Peace Corps Armenia: Blink and You’ll Miss it

It doesn’t seem like I could possibly have anything to teach Nune*. She’s in her late sixties, a garden expert, makes a better cup of coffee than I, and is decidedly unimpressed with both my Armenian and my cooking. So I was surprised when she came in to my room with a skein of yarn and pointed at the hats I had been knitting.

Doo kskses?”She asked me. She held up a circular needle.

In early June, she had shown me all the sweaters with lace patterns and cables she made in her apartment. We had a cup of coffee, and I asked invasive questions, like how old is she, and why she lives alone. She answered and great detail while I tried hard to understand. She showed me her view of the town and the mountains in the distance, and I agreed with her—it was the best spot in the town.

“Uhh…” I paused. I understood the words, but not the context. “Oozoom ek ays pes?”  I held up one of the hats I had finished.

Ayo,” she answered.

So we sat on the couch, and I demonstrated with minimal language the cast on I had used and how I knit in the round—things Nune undoubtedly knows but wants to see me do anyhow.

I’m still not sure why. Maybe it’s because while I still stumble through Armenian, this is a language we can share—we both know when to knit and when to purl, and can do a quick sketch of a fair isle pattern after seeing it. Maybe it’s proof to her that if I could learn this language fluently, one of knots and colors, there’s a good chance I’ll learn hers too. Maybe next time I will better understand when she candidly answers those questions I asked, instead of understanding the sentiment and not the words. Maybe too, it’s out of curiosity about the women like her at the other end, my own grandmother who sat next to me on a couch that same way years ago and showed me that same thing.

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Emma* is sweet and small and ten years old and reminds me very much of every other ten-year-old I’ve ever met. She and her sister walk me home after my English club and I quiz them on colors and numbers and the difference between “walk” and “work”.

I leave the door to my room open while I plan lessons for English club, which is maybe an Americanism to assume that this clearly communicates people are welcome to come in and talk to me. Either way, Emma does. She catches my eye when she’s over playing with my host siblings, and sneaks in and taps my shoulder.

“Inch es anoom?” What are you doing?

“I am working,” I smile and tell her and English.

“Uhhh…” She glances up to her left, thinking, then shakes her head. “Chem hasganoom.” I don’t understand.

Ashkatoom em hima,” I translate.

“Okay, super,” she tells me in English and I laugh. She plops down on my bed and I rifle through my desk to find her a notebook and some colored pencils to draw with while I finish up a lesson plan for my English club. She sits and draws and tugs at my wrists asking me to look every few minutes. I look, and promise her she’s the best artist I’ve ever seen.

At night, Emma, her sister, and my host sister all go out to walk in the first cool hours of the day. We walk back and forth in the dark on the dirt round.

“I am live in America,” Emma tells me, smiling so big her eyes crinkle.

Asa,” I say, “I am from America.”

Yes Amerikayits em,” her sister translates.

“Let’s go to America,” Emma tells me in Armenian.

I smile. “Okay, hajo.” I wave goodbye to her and all the girls laugh.

Emma dramatically airplanes away from us down the dusty road. The sky is the color of the melons that grow here and the stars have just started to burn through. There’s no breeze tonight, but the heat isn’t quite so bad in the absence of the sun.

“Yes Amerikayoom hima,” Emma announces.

Vortegh es Amerikayoom?” I ask. Where are you in America?

“Uhhh…” Emma is stumped. She frowns, then smiles. “Dubai,” she answers confidently, and we all burst out laughing.

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I don’t understand how the summer has passed so quickly. I blinked and lost all of July. I got so much done and nothing at all. I clocked 64 hours of English clubs. I went all the way to Meghri. I was able to see my PCV friends about twice a month.

At the same time, I feel like my language skills have completely plateaued despite studying almost every night, and consistently find myself wondering if maybe I’m just not smart enough. I managed to start about 10 books, and finished only one. I catch myself comparing my work and myself to other volunteers, and constantly wonder what I should be doing.

 

When I was in high school I used to run the mile. My junior year I was fast. My senior year, I got faster by enough to be proud of, but my friends improved by even more. Before one of my last races, my coach pulled me aside to let me know he’d noticed all my hard work this season and tell me I was doing really well.

I shook my head. “I should be doing better. Everyone else is,” I told him.

“I’m going to tell you what my coaches told me,” he said. “Running can be a team sport, but you can only do your best. You have to run your own race.”

And I remembered that. My effort and improvement was impressive and something I deserved to be proud of—it was only when I was constantly looking at the girls next to me that it seemed dull. And each of us had a different set of legs, a different body, different injuries, different classes, different home lives, and different goals. We were all running different races.

Which brings me back to here. Every single one of us, both as people and as Peace Corps Volunteers, has a different set of challenges. My clubs went fantastic this summer. My language suffered. I had some of the most wonderful and meaningful experiences of my life. I also had days where I didn’t leave the house. I experienced both unending kindness from strangers, and street harassment. I wrote some blog posts I am proud of; I also dumped full word documents into the trash can. I have had days where I feel confident and like I’m doing really well here, and also had days where I feel isolated and clueless.

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Coming back from Meghri has felt like a relief. The familiar silhouette of Mount Ararat, the red hills, the fig tree outside my window, people who were so happy to have me home, all of that has felt right. And it was that thought that shocked me a little—the summer has passed so quickly I feel like I’ve almost missed it, but here, at the end, coming back to my site has felt like coming home.

 

*name changed

(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!)

Peace Corps Armenia: GLOW Meghri

“Why not?” A student asked her classmate across the table. “I know a woman doctor.”

“Yes, but usually,” the other girl said back.

“And a driver?” One of the consolers prodded. “Usually girls or boys?”

“Boys, usually,” The class responded.

The same girl threw her hands up in the air. “I could be a driver!”

The other girls nodded—they could be drivers too, if they wanted. Or doctors, or accountants. Why not?

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Mountain glow in Meghri, Armenia

Peace Corps Armenia’s GLOW(Girls Leading Our World) Camp works create a community of girls and young women and promote leadership in communities throughout Armenia. Last week, I had the opportunity to work as a camp counselor for the five-day GLOW camp in Meghri, Armenia.

The camp covered topics of environment, leadership, and confidence. GLOW Meghri reminded me so much of the summer camps I used to participate in when I was about these girls’ age, and while it was a blast for me and the girls, it was also useful and created a space for the girls to voice their opinions and support each other’s ideas.

In addition to the lessons and topics covered, we made art out of recyclables, learned the “Cha Cha Slide” and “Hoedown Throwdown”, had a scavenger hunt, and in small groups the girls designed a sustainable and realistic project to implement in their respective communities.

It was really incredible to watch the girls open up to each other over the course of the week. Even the girls who I initially thought were shy started to voice their opinions as the week progressed. I worked with three incredible young women from Meghri as co-consolers, and got to help and watch while they facilitated meaningful discussions with the younger girls.

The last day of camp focused on confidence building, and we all wrote notes for each other to put in envelopes on the “wall of love”.

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While the girls worked on making collages representing the things they like about themselves, I walked around and talked to the girls in a combination of broken Armenian and beginner English and they leaned together and giggled.

“Do you like Armenia?” They asked me.

“How old are you?”

“Are you married?”

“Do you have a family in America?” One girl asked.

“Yes,” I told her in slow, clear English. “I have two sisters and a brother. One of my sisters is your age.”

She proudly translated for her friends, who leaned in and nodded. I pulled out pictures of my family, and they crowded around curiously.

“What does your sister who is our age like?” They asked.

“Arianna Grande?” I joked.

They grinned. “We like Arianna Grande!”

All of the girls at camp are so good to each other and full of energy. It was easy to imagine my sister, the one who likes Arianna Grande, like them, and is fourteen, like them,  at that table. I thought about that for a moment, what that would be like. The way she would make friends, how she probably would’ve started out stiff and awkward and embarrassed on the first day, the same as these girls did, but by the last day would have been dancing silly in the courtyard outside the school with the rest of the girls.

I pushed the thought aside, the feeling of missing people, and a little bit of guilt for being here playing with and helping these girls and not her, and went back to my broken Armenian and passing scissors and glue around.

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From walking around Meghri

Outside of the camp, me and the other PVCs at GLOW went for walks around Meghri, enjoyed the mountains, and on the last day treated ourselves to some khorvats.

The commute through Syunik Marz is long, and not great if you get carsick, but I don’t, and it is beautiful, so I had the time of my life both ways.

In some areas, the mountains still had snow near the peaks. Near the Meghri Pass we drove above the clouds. The only thing I could think of that compared was the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

The mountains were more green than in Glacier, and a strange mix of hard peaks with bare rock and rolling green mountains. I wasn’t able to get many pictures from the drive, so you’ll have to take my word for it that the area is stunning or go the Pass for yourself.

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Near the Meghri Pass
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Phone photo from the middle seat of a moving taxi
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PCV and great friend Methi was gifted a fig by a generous tatik

(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!)

 

Peace Corps Armenia: Special Everywhere

The smallest girl in my English club stands on her tiptoes to try and reach the board, giving English her very best shot despite being only six and sitting in on her older sister’s class.

“Miss Maddy,” An older student whispers, and points at my stickers. Her eyes glitter. “Kareliey?” May I?

I nod and smile. She pulls off a sticker, and when the younger girl finishes correctly writing the answer, the older girl gives it to her. Watching from the back, while the students play an English game and help each other, I can’t help but be happy I am here, able to witness something as small as a sticker.

 

My girls from English club walk me home, and we do impromptu lessons along the way. We point at colors and they grin and shout them. They learn this is a tree, and this is a mountain, and this is a cloud. The sun darkens my forehead and I sweat like I’ve never sweated before, a bundle of wadded up conjugation posters in my arms.

“Miss Maddy, Miss Maddy, Inch e sa?” They ask and smile. When they run out of questions they quiz me on my Armenian.

“Goodbye!” I say when I reach the green door that is mine.

“Goodbye! Ts’aystyoon!” They call after me.

“See you tomorrow!” I grin back.

“What is tomato?”

Che, tomorrow, vagha. Tomato, lolik,” an older girl corrects.

I laugh and go inside.

 

I think we’ve all got this tendency to love experience a little— to absolutely relish in foreignness, to play it up, to collect unique experiences like someone might collect coins, pushing pins in to a map like it proves something about yourself, like those pinholes are inherently meaningful.

No matter where you are, your experiences are important. And honesty, I am the same person here that I was at home, and the same worries and problems that I had there, I have here too. A new continent does not make me a new person.

Here, I still get lonely. I still take long walks and wonder if there isn’t something I should be doing differently or better. I wonder if I’m not wasting time that I could be using planning better lessons, or learning the language better. It’s hard to define what my job is for the summer, so it’s hard to quantify if and to what degree I am fulfilling it. I was hard on myself about a lot of things at home; I am still hard on myself here.

At home I used to feel stuck sometimes, and frustrated with the pace of time. I feel that here sometimes too. Just like at home, I get frustrated with myself, specifically with my language progress, and not seeing results the way I would like to.

All this isn’t to say that it’s not special here; rather to say that it’s special everywhere.

A girl who doesn’t know me at all leans on my shoulder and tells me a story, looks at me with big trusting eyes.

The stranger I meet on my run stops to talk and offers me some fruit.

I watch Moana with my students, three 13 year old girls, and they get to watch a young girl be the hero of a story, and see themselves in the storyline. They laugh at the funny parts, or pause the movie to help each other understand the new words.

It feels special when I can see my students excited about learning English and proud of themselves, or when my host family laughs at one of my clumsy jokes, or when the late night storm rolls in and the whole world is pink and orange.

And all of that is special, but all of that special is everywhere. All of those sparkling little facets of humanity, those exist here, but they exist wherever you are too.