Friday, August 25, 2006

End of Summer

I love my new family and village. This is a fantastic site placement and I have been blessed to have so many people supporting my work. My new best friend in the village is my 10-year-old brother. He brings me presents all the time and talks to me nonstop whether or not I understand what he’s saying. His favorite presents to give are seashells stuffed with fake flowers. He presents it to me and then runs it up to my room where they are proudly displayed on my windowsill. My sister is amazing and ever so patient with her four children. I’m thrilled to have this family on my side and the children as allies in the school.

People in the village whom I’ve been introduced to or whom I’ve gone to see (including the post office employees *hint hint*) comment on my language. They compliment how well I speak after such a short period of time. At first I thought they were just being nice, but the other day I overheard the two librarians talking about me and they affirmed what I’ve been told about my speech. This is shocking to me because learning Armenian is no easy task. After studying diligently in classes with Armenian language teachers we’re sent here to learn on our own. This becomes quite a task when the words I may have learned in one region are not spoken by the population at my new site. Armenian Barbar is slang that is used in different areas of the country. Sometimes my family will spend an entire dinner conversation trying to explain a term to me that, had they said the official word in the first place, would have been completely understandable. I’m sure my speech sounds rather bookish to them, but the Peace Corps didn’t give me an Armenian Barbar/English dictionary. As if the Barbar doesn’t present enough of an issue, the majority of the population speaks Russian fluently and often uses Russian terms in daily speech. I learned some Russian words in our classes, but different not nearly as much as I wanted. The family got a big laugh one night when I spent 15 minutes trying to figure out if I liked ice cream. Of course I couldn’t find the word in my dictionary and it wasn’t until my sister realized they were using Russian that I clarified that it is in fact one of my favorite foods.

Life is different now that I don’t have the support system of the other Americans or LCFs around. I tend to get pretty lonely when I want to talk and am unable. This provides a great incentive to learn and study as much as possible. One of my favorite techniques is watching Sabor a Ti (a Spanish soap opera dubbed into Armenian). “Miranda” as it is called by its devoted Armenian audience, is on every afternoon and uses such basic sentence structure that even I can follow a majority of the storylines. The other day, for instance, I was watching and all of a sudden it occurred to me that I new exactly what was being said. I consulted my dictionary to confirm and sure enough the man had said “I have no appetite”. I’m sure my sister finds it entertaining to watch the show with me because usually when I can directly translate a phrase or expression like that I shout it out with enthusiasm. I just get very excited when I think about how when I arrived nothing anyone said made sense…and now I can watch television. Speaking of television, one of the other shows that the kids and I enjoy is called Strange but True. It’s like a newscast similar to Ripley’s Believe it or Not. We sit around the television watching crazy behavior from all over the world; laughing at a man lifting hundreds of pounds with his ears or women sumo wrestling. The kids enjoy movies a lot too. The other night we watched Monsters Inc. in Russian together. This is fun entertainment because they get everything arranged just like we would in America. For instance, we pick corn husks from our garden, pull out all the seeds and pop them in a skillet over the gas tank…ok…so not just like America, but movie and popcorn- it’s kind of the same!

Whenever I’m having a bad day, I have not walked enough. Every morning I get up before the sun makes it over the mountains and I walk for about an hour. I need this exercise, but I also need this time to process everything that’s going on. It is quiet in the mornings (when I get out of town and away from the scary stray dogs) and I look at the majesty of this beautiful country and I give thanks that I am able to work here for a little while. I also think of all of you and I pray that you’re doing well and enjoying autumn in America. Thank you for your continued love and support.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Cultural understanding

Folk remedies may be one of the most significant road blocks to my work as a health education professional in this country. Some of my favorite beliefs include:

Drinking water makes you fat (very prevalent with women).
Headache? Place a tight headband around head for 30 minutes.
Wash your hair with kerosene for lice infestations.
Potato slices clear up varicose veins and also help in cases of burns or eye pain.
Cigarette smoking can reduce headache.
Drink a spoonful of vinegar before sleep in order to loose weight.
Salt can be used to clean teeth/if you have a cavity place cheese in it (or vodka on cotton or coffee or smoke a cigarette).
If a child is choking, rub/massage the space between the eyes.

I have experienced a few folk remedies and so far they have proven effective. For example, when I visited my new village I got mosquito bites on my arms and legs. I was sitting at the kitchen table one morning scratching away when all of a sudden I was being rubbed down with a vodka-soaked cottonball. Vodka is quite the investment in this country. Not only useful for toasts, people believe a vodka compress will cure a cough, clean wounds, cure headache and stomach problems and is generally good for the spirit. I’m sure it was the alcohol took away the itch in my bites.

A few days ago I asked my host mother, Anahit, what she loved most about our village. I felt like this was a pretty significant achievement because it means that I can ask questions (in this new language) in the form of “appreciative inquiry”. The Peace Corps encourages us to use this strategy for intentional change. Based on the Constructionist Principle (which says that we construct realities based on our previous experience, so our knowledge and the destiny of the system are interwoven), the Principle of Simultaneity (that inquiry and change are simultaneous) and the Poetic Principle (the story of the system is constantly being co-authored and is open to infinite interpretations), appreciative inquiry identifies the best of ‘what is’ to pursue future dreams and possibilities of ‘what could be’. The Peace Corps tells us that this strategy can be used in mission statement/vision development, strategic planning, organizational/system redesign, service enhancement, group culture change (which I’m hoping means smoking cessation), leadership development, civic/community development, appraisals and performance management and individual coaching.

Anahit said that she was most proud of her garden, but then she thought about it for a minute and realized that she also loved her family and her neighbors. It was pretty awesome to see her light up with pride in her small community. She started talking about the people in the village, and as a result of my simple question she began to discover the most valuable resource Armenia (or any organization for that matter) has to offer: its people.

Small conversations like this are really the motivating factor behind my language improvement right now. It’s a one step forward two steps back situation because the next day in class I gave a presentation on my apartment in America and I said that across the hall from my bedroom there is a swimming pool (instead of a bathroom). You have to have a good sense of humor to join the Peace Corps!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

End of PST

"The issue isn't wether you're liked or appreciated or whether your credentials are adequate or whether your intentions are good; it's simply a matter of trust and credibility, which can only come over time. It's not that they're not glad to see you, they're just trying to figure out who and what it is we've got here." I read this quote from A Few Minor Adjustments and thought it was perfect for the next step in Peace Corps process. We're wrapping up the last days here and preparing for our new lives in our permanent sites which brings another wave of ambiguity and questions of acceptance from the Armenian people. This time, however, we don't have the security of Language and Cultural Facilitators or PC staff to help us work through problems. It's simply up to us to get the job done.

My mom sent me a few questions that she said everyone is interested in knowing. I'll try and tell you some things I must be leaving out in my communications. First, let me say a very heartfelt thank you to everyone who has sent me mail during training. Receiving letters and packages is by far the highlight of my visits to the city. Thank you for your thoughtfulness!

My diet:
Every morning I wake up and eat one egg, which is hardboiled. This is not optional but I sometimes get creative with how I eat it in an effort to amuse myself. My newest creation is cut up egg with tomatoes. Sometimes I put it on bread but I've gotten spoiled and now I'll only eat the bread when my mom has baked it fresh that day or the day before. Two days ago my mom tested a new dish at dinner: Matsoon with raspberry muraba. Matsoon is a staple in Armenia, it is a very bitter yogurt substance that they put on just about everything (just like we do in America with Ranch dressing). I refused to touch it because I think it tastes like goat but then my mom realized what a sweet tooth I have and she added the raspberry muraba (a soupy raspberry jam). It makes for some delicious raspberry yogurt! Now I get to eat this in the morning with my egg. She also makes hot coco for me because I don't really enjoy coffee and sometimes we'll have some pastries. For lunch if it is a central day (the days we're in the city) I eat bread with tomatoes and cheese. The cheese here is nothing like Kraft (although I hear you can buy Kraft mac and cheese in Yerevan). It's called 'salty cheese' and salty it is. My host mother found some unsalty cheese but it's got the consistency of string cheese and it's pretty tough. I eat it though and don't mind at all. For dinner sometimes we'll have a BBQ (horovats) or we'll eat a greenbeans and eggs dish. The most popular dinner in Armenia is Tolma which is a cabbage wrap with ground beef and rice on the inside. Sometimes we have macaroni. Every meal comes with fried potatoes. It's a staple from the garden in the back of our house (and very common for all the households in this region). Some meals I've eaten have consisted of all carbs: potatoes, bread, macaroni and a cream-filled donut. Good thing I'm not on Adkins!. She learned that I love carrots and so she makes "carrot salad" which means she shreds the carrots and pours sugar on top. It's good. Everything we eat my host mother manages to make unhealthy. I've managed to break her of the great salt consumption but I can't seem to shake the amount of fat from a tin and vegetable oil she uses. A part of me thinks the oil is to combat a sticky pan on the stove but I know for sure that she just likes the immense amount of grease. Every family is different though, and I think my host family in my new site eats a little more reasonably. I guess we'll see. The girls I run with were very interested in how much I weigh and when I told them that I didn't know they took me to their Tatik's house and put me on the grain scale. It was in kilograms but they were pleased. I told them as long as my pants fit I'm not worried about how many kilos I weigh. One last thing about food, yesterday at the central day our medical session was about food shopping in country and food preparation. They taught us about safety issues like botulism but they also gave everyone a cookbook and had cooking demonstrations! I was very very excited about this session (as you can imagine). We learned how to make Mexican dishes, Italian, Asian, and even chocolate chip cookies! It was one grand potluck at the end and we enjoyed some very delicious (familiar) tastes.

Speaking of Central Days and my PC training, I might share some of the topics we've covered in preparation for service. Someone once said: "PST is like trying to take a sip of water out of an open fire hydrant (there's an explosion of information/culture and emotions)...try to take those sips." Although every sector is different, community health volunteers have covered many interesting topics during the past two months. We've had speakers come in to discuss NGO operation and social services provided to Armenians. We visited a sanitorium for TB patients or children who have parents with TB. We have learned about the basic health package for specific groups of the population and today, for instance, we visited a city hospital. There are some sessions that every trainee attends that cover broad cultural or technical information. We've studied the Armenian genocide and history in these sessions and welcomed influencial leaders to speak (such as the American Ambassador or the head of USAID). We've studied corruption and it's impacts in our work. The most important sessions for me are about how we can use commitment, resources and skills to build capacity in the country. We're trying to help people help themselves and so proper analysis of the communities needs is very important. One example that was described to us occured in a school where an international organization donated money to renovate and replace the restrooms. They bought all new toilets, doors and sinks and within three months the entire facility had been taken apart. The doors were stolen, the toilets broken and the sinks missing things like handles. When asked why the children were so 'disrespectful' of the gift, they replied that they didn't need a new restroom. It wasn't their hope to have new toilets, they didn't care if they had to use a hole outside. Then, someone decided to ask the students what they would do if they had been given the money. The stuents participated in participatory analysis for community action (PACA) and what the people discovered was that what the kids really wanted was new curtains for their classrooms. Of course if you asked me, the American volunteer accustomed to running water and European toilets, what I would like, I would reply a new restroom. For these kids, however, having a nicer classroom was a higher priority. So this is where we're learning about evaluation. We're also studying the ADDIE model for cirriculum design and lesson plan development. We're learning about organizations that we can collaborate with in our communities (for instance my village has a youth action committee). We're studying grant writing and how to apply for money for the projects our community would like to initiate.

The Peace Corps gave us our new job descriptions: We are learners, change agents, co-trainer and co-facilitators, project co-planners and mentors. Nothing we do should be our personal priority, it should instead be what our community would like to see happen. I think that the people of Armenia are creative, they do have a desire to change and work and grow, but sometimes there just isn't an outlet. My job is to provide that outlet in my village.

I am all out of time for now but I will write to you about international relations, the genocide and earthquake and anything else you would like to know. It may take me some time as we're quite busy preparing for swearing in on the 14th and moving to our new village on the 15th. Also, school starts (first bell) on September 1, but I promise I have not forgotten you and will continue to do my best to share anything you would like.

Much love!