Sunday, September 11, 2011

POSH CORE PEACE CORPS......."CHE", (NO! in the Armenian Language)

       What have we learned about Armenia since moving to our permanent town, the place where we will live and serve in the Peace Corps for 2 years? Many with other Peace Corps assignments in the world jokingly say that Armenia is “posh core Peace Corps”.  Having first been with Peace Corps Niger, deemed to be “hard core Peace Corps”, David and I initially agreed, however, even after only a few months in Armenia, we think “posh corps Peace Corps” is not an appropriate designation.
       True, most of Armenia does have electricity and running water which were rare in the bush villages of Niger. People do have houses, adequate yet limited clothing, and access to food although items other than seasonal ones are expensive.  Employment in our town is limited, therefore, the ordinary people live frugally. For instance, in our host family home, hot water is available only for certain hours of the day. There is a flush toilet, however, it is located in an uninsulated enclosure near the front door which means the water will probably freeze during the frigid winter weather. Gas heat is common, but we are told it is exorbitantly expensive and even though electricity is cheaper, there are few electric heaters. We are also told many people rely on wood stoves for heat and then only provide heat in1 room at a time.  School staff reports that during the winter in many schools heat is minimal with both students and staff wearing coats all day inside the classrooms.
Typical classroom in my Armenian school

House which owners have attempted to make livable; note electrical wire to house

Crumbling stairs leading from one street to another, left from
damage of earthquake, 1988

      While walking around our town, which during Russian times was a thriving tourist destination, we see more empty buildings in the business area than occupied ones. People we’ve met say that after the earthquake of 1988 repairs were not done to damaged buildings. Then war erupted and again prevented reconstruction. Now sidewalks are broken up, streets are rift with potholes, and old buildings needing demolition still stand with broken windows, decaying wood frames and crumbling brick and block foundations. Moreover, the primary colors for attire in Armenia are black and white while the affect on the faces of those met on the street is flat or stern. We are told this lack of response to our “Barev dzez” (hello), is partially due to the fact that the Armenian culture believes if one does not know you, they do not greet you.  This is not the case in all situations but in many we’ve encountered as we walk around our town in an attempt to immerse into our new cultural home.

Example of many houses which are left standing but in need of major repairs
Sidewalk I use to walk to my school; very poor condition and unsafe
          Visitors to our town  are  disappointed in what they find yet there is amazing potential for tourism in such a naturally beautiful place. There is a lovely relatively new art museum at the edge of town and an informational history museum in the older section which features local crafts, art and gift items. A few excellent Armenian restaurants are available although we find that our favorite café closes from late October to April due to winter weather and declining business. Numerous bed and breakfasts are listed on tourism literature, but their quality and offerings are not known. There are no entertainment venues and no church in the town.                                                     
        One of Dave’s projects is to work with a local NGO (non- governmental organization) in the development of some aspect of tourism which could be marketed to international travelers.  With the realization that needed costly repairs of infrastructure will not be accomplished due to the lack of money, the focus may be on outdoor activities such as hiking, campinp, and backpacking in the surrounding mountains. In the past, trails were present and well utilized because maintenance was provided by the Soviets. Once Armenia established itself as an independent country, there was neither the money nor manpower to promote this type of activity. Hopefully, David and his counterpart will be able to assess what is present, gain the interest of volunteers to make improvements, draw up trail maps, and begin to advertise this facet of our town’s resources for tourists.
Beauty exists in our town with flowers flourishing everywhere.
There is hope that other aspects of the town will bloom as well. 

New construction in the center of town offers hope for the future.

Young boys on the opening day of school in our town, September 1, 2011
              It is disconcerting to us to hear that the population of Armenia is decreasing with each census.  Many people now either move to Russia or go there for part of each year because of job availability. This causes disruption of family units but does provide necessary income for them to live. Armenians are hard- working, family- oriented, resilient people. Not only have they as a people endured a difficult past, they also live hard lives as individuals. Their future could be brighter with major economic changes. Currently taxes are high, wages are low, and people are financially desperate on many levels.  Government corruption exists and the unemployment rate is 40% and higher among the young (people under age 35). I feel bleak about the future of Armenia, maybe because I’m writing this piece on a chilly, dreary day in August when long johns are worn and clothes have yet to dry on the outdoor line.  Maybe when school starts next week and I become involved in the enthusiasm of students eager to learn my native language, will it seem more positive. The young people of Armenia are beautiful, smart, and full of positive energy. It is my hope that our town and all of Armenia will be able to flourish again, due in part to the contributions of these young people.      
     Dave and I will have 2 years to serve with Peace Corps Armenia.  We do challenge those who deem it to be a posh assignment. Even though we’ve experienced amazing cultural events during our training and we are not living in a mud hut without electricity or running water, the challenges of need and how to help these people help themselves are tremendous in Armenia.
The mountains  are majestic, beautiful , and inspirational.
They help to balance the negatives of  Armenia's decline and a tragic history.
      Please follow our story to see if, or how, our perspective changes.    Judy and Dave

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