I’m 24. So much has changed for me this year that I wouldn’t even know where to really start. And it feels irrelevant.

Maybe I’m tougher and more realistic, better at advocating for myself and I think a lot of the challenges I’m facing now I couldn’t have managed a year ago. At the same time sometimes I feel very, very fragile. Less patient. Maybe more patient. I’m really good at talking in circles.

My club kids got me a potted flower as a birthday present and taught themselves English “Happy Birthday” and threw me a tiny surprise party which was very sweet.

With my host family, we did a small khorovats and cake, and M smeared cake on my face. “This is how we do it here,” she grinned.

It was actually one of my better birthdays. A lot of my students were really excited and wrote me cards—it was nice to feel wanted and well-liked. My host dad joked that now that I’m 24 I should probably get married this year. I… I think he was joking?

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March 13th, 2020 (Today):

 I packed a big bag for a weekend in Yerevan, and hopped on the bus for a dentist appointment a little early. I was meeting some other volunteers for lunch. We gathered, like normal, around a table, and I fumbled through my bag so I could brush my teeth after eating as to not offend the dentist.

Text, from a PCV: department of health lists all global travel as level 3, avoid non-essential travel

I read it out loud.

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know.”

All of our phones buzz with a Peace Corps mass text.

“Oh.”

Four emails, a call, a rushed lunch later. I call the Peace Corps doctors—should I still go to this dentist appointment or go straight back to site? I go to the dentist appointment (get lost on the way there, and it turns out my “cavity” was just a poppy seed stuck in my tooth and I’ve been brushing too aggressively, we can’t all be perfect), and after turn around and head home.

Now:

And now I’m waiting, we all are. It’s tense, and gossip and speculation are spinning like you wouldn’t believe, but no amount of speculation and “if, then” is going to give us an answer on what is going to happen. I don’t really have an opinion on it, or a guess.

Here, it smells like wood smoke and mud, and rain taps lightly on the tin roof, and my fingers get cold clipping clothes to the line. I hold them to my mouth; my breath curls like smoke. Soft cluck of chickens and just faintly I can hear passerines singing somewhere out of sight. A woodpecker with a red head and white spots drums at a tree.

Spring comes early here, and the sun is clearer and longer, the wind feels clean and damp. Even the bees have come back.

And I guess that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m not proofreading this.

*All names are pseudonyms, but the stories, especially the embarrassing parts, are real

(All views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or the Armenian government!)


3 thoughts on “Peace Corps Armenia: the bees came back, and we’re waiting

  1. It’s been hectic and unreal on this side of the pond, too. We all (A28s) got told that we’re on a 60 day hold. The words “at least” were used. We (my husband and I) were also told that we weren’t going to be able to go anyway because of our age group. I enjoyed your post as usual and wish you peaceful nights and pleasant days.

    Like

    1. I was really sorry to hear about that! As of now, we’re still in country here, but honestly I’m not sure how much longer we will be. Countries to the east and west of us have already evacuated. I hope things can return to normal or something like it in the next 60 days, but things are honestly so uncertain here now that it’s really hard to say. Best of luck with everything, and I really do hope to meet you all this summer,

      -Maddy

      Like

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