Peace Corps Armenia: Kami

The thing that strikes me most is how alive everything feels here.

Mornings are slow. I wake up around eight and have a cup of coffee, then a cup of tea, then go to the school and do English clubs for two hours. Twenty kids a class, turquoise walls and a chalkboard. I sweat through a loose pink blouse.

After, it gets hotter and everyone stays inside while the thermometer creeps red. I’ll open the window, and a dry breeze swept down from the mountains will fill the house and rustle the trees. The Kami (wind, or storm) comes every night, and some afternoons if we’re lucky. You can see the heat outside—a bright white sky against washed out green leaves.

Around five it cools down. The sun comes at a slant, and washes the city in pink. The kids are out playing volleyball and soccer, and they’ll wave as I walk by. Sometimes I play too. Sometimes I walk up the hill in the center of the city and look out over the mountains in the distance. The sun will set, and a storm will roll in light up desert pink, flicker with lightning, and cool wind will come but usually no rain. My hair will be yanked out of a braid.

Someone will stop me while I walk, ask if I’ll come in for coffee or dinner, and where am I from? I’m not Russian? I don’t speak any Russian? I sure look Russian.

I laugh, and say no, I’m American. Sometimes I accept the coffee. Sometimes I’m passed a bag of sweet cherries, or apricots. I say thank you, shnorakalootsyoon, and they will smile, and say I speak very well. I’ll laugh, and tell them they don’t have to lie. Tjisht e asoom / say true.

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Time starts to work differently. “Meeting at 11” starts to mean meeting you leave for at 11:10, and materializes maybe by noon in the form of more coffee. I show up for my English clubs 10 minutes early, and students show up around 10 minutes late. My favorite khanoot, small grocery store, is the one where the aisles are tightly packed, fresh fruit spills off the shelves and on to the floor, and items are organized in no logical order I can sense. It’s an adventure to find something, but they always seem to have it.

 

 

I walked with my host sister and her friends through the town for a few hours while the sky turned coral pink, mountains steeped in purple. They talked with me, and I reminded them to slow down so I could understand, and we all laughed and I told them they’re funny.

Gitenk,” My host sister grinned. We know.

It took a second for the joke to process but when it did I burst out laughing, both at the joke itself and how long it took for me to get it.

My host sister proceeded to tell her friends how the previous day she had told her brother in prefect English “You are the stupidest person,” and had been so surprised I snorted tea out of my nose. Fourteen-year-old girls are the same everywhere.

A group of men stopped smoking on the corner as we walked pass. “They are staring at you,” my host sister’s friend needlessly explains. “Nmana Ruski. Yev siroon es. Kapooyt achker.” She nodded. You look like a Russian and are pretty, with blue eyes. “Ba. Don’t worry. Vochinch.

I nodded. “Vochinch.” I echoed.

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The heat sticks to me. On my legs, slick on my lower back. It’s only June, and a storm tumbles down the mountain and the sky sizzles and red hills roll and roll. Dust flares down the road. It’s too hot to leave the host so I sit alone in the shade. A tangle of birds sing outside.

I eat cherries. Sweet, and roll them over my tongue in the shade of the apricot tree, while the sun broils the dirt roads and sand hills all around. I spit the pit into a napkin, my lips stained red.

We walk to the butcher in the city to get meat for khorovats, Armenian barbeque, where the meat is cut with an axe on an old stump. Five of us cram into one taxi and bump down a dirt road in the dust and heat. Me, in a black tank top and lipstick like I never wear at home, grinning at some private joke with my head craned most of the way out the window, a little bit awestruck by the facts of it all. How lucky I am to be 23, and in Armenia, in that taxi in the Valley with this group of Russian and English teachers. Right then, it felt like there was no better place to be in the entire world.

 

Later, the Kami will sweep through the valley again. Rain will drum on the roof, spit out the gutter steady. A bird will sing outside while swallows dance between me and Mount Ararat. Dark clouds will split open at a crack of white lightning. I’ll move inside, and knit in front of the TV, trying to piece together the plots of Armenian soap operas and talk with my host family. After, I’ll go to bed and leave the window open, enjoying the wind. I’ll wake up in the morning and repeat.

(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!)

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View of Mount Ararat from the Hill

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Yours truly
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Mount Ararat, in Turkey
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Coffee and apricots 

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Peace Corps Armenia: Restart

We’re surrounded by mountains on all sides. To the North, the hills are stained red and orange. To the East, the mountains turn green. If you look hard you can still snow at the peaks. To the South, the mountains are neither red nor green, rather a gray and orange that tells of more desert over the jagged ridge at the edge of town. To the West is Mount Ararat, hovering over the whole valley, marking the border with Turkey, near the point where Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran almost meet.

There’s red and mountain on every side, but here in the valley it is green. Apricot, peach, and almond trees creep towards the sun, cherries fall off trees and bake to the pavement. It’s hot—the shoulders of rosy mountains move in heat lines, puddles appear and disappear in the street. I sweat through a pair of loose fitting jeans, feel tank top lines burning into my back. I think long and hard about water—about taking a pull from the cold hose at my last host family’s house, letting it drip from my chin. I decide that there if there is a fountain of youth it’s that hose. The air hangs thick and hot.

At night, it dips from the upper 90s back down to 70, and street lamps fire up, lights strung between the trees hold that warm orange glow. Everyone comes out, and the small city hums.

It’s not what I pictured when I imagined life in Armenia. I guess I pictured twirling through the mountains like Maria in The Sound of Music, or a small town in the ice cold of winter with a snowball fight. But it’s so different where I am from that idea, that it sort of feels like starting over completely.

 

Part of starting over completely is going from a village and schedule I know, with a support system I know, to somewhere completely new. And a part of that is feeling… honestly a little helpless. A little helpless when it takes me a long time to find the kiosk to pay my phone bill, or when someone introduces me saying I know very little Armenian, or when I honestly just have no idea what’s going on and have to go with the flow and cross my fingers.

Sunday I felt a little helpless on a school excursion when the timer on my Armenian language skills ran out and I was left feeling very foreign in a group of kind and welcoming people, and then feeling worse that I didn’t have the language or energy to be as invested in them as they were in me. Monday I felt a little helpless when my stomach hurt, and time seemed to drag by, and I wondered what it is I am going to do this entire summer. I felt helpless and overwhelmed when I was handed a list of 109 names and phone numbers written in Armenian and told it was for my English club. I couldn’t read the names, and it’s about 89 more kids than I know what to do with. I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with that. Tuesday I felt a little helpless when I couldn’t figure out why my host family didn’t want me to go for a walk. (It was because it was 3pm and 97 degrees out in the desert, that’s why, and it’s a good reason to not go).

 

I sat on a bench with two older women and sipped coffee. You’ll notice there’s a lot of coffee drinking here. It’s a social activity, as it should be everywhere frankly.

I sat, not really participating in the conversation, but keeping an open ear in case I was addressed. A girl ran up to us and started talking in quick Armenian.

She blinked and glanced at me, then back at the women. She spoke at a pace I had no hope of understanding, but in a tone I know well.

The woman who must have been her grandmother shrugged as if to say, “I don’t know what to tell you kid. Tough luck.”

The girl blinked harder, and spoke again, her voice trembling just a little.

I leaned forward. No one wants to cry in front of a group of people, especially not a twelve-year-old.

Oozoom es kaylel mi keech?” I asked. Do you want to walk a little?

She looked at me for real now, and nodded quickly, then grabbed me by the wrist. We started walking and she spoke in fast Armenian. I listened and gathered that she wanted to go swimming, but none of her friends did. She didn’t want to go alone.

“It’s okay,” I soothed in English while she cried frustrated tears and held my hand.

Ko mazere sirun e,” I told her, touching my own hair.

She grinned and tugged at her braids. “Oozoom es?

“Sure, why not?”

I sat on a log and she braided my hair. She told me her name, and that she is twelve and that she knows a little English but it’s not very good. We switched to English and I talked slow and patient and asked her about her sisters and what countries she wants to visit.

Her tears stopped and she dragged me by the arm back to her group of friends who all sat in a circle and asked me questions—how old are you? Are you married? Why not? You’re an English teacher? Will you be our English teacher? Two years?! Do you miss your family? You have sisters? Can we see them? This sister is prettier than you a little. Is she married? Will she come to Armenia?

I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. There in the shade of a tree by the river, sitting in a circle with a group of curious twelve year olds, I made some of my first friends.

 

During the weather mandated house arrest I had my first real conversation in Armenian. I mean a conversation that lasted a full hour and ended because we ran out of time, not because I ran out of words or energy.

I talked about the clubs I wanted to start, my plans for this summer, my life back in America, and understood most of what was said in return. It felt like such a relief after spending the earlier part of the week stumbling over things I could’ve sworn I knew well and feeling very dumb.

But my host mom was patient and spoke slowly, and gave me time to both process and answer.

“You’re Armenian is good today,” she commented.

I sipped at my coffee and smiled, feeling a little proud.

Mek mek, yerb senyak shat zvagbats e, yes klinem hoozvats yev kmorranem Hayeren,” I paused. Sometimes when room is busy I will be nervous and I will forget Armenian.

“Pordzoom em, uh, bayts mek mek hoknats em. Ha?” I am trying, but sometimes I am tired. Yes?

My host mother nodded. “It’s okay,” she assured me. “You are speaking well. Take your time. Kamants kamants,” she promised. Little by little.

It was an entire weight off my shoulders, to be given permission to speak poorly. To be told it’s okay if I am tired, if I am overwhelmed, that that’s allowed. I didn’t realize how badly I missed being understood, how important it was for me to not feel lost or stupid. And she went out of her way to create a space where I could feel safe with my language and vulnerabilities.

I swallowed, and thanked her in Armenian, then again in English, but there’s not really a word in either language that covers the thing I was feeling—the one where you realize you’ve got someone in your corner when you need them.

 

And I guess it turns out I’ve got a lot of people in my corner. I’ve got my people at home, a mom who calls and always laughs at my dumb jokes, who reminds me that not everyone could handle things the way I do, who reads every single rambling blog post. Thanks for always making me feel special mom.

I’ve got two sisters who sometimes reply to my texts but definitely don’t read this blog so I can write whatever I want about them so let me just say it’s really hard to be the smartest, funniest, and coolest of us. It’s really a burden.

I’ve got the world’s best college roommate/best friend who promises me one day she’ll binge read all of this so for when you do that Hannah sorry I left you 40 minutes of voicemails talking about tiny linguistics nuances you’re a real one for listening to that crap.

And I’ve got Peace Corps staff here who are always helpful, understanding and looking out for our safety.

I’ve got some of the greatest volunteer friends in the world—people who checkup when you’ve been feeling down, and participate in five-way FaceTime calls, pick up the phone when you’re in a tough situation, or promise you your language doesn’t suck as bad as you think it does, even when it definitely sucks just as bad as you think it does.

And I have met such wonderful people in the Ararat Valley, and I’m sure I will meet so many more. Please forgive my butchered transliterations and continued language errors.

 

Today, while drying dishes I looked out the window through the tangle of vines up at the profile of the mountain and thought about all the great people I’ve met here, twelve year olds, teachers, and friends alike. I tried to think of a word in any language that covers that feeling, but I couldn’t find one. So I wrote all this instead.

 

(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!)