Tuesday, October 19, 2004

after surgery

After surgery, I was forbidden to sit for a week because of the strain sitting places on the lower back- I could lie down, I could walk but sitting was strictly verboten. I didn't do much those first few days - ate, slept, read a bit before dozing off again. I was amazingly weak - it seemed that I slept all the time, and even when I was awake there wasn't much I was up for. I was very fragile physically and was terrified of someone bumping into me, or a dog jumping on me - it could have set me back months at that time. This was my first email out after surgery, written standing up in the common room, and preserved in it's original format, typos and all - it was a major effort at the time, no matter how pitiful it looks now.

hey you all -

So, I'm out of the hospital, in room 323 (?) with my mom (to avoid the TV in room 327) walking et al. Appointment with the Dr next monday, and Iexpect tio be cleared to travel then. Chances of making it to Vt are good, chances of making it back to country also.

gotta go -,m


Monday, October 18, 2004

the needle and the knife

There's nothing written from this time period - between setting the date for surgery and actually arriving there - I remember going to museums with Brenna (my friend from art school and the best person to travel with in the world), and her and her husband Chuck taking me out for sushi the night before my operation. Sharing the room with the other med-evac from the Russia Far East program, feeling dazed much of the time. The closet in our room filled with discards from previous volunteers - clothes, Walkmans, cheap cameras, stuffed animals. So much stuff. Hot water. Internet. Stores. People.

It was overwhelming.

I couldn't eat or drink anything for 12 hours or so before surgery, it was scheduled for mid morning. No coffee. I went in with my mother, gave my Armenian karate photo id at the desk, changed into the lovely garb provided and special thigh high support hose (to prevent clots in my legs during and after surgery), waited around for a while with my mom. Some one came into the room and went through what was to be done with me, confirming that I was indeed the patient scheduled for a laminectomy of the L5/S1 disc, and that I had opted for a spinal rather than general anaesthesia, had me sign some papers.

Then I was brought into the surgery. They had a line in the back of my right hand by that point, probably already dripping the 'Buddha cocktail', as the surgeon had called it - something to soothe the savage breast. I sat on the edge of the table and leaned forward so that they could get a clear shot for the spinal. It was beyond painful; the nurse kept telling me to hold still, and I couldn't; I couldn't control my body. Tears streaming down my face, I bit down on my hand to keep from crying out, my body jerking away uncontrollably and instinctively. The godawful pain, beyond anything I had ever experienced. The nurse holding my shoulders, trying to hold my body still, trying to restrain me, me trying to restrain myself.

That was the worst. After it was finally in, and that was over, it was all cake and pie. They waited a bit, until I was quite numb from the waist down, and then flipped me over, belly down and spine exposed, onto an arched sort of support. It was hours later that the surgeon finished, but the Buddha drug was dripping, and there was a sort of blanket blowing hot air over my upper back (those operating rooms are bugger all cold!), so I didn't really mind. I do remember thinking they had put trays of instruments down on my back, and being quite annoyed; the sensation was irritating me. Most of the time I was half asleep, drowsy and dozing.

At the end, and as I had asked, the surgeon showed me the chunk they had taken out of my spinal canal (the nerve had been pushed all the way to one side, the canal almost a third blocked). It was whitish and bloody, like a jellyfish, abou the size of a silver dollar, with various tendrils and appendages trailing out from the main mass. They send everything straight to biopsy, you can't take it home again, and I had wanted to see what came out of me, what had caused all the pain.

I'm glad I did.

Then to a recovery room, waiting for my legs to come back - it's the strangest sensation, lying there, telling your legs to move, getting absolutely no response. I had to stay in recovery until I could ... wiggle my toes? Move my legs? Something impossible for a half hour or so. The surgeon checked in with me once or twice; I watched the other poor suckers coming out of general anaesthesia, getting sick and mumbling; I concentrated on moving my toes, getting my legs to work.

Finally I achieved my goal, and was wheeled into my room. I was dying for coffee, I was dying for liquid, absolutely parched, and I wanted an almond croissant, and my faithful mom went out to locate them for me. I had been warned that if I couldn't pee within a certain length of time post-op I would be catherized, so that was one of my big goals. Getting up to pee - I had to call a nurse to help me, my legs still very wobbley indeed, still with a line in the back of my hand and trailing a IV stand. Then I had to ask her to give me a little privacy so I could actually produce. Then wobbling back to the bed, stand and all, leaning on the nurse - I'd never have made it without her - and collapsing into the sheets, my mother returning with the coffee and croissant. That was wonderful.

I was in the hospital overnight, doped up and trying to sleep, the line in the back of my hand a constant bother, painful when I moved, my muscles stiff and sore. Still dopey from the drugs, and being woken several times that night by nurses checking on me, the needle in the back of my hand a constant irritant, painful whenever I moved. Unable to turn over in bed, because of the IV and the pain.

Still, by the next day I was up and walking, trundling my IV stand through the halls, the support stockings (designed for larger legs than mine) falling down around my knees, the pain in my left leg still there but drastically reduced. The surgeon came to see me, said he would release me – though he stressed only because my mother was there to caretake me; I asked him if I could take the line out of my hand. He said yes, but I don’t think he realized how serious I was until I started untaping it, and then he got an assistant to come by and remove it for me. I was quite ready to pull it out myself by that point, truly I was.

Brenna and my mom came by and picked me up, I had the usual wheelchair ride down to the entrance, and rode lying down in the back of Brenna’s car, back to the hotel, staying in my mom’s room – sleeping most of the time. I was so tired.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Making a date with the knife

Date: Tue, 06 Nov 2001

hey you guys -

Well, it looks like I'll be going under the knife on Friday (as in this Friday). Think good thoughts for me.

I expect to be in the hospital a couple of days and then at least a week here in recovery - after that I may be free to travel (carefully) for a bit. They'll re-evaluate me after 5 weeks or so, and it looks like I've got a good chance of making it back to country after that.

Keep those fingers and toes crossed for me!

love on all your pointed little heads -


Tuesday, October 12, 2004

In America again

When I got into DC, my mother and Brenna met me at the airport - that was a godsend. Peace Corps DC usually makes ambultory volunteers find their own way to the hotel, which I would NOT have been capable of by any means. My mother had flown down from Vermont, and Brenna lives in DC, with her husband Chuck and several cats of their own. Pets aren't allowed in the Peace Corps hotel (Peace Corps keeps a couple of hotel floors available just for volunteers who have been med evac'd or who have been evacuated from their countries for one reason or another), so Brenna and Chuck had very kindly offered to house and care for Zoe while I was in DC. Brenna drove us to their house first and I dropped off Zoe and a duffel bag that I didn't need anything in (it had presents and such-like), and then she drove us both to the PC hotel. My mom had gotten a room there on the same floor for a week or so.

It was all big time culture shock - I went to check into the hotel, and they gave me a room on the sixth or seventh floor. I was instantly aghast and indignent, and demanded to know if they had an elevator, because I was sick and couldn't possibly climb the stairs.

Oddly enough, they had an elevator - just like every other hotel in DC, I'm sure. The whole thing was such an overload for me - stores were impossible, too much stuff and people; the medical process started immediately, and I was sucked into that; the other volunteer sharing my room (PC puts volunteers up two or three to a room) was nice enough, but very young and had already immersed herself throughly in American culture. There are no words to describe how terribly strange it all was after coming out of Armenia. Just throwing the toilet paper into the toilet (rather than into a toilet paper bucket) was something I had to keep reminding myself to do. And all the people speaking English, and the other evacuated volunteers going shopping, and the horror of the stores - several times when I was with my mother I had to just tell her that I needed to leave, it was just so much all at once. Plus dealing with jet lag, of course - my body clock was on a totally different schedule, and I remember getting and wandering the halls in the wee hours of the night when I couldn't sleep.

In addition, medical was testing to see if I had giardia - which means doing stool samples, always a lovely procedure. Even more so after having taken all that immodium - it's very effective stuff. In order to get a clean stool sample, you need to shit on paper (yes, just like a puppy), which meant squatting on the bathroom floor, which was amazingly painful.

I'm pretty sure I got the MRI's the first day I was in, and saw the neurosurgeon the second day. There was one very slow computer on each floor that volunteers could use for email and it was (as you would imagine) pretty busy, with people always waiting - I'm betting this was sent on one of my nocturnal rambles when the lines were reasonable.

Date: Tue, 06 Nov 2001 11:36

hey you all -

I'm here in DC, with my cat at Brenna & Chuck's (thanks again you guys!), my mom in the room down the hall, and a good case of giardia (doesn't that sound like fun!). X-rays and MRIs yesterday, today I'll bring the films in and talk to the doctor again. Looks to be surgery and coffee with half & half in my near future - and it looks like I may be able to make it back to site as well, which would make me most pleased indeed.

Petition whatever gods you're currently favoring for me, ok?

love and squalor -


Saturday, October 09, 2004

letter to the school

This was my last letter to the World Wise school before I was med-evac'd - it actually should have gone before my last post, but.... o, well.

This is a bit later going out than I would wish - my apologies, though I must say life has been a bit more interesting of late than I care for. I'm going to offer that as my excuse and leave the subject, go on to describing my reality for your amusement and edification.

So, I'm still here waiting to hear what's coming next for me - after several months of back pain, I had a MRI (Magnetic Resonance Image) September 28th. It was kind of fascinating, and quite painless, but the results were dismal. Apparently I have three herniated discs in my lower back, one of which is impinging on nerve function and causing the pain. The short story is that it's pretty likely I'll need to be evacuated to the States for surgery - the Peace Corps doctor gave me a 98% chance of it, but we need to wait for word from Washington. Which is what I'm doing. The films from my MRI were sent off to D.C. for evaluation there, but they took a bit longer to get there than expected. The doctors there will look at them, make a decision, and then tell the Peace Corps office here. Peace Corps will then call me and let me know - until then, I'm in Limbo. It's a bit nerve wracking, but all these petty personal problems do tend to distract me from the larger world news, and right now that may be all for the best.

If they decide to evacuate me, I'll be flown to Washington, have surgery, and if I can heal to Peace Corps satisfaction in 45 days I'll get to come back. If not, I'll be separated from the Peace Corps, and I won't see Armenia again for quite some time. If ever. It's a vastly depressing thought for me - I really love this country, and the community I have found here; I want to work here, and, after a year here, I'm at a point where I should be able to start some successful projects. I have a bit more language, I have community contacts, and I have a bit better understanding of how things work (or don't) around here - I was hoping to extend for an extra year, and now I may be leaving for good in a few weeks. There's just so much more I wanted to do here.

Not knowing for sure yet makes it all that much harder. I can't start any new projects; I've been working to tie up the last loose ends on all my ongoing work, or at least leave enough information for the new volunteer so that she can finish them off. I took a trip out to the Akner school the other day to see how the computers were working out for them. That was a rude awakening - the computers were there, which was good, but they haven't been set up yet, and no one is using them. They're just sitting in boxes in the principal's office, the teacher that was going to teach the computer classes has emigrated to Israel, and the principal hasn't even bought a surge protector for them yet. I offered to help setting them up and am willing to donate an extra surge protector I have to the cause; we found another woman who can teach - but it's going to take several more visits before anything happens. It may involve more time and effort than I have left here, so I'll pass it off to Tiffany and hope she can follow up on it for me.

I feel that I have to plan for not coming back, even as I hope that I'll be able to. I brought my cat into Yerevan last week for her shots and 'kitty passport' - six hours on marchutneys with a cat and you know it's serious; I've started giving some stuff away; I've been sorting my things into rough categories - what will stay, what will go, who is to get what; I've boxed up some stuff to ship home. I'm collecting addresses and phone numbers. The karate school awarded me a honorary black belt third dan, and presented me with yet another ring, this one with the school's insignia on it. It all feels so final. They also made me haash, a traditional Armenian dish made from cow feet, stomach, and tongue all stewed together. I can't say it's on my list of best meals I've ever eaten but it's a long way from the worst as well, and anytime an Armenian man spends 6 days preparing a single meal for me, I'm going to eat it. I'm sure it's very healthy.

Here's a little side note on reality: one of the things I gave away was two 3 ring binders filled with the usual lined paper. I gave them to Roman, Nellie's fifteen year old brother - and he was delighted to get them, told me it was a very good present indeed. I can't imagine any fifteen year old in America being delighted with such a gift, but he honestly was - such an ordinary thing, such a small present, and he was most pleased. Something to remember. This still amazes and delights me, BTW

I'm apologize for the relentless self interest of this letter - as I said, my petty little problems have been distracting me from the world at large of late, and are likely to be doing so for quite some time. I'd say at least 45 days - but I'll send out an email when I know for sure. Until then, wish me luck, and I send you my love.

the word from Washington

The word came from Washington; I had to go. Char assured me I wouldn't be coming back; Peace Corps made me pack up all my things to be shipped home if I didn't make it back (I later found out that this was NOT a free service); they came and took everything from my apartment. My boxes, their stove and propane tanks and fire alarm and water filter and all. I was having a noticable hard time at this point, stumbling and limping through my days; the pain was impressive. I hated thinking of leaving - I got all my Armenian friends' addresses; I handed out cards with my address (well, my dad's) and my email on them; I posted a bunch of them on my mailbox at Peace Corps; I got ready to go in the midst of all this uncertainity and pain.

Date: Sat, 27 Oct 2001

Hey there boys and girls -

Ok, here's the latest update from the world of Meg: I'll be flying out of Yerevan on November 4th (Sunday), and arriving in DC later the same day (2:20 pm to be precise on flight NW 35 from Amsterdam- though I doubt it will be that precise). Apparently one of those pesky discs has a 'free fragment' that 'may be re-absorbed' - doesn't it all sound like the Balkan wars or something? They may try a walking epidural, or they may go straight for the knife - Peep only knows.

I'll be going from here to Vanadzor, see my host family and come back up to Alaverdi on Sunday. Peace Corps will come pick up my stuff on Wednesday, I'll stay here until Friday morning. At that point I'll go into Yerevan (with the cat - doesn't that sound like fun!), and stay through Sunday morning when PC will bring me to the airport and wash their hands of me. At that point I'll be in the clutches of the Office of Medical Services, until they see fit to release me. Kind of like 'catch and release wild trout', only different. Really different, actually.

Nellie is working on folding cranes for me. So far we've got a hundred and fifty plus. She says 'I don't believe in this, but some one will be very angry if I do it and you don't come back." The karate school is coming to Yerevan to see me off (you have no idea of how big a deal that is here, but I can assure you it's an honor). Everyone is giving me things, which makes me very sad - it feels so final. People are writing letters about what a swell volunteer I am, just in case it will help my case. My mom is coming to meet me at the airport. I get 45 days in America, and then I'm medically separated from the Peace Corps - but I might be able to stretch that time a bit, apply vacation time or go for interrupted service or something. We'll see.

For now, all I can say for sure is I'll be back in the home of the brave and the land of anthrax next Sunday, staying in Arlington. Here's that address for all you fans out there:

Virginian Suites Hotel 1500 Arlington Blvd Arlington, VA o 22209
703-522-9600 (remember jet lag, culture shock, and pain management - I may be a tad stressed. Forgive me)

I am not best pleased. Don't write me off 'til you see the box going in the hole, is what I sez - and you all know what a stubborn little critter I am. So, take heed, you all - I'm only going to be stateside a short while. Shower me with gifts while you can - take the opportunity while it's there!

Love and squalor on all your pointed little heads -


here's my card, heal my back

Notes From the Edge:

Two weeks ago on a Friday I went in to Yerevan for my first MRI. I gotta say it wasn’t as much fun as I’d expected. The music was bad, for one thing, and looking at the MRI itself was even worse. The normal discs show up like little jellyfish, or cloud puffs, or anything else that’s soft and watery and whitish tucked in between each vertebrae. Three of my discs look like creatures from the Black Lagoon; they look like they’ve been running with a rough crowd, hanging around bars, and smoking way too much. Little lumps of coal at the base of my back and my spine twists up and away from them in lazy painful curves. It looks like a textbook illustration, the illustration you don’t want to be in, the one marked ‘abnormal’. It is not a pretty sight.

Immediately after, I started hearing terms and phrases such as ‘medical evacuation’, ‘operation’, and ‘ possible medical separation’ - none of which was terribly reassuring. I’m still hearing them. They brought me back to the office, sent me back to site, the films went off to Washington on the following Monday, and two weeks later I’m still waiting word. Do I stay or do I go? If I go, can I come back? Do I pack for 45 days, or for the duration? If I must go and can’t return, will Peace Corps ship boxes home for me? If I have to go, how much time do they give me to pack, to say my goodbyes?

I don’t have any answers, I don’t know what to do. I look at things in my apartment with a measuring eye now - this I want, this I can leave, this I’ll want if I come back but otherwise will abandon. I’ve started to sort my possessions, who will get what; I’ve stopped writing letters home; I’ve stopped my Armenian lessons. I’m trying to wrap up my ongoing projects, I can hardly start any new ones. I exist within the confines of a holding pattern. In an act of quiet desperation, I folded a hundred paper cranes, and I gave away all my New Yorkers. I am not ready to leave, I am not ready for final goodbyes. The pain is unrelenting. I limp almost constantly, sometimes I fall down and make funny noises. My left leg’s performance is unreliable, I no longer trust it. Two months ago I could bend over and place my palms flat on the floor, bring my head to my knees; now I can’t touch my toes.

On the other hand, I can still function. The pain may be relentless but it’s bearable; I can walk, I can lift a bucket of water, I can climb stairs, I can sleep most nights. I know I don’t want to leave if leaving means I can’t come back. Forty five days in America I could deal with, the idea of air travel doesn’t frighten me, I just want to know I can come back. I have work to do here, and I have to go to the Vernissage, and I want to help my family stack their wood against the winter. I have jars upon jars of mouraba to finish, sitting in jewelled rows in my refrigerator; Varton is making haash for me, I’ve promised to eat it. How could I leave now?

I don’t think I have a choice in this anymore. I am waiting on Washington, and the waiting is killing me. Ah, here’s my card - heal my back.

later that month....

Peace Corps finally took me in for an MRI - there's one machine in Armenia, located in a tractor trailer in Yerevan; I went in with the Peace Corps medical staff, Dr. Anna and Char. They gave me headphones with Russian music, had me pull down my pants and slide into the machine. The news was bad; I could tell from the technician's face as soon as I got out of the humming tube, and Char (the American staff member, sensitive as always) said ' Well, you got what you wanted, you're going home'. They drove me back to Peace Corps in the white Land Cruiser; I sat in the back with tears sliding down my face.

The films were shipped off to Washington, and I waited on the decision. It took longer than it should hav, because of 9/11 - flights were delayed and cancelled all over the place. I was pretty much in a sustained state of agony at this point, and filled with anxiety about leaving Armenia.

Sat, 29 Sep 2001

Hey you all -

I've written this damn thing three or four times by now and the bloody computer keeps booting me out at the crucial moment and I lose everything - so forgive the lack of style and assume it was there in the first three drafts, ok?

So, I had my MRI and it's not a pretty sight. Three herniated discs - they show up all black on the film, while the other discs are pretty white clouds. PC is talking Med Evac, and possible medical separation, and I am not best pleased. The films go out to Washington on Monday, and I'll know more in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile it's nothing but questions, and no answers. Do I need to pack? What about my cat? What about my kerosene? What happens if I can't come back? What about my projects?

No answers. This is your heads up - clean that spare room out, make up the guest bed, and put the coffee on. Get the half and half stocked up. I'll send you more info as I get it, but get ready for the return of the prodigal daughter. If I have to come home, I'm gonna want sushi, goddammit.

I am SO not pleased.



once more, for the children

And to the World Wise school, I sent yet another version of what was happening. I remember crouching on my porch with my shortwave radio, trying to get reception, trying to hear what was happening all those thousands of miles away. I remember Varton and Arkadi taking me to the post to call my friend in New York; ArmenTel was giving five or ten minutes calls to America free to Armenians, you had to bring your passport to the post and they would connect you. So they brought their passports and let me call.

And my back was getting worse all these days, but it seemed so small in comparision.

September 14th, 2001

Dear John et al -

I'm here in my apartment, listening to the Voice of America, listening to the BBC, the scratchy radio voices rolling over me. It still seems unreal to me, I can't quite believe it even as I listen to the body counts and the smoke filled voices cracking with emotion. I watched the news at a friend's house, the planes plowing into the buildings again and again, the bodies falling from the skies, the buildings themselves collapsing, the sun rising red through the clouds of smoke and ash. Twisted steel remains and the talk of war. It is all so far away, it is all so close - and I am a million miles away, so far away from home.

The country director called me Tuesday night, he called all the volunteers that night. It was movie night at my house, we were watching Mrs. Doubtfire. Six Armenians and two Americans in my living room, my director on the phone telling me of a major terrorist attack in New York and D.C. and I was stunned, in shock and disbelief. (I actually thought at first that it was a joke of some sort in incredibly poor taste - we were supposed to having an emergency evacuation drill coming up, and I thought that this was what it was; that it couldn't be real. I huddled in the hallway and called my mother, and in the living room the movie played on. Surreal.) I used to live in New York, I have friends and relatives there. My sister called, my mother as well, my host family called to tell me how sorry they were how terribly sorry. It is a hard thing, to be so far from home at times like these. Every one knows, everyone has seen or heard the news, has watched the same footage - but it is not their country, it is not the same. They talk about it in the shuka and at the post, they ask after the safety of my family, and say it is a terrible thing - but, for the most part, life goes on as normal. There isn't that overwhelming sense of catastrophe, the deep ringing shock to the system.

I feel it, though. For me, everything has changed. There has always been war during our lifetime, but it has never been on American soil, it has never been our cities burning. We grew up in relative safety - no 'duck and cover' drills and the war on TV, a safe distance away. The luxury of safety, the bravery of being out of range. Now I peer into that same screen, and watch the burning buildings and the panic in the streets - but now they are my streets, these are places I have been and places I can never return to again, for they are no more. It is strangely dislocating; I see through the glass darkly. I listen to the scratchy radio that I never listen to; morning, noon and night I listen. I am trying to sort the stream of information, to figure out what is coming next. I have been waiting for this all my life; in a very real sense I have been waiting for the day when the war came home. I knew it would happen one day, it was always inevitable - still, I am unprepared for the reality. The anxiety of waiting, crouched by the radio, listening into the darkness, hoping for answers.

I have heard of the Palestinians dancing in the streets, celebrating and shooting guns in the air; I have heard of attacks on Arabs in America and England, of graffiti scrawled on mosques and windows broken. These are not answers; they are both deeply shameful things. You must know this, and you must make sure that others know it as well. On this the future of the world depends - truly, it does. It is shameful to celebrate the death of others, it is equally shameful to hate, to persecute, a group of people based on their religion or ethnicity. The attacks, the graffiti, the broken windows - these are the acts of cowards, and their actions shame us all. Never believe otherwise. Who ever is to blame for these attacks is to blame for these attacks - not their countrymen, not their fellow worshippers, not even their relatives. If in our pain and fear we strike blindly out at others that is not justice, that is terrorism. It solves nothing, it only adds to the amount of pain and confusion and hatred in this world. An eye for an eye leaving the whole world blind.

Justice is another thing altogether, far more complex, far more difficult.

Sept. 18th

In the midst of all this, life does go on. The volunteers here in Armenia are still on standby, waiting. No unnecessary travel, stay in close contact with the other volunteers at your site, keep your ears up and your eyes open. At this point I doubt we'll be evacuated, unless war breaks out in earnest. The problems with air travel alone pretty much guarantee we'll be here for a while. The first day we kept to ourselves and our apartments; now we're slowly resuming our normal schedules. It's still hard to focus. I practice my Armenian, the new words I am learning: horrible, shock, war, unreal. I do not like the way they fit my mouth, but I am learning my lessons. I go to karate. I listen to the radio. I am in a holding pattern.

The town is still digging out from a series of flash floods that ran rivers through the town, moving cars and some small shops, dumping vast quantities of mud and debris across the roads, pulling up the layers of asphalt. The major work is done by this point, but the sidewalks, streets, and alleys are still covered with a thick layer of dried mud. It puffs up in great clouds of dust behind the cars and after every footstep, and reverts to mud every time it rains, tracking into the homes and businesses. It's a mess, and will remain this way for quite a while - I think that once the roads were passable, the organized cleanup was over.

My new sitemate has also arrived - Tiffany Sommerland, from California. She's 24 years old, a business volunteer, and this is her first time living on her own. She picked up a puppy during training, and so far her main business has been attempting to toilet train the wee beastie. Teddy (the dog) has been resistant, but we're holding out hope. Bladder control is a wonderful thing.

I'll be going to Yerevan later this week for a test of my language skills and a committee meeting. I'll send this out then (assuming the email is working), and send a hard copy out as well - though Peep alone knows when that will get there. I'm assuming the mail service has been disrupted by the disaster as well as everything else - and that's once it gets out of this country. I'm planning to put some photos in with this - assuming I remember, they're of a church near Nellie's family's garden. Armenia is studded with sites like this - small half ruined churches and temples hiding in the hillsides, always with stubs of candles in front of the hatchkars (carved stone crosses - hatch = cross, kar = stone). And almost everyone has a garden - people rely on them in a very real way for the food they eat. Because Alaverdi is built in a canyon, land is scarce enough that many people have to travel outside of the town to find space to garden. Nellie's family garden is reached by train - about an hour away, all told. It doesn't make it easy, by any means.

September 11th again

This I wrote for the PC newsletter - yes, there are a lot of similarities....

Notes from the Edge:

Horrible. Shock. Unreal. War. These are the words for the week. I listen to the scratchy radio voices, I watch the planes plow into the buildings again and again, people running through the streets, burning buildings, the columns of twisted steel. The bodies falling from the towers, the towers themselves collapsing. I practice my Armenian - horrible, shock, unreal, war. I do not have the vocabulary I need, I cannot express this.

I lived in New York once, many years ago. I have friends and family there. They may exist in the past tense now; I do not know, I can not tell you. My sister calls across the seas and the time zones, my mother can’t get through, my host family calls to say how sorry they are, how terribly sorry. The news rolls over me, again and again; it flattens me with the weight of detail, all the minutia of pain. I listen to the scratchy radio voices. They cannot tell me the answers. I hardly know the questions myself.

Some Palenstines celebrated, dancing in the streets, firing guns into the air; some Arabs were attacked in the States, graffiti scrawled across mosques. These are not answers. NATO speaks of ‘acts of war’, invoking Article Five; the Pope calls it ‘a dark day’. The price of gold rises, flights are grounded and borders closed, tall buildings and Disney World evacuated. The flags fly at half mast, the stock market closes. In the city morning rises an ominous red through a pall of smoke and ash while Liberty holds her torch high, her blind eyes hooded. I peer into the TV screen, I see through this glass darkly. It is all so far away, it is all so close to my home. None of the information I hear can help me make sense of this. Is this the end of the world as I know it? I cannot tell what is happening, what will come next. No one knows, and we are all anxiously looking for answers, looking to see what is coming next. This brave new world that has such creatures in it; death on a pale horse.

Life in a state of wartime. It has always been elsewhere, and now it has come home. Somehow I have been expecting this all my life and I am still unprepared for the reality. I do not have the vocabulary I need for this, these are not words I want in my mouth. The radio rolls over me, I repeat my lessons. Horrible. Shock. Unreal. War. I can hardly bear to listen.

September 11th

It was the next big thing that happened. What can I say? You already know all about it - and here is what I wrote home at the time.

I've been listening to those scratchy radio voices for days now, ever since the night we got the call from Bill Benjamin, our Country Director. BBC and VOA rolling over me with the current body counts and the talk of war, smoke filled voices choked with fear and sorrow describing the missing. The weight of detail, all the terrible details. It's very strange being so far away; it must be equally strange to be there. The first day we were on standby, trapped in a holding pattern - now we're slowly resuming our normal schedules; keeping in contact, keeping our eyes open and our ears up. Listening to the radio out on my porch, trying to see what's coming next. I dreamed last night of Robert in New York; I tried to call him once and got his voice on the machine. Free floating anxiety, and you don't know how much I want a cigarette right now, you really don't.

I don't know what else to say to you all. I have letters here from Marlene, Don, and William; I have emails from any number of people, and I'm sure I'll answer them all some day. It's just hard to concentrate right now - you know, everyone here knows the news, they've all seen the planes plowing into the buildings, the people falling from the sky, and the buildings themselves collapsing. Time and time again. My host family called me to say how sorry they were, how terribly sorry; people at the post and the shuka ask after my friends and family - but it is not the same. There isn't that deep ringing sense of shock - I feel it though, the weather change running through my body. This one of the few times I've truly felt isolated here. Everything feels so unreal - and I practice my Armenian, the new words I am learning. Horrible, shock, unreal, war. I do not like the way they fit my mouth, but I am learning my lessons.

The other volunteer here (Tiffany) is from California; twenty four years old and this her first time living on her own. Her main preoccupation seems to be trying to housebreak her first dog; the news doesn't seem to really be affecting her much, it's all too far away. For me, it feels much closer. I lived in New York once, many years ago - I have friends there and in the DC area. And the talk of war ringing in my ears.

So, to all you out there, wherever you may be. Be well, take care of yourselves and of each other, and don't get caught up in the backlash. Write me and tell me how it goes, give me another reference point to ground myself to. You know I love you.

follow the bouncing ball

heh! There isn't one! You'll have to sing along without its' aid....

Every year there's a big party when the new volunteers are sworn in - all the volunteers that can make it go to the city that training took place in that year; watch the swearing in; pay their money down and eat out at a restaurant with all the new volunteers. There are silly skits and at least one song composed for the new volunteers, it's a chance for those volunteers who haven't been involved in training to meet the fresh batch of faces. The 'old' volunteers present the new volunteers with silly presents as well, typically all stuffed into one of the small lidded red buckets that everyone ends up using on a daily basis - I had three or four in my apartment.

Usually pretty much everybody ends up pretty throughly trashed - which was fairly typical of most volunteer gatherings, and one of the reasons I avoided a lot of them. That year the training and the party were in Gyumri - I rode over with Tiffany's counterpart-to-be and director of the Language Center, Yermonia. Tiffany was late to the swearing-in - she had gone out for food and missed the bus - and her host father brought her dog, which shat in the building. Not too impressive, overall.

I think that was also the year Ambassador Lemon (aptly named, as it turned out) spoke at the swearing in ceremony. There are all the new volunteers there, the old volunteers who choose to come, the Armenian host families, the Armenian counterparts with whom the volunteers will be working, and various local powers-that-be. The Ambassador's speech was all about us being his 'eyes and ears' in the field - great. Half the Armenians already thought we were CIA (or as they would say 'Ka Gu Bu', the KGB), and we're not even supposed to hang around the embassy when we're in Yerevan because Peace Corps wants it to be clear we're NOT associated with the intelligence network. Thanks, Ambassador.

The next morning after it was all over, I stuffed myself in the Peace Corps vehicle along with four or five other volunteers and their luggage and Hovik, one of language instructors and got back to Alaverdi. Tiffany's dog got carsick and puked inside, and down the side of the car. I didn't write about any of that in my email, though.

This is what we sang to the incoming volunteers at the party after their swearing-in as official PCVs. Quite hummable, really….

• To the tune of 'Ring of Fire' •

Site is a scary place
Everyday those kids will ring
"Good Morning, what is your name?"
In your second year you'll hear the same

I fell into a steaming bowl of haash
I grabbed that hoof and I wrapped it in lavash
And it burns, burns, burns
That chaser shot
That chaser shot

The taste of haash is sweet
When it's made by your tateek
You'll gnaw the flesh right off the bone
Then spend the whole day on the throne

Dr. Char is really cool
She'd love to hear about your stool
Dr. Anna will fix your splints
You'll be dazzled by those leopard prints


In the towns around Sevan
Fishing's what they live on
In the bus - fish three feet deep
O, but those bribes are steep

In Gavar they're drinking shots
And you have to drink the next kaynots
To refuse just ain't no use
'Cause the next one's a 'bari luis'


Koghb is way up there
You're the first, they're bound to stare
You're all headed for brand new sites
But eastern Turkey - that just ain't right

Noy Embrieyan - there are land mines
And snipers behind the lines
Cross the border, don't buy the farm,
But you'll come back with just one arm


The Clarkes - a bitter fate
You arrived just one year late
As A-9's it was worth the wait
But the way you drink is pure A-8

The road to Kapon is long
The marchutney stench is strong
Six long hours on a road of dirt
Fall asleep ………Stepanakirt


Gyumri - the pizza's fine
Running water all the time
At your site, life ain't lush
You'll have to pour to make it flush

In the south the winter's cold
And some of you may want to fold
Just stay warm, the time will pass
An immersion heater up your…… (quick to chorus)

(repeat 2x)


Haash - a traditional Armenian dish made from cow hooves. Doesn't it sound good!
Lavash - a thin flat bread, similar to flour tortillas, but bigger.
Tateek - grandmother
Kaynots - a drinking toast
Bari luis - good morning (literally 'kind light')
The Clarkes - originally part of the A-8 group, they were med evac'd during training. They returned (with some small misadventures enroute) with the A-9's. Such dedication!
Marchutney - minibus, popular form of transportation. You'd be amazed (horrified) how many people can cram onto one. And, during the summer, a lot of those people aren't taking regular baths…..
Sevan, Gavar, Koghb, Noy Embrieyan, Kapon, Stepankirt, Gyumri - Armenian towns and cities.
The reference to Eastern Turkey is because some of the brighter A-9s decided to sneak over the border during training - hey, their host village was close, and they thought it would be a kick, I guess. Needless to say, they got caught by the border police - it's not exactly an open border, and the guards tend to be a bit touchy.

back to the past

September 6th, 2001 - outgoing email from Armenia.

I was still lying about my back - it was getting worse and worse and was intensely painful. Again, I didn't want to worry people, and I was still hoping against hope it would all get better - o, heal for thy Baby Jesus' sake, HEAL!

I also haven't really talked much about the other volunteers in my group - mostly I found them kinda hard to deal with. By this point quite a few of them had opted out of the program, packed their bags and headed home - we ended up with about 50% staying through the two years. So many of the other volunteers seemed to find Armenia and Armenians hard to deal with; there was a lot of drinking, there was a lot of whining. I couldn't see whining when most of the people around us were really living in desperate straits; our six bucks a day put us pretty near the top of the food chain; we had everything we needed and more. The hierarchy of needs was pretty up-close and personal there - the hardest thing for me to deal with overall was that there was really so very little I could change....

As usual, there were technical difficulties - the Peace Corps computer was dead in the water and the other options in town are IBMs. So, I’m gonna tag this update onto it and you’ll get it on the installment plan. Little segments of my life floating through the ether - and, BTW, why isn’t anything floating through the postal system to me? Inquiring minds want to know - I haven’t gotten any personal mail since getting back from Batumi, and I've answered every letter I've gotten here. I had this dream the other night that all my mail had been placed in another volunteer’s mailbox by accident, and she was on vacation - but I think you just aren't writing. Remember, email is no substitute for real mail - and my ability to access email is unreliable as all hell. So, keep those cards and letters coming, boys and girls!

Onto the random notes from the front:

My program director left for America, which has enabled to me to write a scalding (though totally moot) review of her lack of abilities on my latest progress report - something that will no doubt endear me to her replacement. Burning bridges give you so much more, and I've got this affinity for fire, you know. I'm just no good at these political games.

My new site mate (Tiffany Sommerlad) arrived a week ago Friday - she doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, and doesn't speak better Armenian than I do. She does have a small dog with weak bladder control, but - hey, you can't have everything! And it's not my dog. Or my house. I think she'll be good, though it's a bit early to tell - but I gotta say picking up a dog during training isn't the smartest move. However, it is her first time living away from home (and her first dog) - mistakes are bound to happen. She seems enthusiastic, motivated, unlikely to spend vast quantities of time in Yerevan, and unlikely to be a big whiner - a bit clueless at times, but good hearted. If I can extend, we'll be sitemates for the next two years, so it'll be a good thing if we can get along reasonably well.

My back is still pretty damn painful, but better than before. It is not a pleasant situation, though. I am still going to karate, being the stubborn human that I am. I just can't touch my toes anymore. And I limp a lot. Worse things have happened to better people, right? And it will get better - there's just no other option.

I was on TV again - and again, I had no warning and ended up sounding really really bad, and no doubt looking pretty silly as well. This Peace Corps stuff is great for keeping the ego in line, truly it is. I'm hoping they'll cut out the worst of it before showing it to the entire metropolitan area.

I've heard rumors - from a reliable source, no less! - that due to efforts of the folks back home (thanks to Reba, Ron, Wes, and Mom!) my work actually made it into Sam Shaw's retrospective show, all the way up there on MDI. It's all old work, of course, most of it dating back 10 years or more - might as well have been a posthumous show. If I'd been thinking a little faster I could have made up a lovely story about my tragic demise at a young age, and presented everything as part of my estate - it would have explained so much. Still pretty cool, though I wish I had been able to put some current work in - hell, I wish I had some current work to put in. If I had had access to my shop I could have whipped up something interesting, I'm sure of it.

Don't you forget that birthday - September 22nd, right? Got it marked on the calendar? Quick! Slip something in the mail now! Better late than never!
Here’s a short list of desires to help you in shopping (good for Christmas, too!):

(a long list of desires followed here, but I've cut it out, so you'll just never know what I was longing for)

Once again, none of this stuff is essential - I'm surviving just fine without it - but any of it would be welcome. People have wanted to know what to put in packages and I thought I'd make it easy for you all.

Wasn't I sweet? It really was practical, you know, rather than greedy - otherwise people would send things I didn't really need or want, stuff that was available locally and the shipping costs were outrageous.

Friday, October 08, 2004

we interrupt this broadcast -10/8/04

This is real time, folks - October 8th, 2004 - this is happening NOW.

I just got off the phone with my family in Armenia - my host mother was crying on the phone, it was horrid. They don't have wood for the winter, their apples and pears didn't produce this year, my father is sick, the packages I sent haven't made it through.

I just feel so damn selfish and greedy and stupid - I went out yesterday and spent around $50.00 on things I don't really NEED, art supplies and food and stupid things; I was thinking 'o, I really would like contacts again, and I deserve them, even if they ARE $200.00; I haven't spent any big money on myself since I got back' - do you know what I'm saying here? I deserve nothing at the rate I'm going; stupid blind self centered idiot child.

Blind, I am blind, and contacts aren't going to help. So damn stupid and self centered and blind, and not thinking - stupidity is a sin against the Holy Ghost. How quickly I lose sight of reality. And my mother crying on the phone, saying 'I don't say this for you to send things, but if I say truthfully, it has been a bad year, we are not well.'

god, America!

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

My summer vacation, part 2

The second part of that amazingly long email. I mention my back for the first time here, but still don't say much about it - I didn't want to worry anyone, and I was still hoping it would all just go away.

That same week the computers made the trip up to Alaverdi, my last sitemate, Matt, finished up his service here and took off, along with the remainder of his group; I went and spoke to the new group of volunteers the week after that (tanked up on painkillers - hmmmm, musta forgotten to mention that bit) and worked on my preparations for the trip to Batumi. It was all a complicated process - I had to get permission from Peace Corps (since I missed a volunteer conference while I was gone - I didn't quite lie to get out of it, but pretty close. Let's say that creative writing course stood me in good stead); get my visa from the Georgian embassy - not exactly friendly people to deal with, to say the least; and deal with all the ordinary details of preparing for a trip. I went with the karate group - it was a celebration of the finishing of the work on the school, a chance for a vacation, and (ostensibly) an opportunity to participate in a competition in Ureki. I went along as an escort for the sole female student attending and, of course, because I wrote the grant. It's raised my status in the community considerably, that grant has. ‘Goddess’ for a yet undetermined length of time. All as it should be.

Permission was secured, the visa stamped in my passport, and my immense backpack packed, and we were off, bright and early Tuesday morning. Well, we were there bright and early, waiting by the side of the road with our heap of luggage, and hoping the marchutney would show up soon. Eventually it did, and we stuffed all the luggage in somehow, and ourselves as well. Sixteen people in a white Mitsubishi van for ten plus hours, bumping over hot and dusty roads, passing the border with its teenaged guards and their scary machine guns, the officials playing cards in their trailer, through Tiblisi and onward and outward, driving on and on. I tell you, it makes you appreciate Greyhound buses like never before - little things like actual seats (with their own arm and foot rests! Such luxuries!), and separate baggage storage, and, as always and ever, bathrooms. Probably not the best reality for my back, either - but you just gotta do it sometimes, and the devil take the hindmost. Sometime seemingly much later we arrived in Batumi, after having negotiated strange mazelike barriers set up in the road to get into the Ajarian Autonomous Republic. More machine gun guards and another passport check. Finally we pulled up to the curb, 9th of April street( you can actually find it on a map of Batumi, provided you can find a map of Batumi), pulled ourselves and our luggage out of the van and staggered up the stairs; five hot, tired, and dusty travelers and our host. A one room apartment, with kitchen on the converted balcony. Six people. No real bathroom, but a communal squat toilet down the hall, communal sink and tap in the courtyard on the ground floor, and a Benetton's across the street - I tell you, it's a strange old world of contrasts that we live in. Thirty dollar camisole t-shirts for sale.

We changed and headed for the beach, a mere five or so minutes away, and went swimming - really, what else was there to do? The Black Sea was there waiting for us. The beach in Batumi is all rounded stones, sloping off sharply into the water, the medusas (jellyfish - but isn't it a lovely name?) pulse whitely by, and the water itself is salt and warm, wonderfully buoyant and calm. It was lovely after the travails of the road, and every day thereafter. Though washing up after was a bit difficult, to say the least - there were parts of my body that didn't see fresh water for the ten days we were there. The first few days no one bothered to tell us where the tap was, and Mary and I simply went salty to bed and salty to rise - it was not a pretty sight. Imagine if you will my hair - or perhaps it's better not to.

During the day the beach was crowded with tourists; the water crowded with floats and people attached to them, paddle boats as well. Many people here never really learn to swim and there are no lifeguards. There are vendors: men, women, and teenaged boys, walking up and down the beach all day, crying their wares. Ice cream, lemonade, beer, cigarettes, hazelnuts, corn on the cob, Fanta, Coca-Cola, straw hats and bags, glasses of Nescafe carried on trays, sweet rolls and baklava and hotdogs, strings of nuts encased in a gummy type of fruit leather made from grapes dangling from one hand. Inflatable tubes and beach balls. Gum and sunflower seeds and sunscreen; straps and handles from bags, coolers, and buckets digging into hands and shoulders; converted baby buggies bumping over the stones; straw hats and baseball caps shading eyes, cracked shoes on the hot stones. Walking up and down the beach all the day, all the livelong day in the burning sun, singing out their wares over and over. The old women are the hardest for me to see.

I would walk in the water, dive through the waves, and swim out past the first and second rows of people in the water. Past all the bright floats bobbing in the sea, swim out further and further until the noise of the beach was lost in the distance, and the people mere dots. It was lovely, the water held me up beautifully, and I could roll on my back and listen to the rocks rounding themselves out below me. A curious sound, all the rocks rolling over one another far below the waves - and I would swim out further yet, until even that sound was lost in the depths. I could float beautifully there, and everyone thought I was quite the swimmer (you know me better), and this was this urge to just keep going out forever. I felt it in the Sinai, too, the urge to just walk out into the sand, to just keep going forever - it would have clearly been the death of me but it did not feel like death at all, there was no fear. You don't feel the danger in your heart or your body, only your head knows it's there - below the perfect day, the perfect feeling of doing what is right, walking out into the desert, swimming out to sea. Bathed in the blood of the lamb, as it were - and I turn back, I always turn back. Back to the shore, and that journey in far more difficult than the swim out, coming squinting blind out of the surf, looking for my friends and my towel and my glasses on the beach. Back among the mass of humanity.

We would wake up in the morning, go to the beach, come back for a meal at 11:00 or so, stay in the apartment out of the midday sun, eat again at 5:00, and go back to the beach. Sitting in a loose circle and cracking hazelnuts between rocks, drinking kvas (a strange dark non-alcoholic brew apparently made from black bread), swimming out on the trail of the setting sun, juggling three perfectly round rocks. Back to the apartment to change and hang out the wet clothes, then out to walk the streets of the city and see what there was to see until it grew cool enough to sleep, or we simply got too tired to continue. There were variations, but that was the basic pattern of our days. And it was good. The one day we all crammed into a taxi and headed up to Ureki for the competition, it turned out to be more or less a total farce - though I do think my name is now written down in some registry in Tiblisi as having won some mythical fight. Bah! I doubt I could fight my way out of a paper bag at this point - between my dad's visit and my back problems I think I got in one day of karate in the last few months, and it'll probably be a while before they let me work out again. It is a problem, and I miss it more than I can say.

The city itself was crowded with guards in black with their casual machine guns, architectural details - I have missed them so much without ever knowing it, the harbor with it's ships coming in and going out. A main boulevard with stands selling everything and fountains with colored lights, little cafes and go-carts, palm trees and a stand of bamboo. Miniature golf. Baskin Robbins, of all surprises - and, yes, I ate ice cream there, just to be an American. I can't vouch for all the flavors, but the coconut was just the same as home, though the sugar cone was sadly stale. It was all interesting, a different world after a year in Armenia - I blended there, no one stared at me, no one could tell I was an American, I could have been anyone. Until I opened my mouth. Then all hope was lost - and no one there spoke Armenian, of course. They speak Georgian and Russian - two more languages I don't know, two other alphabets altogether. It was ironic: I was supposed to be there as an escort for Mary, but in reality she was much more of an escort for me, since she speaks Russian and could communicate. The group as a whole was very protective of me, worried I would get lost in the city with no language and no one to guide me home - I wasn't supposed to leave the house alone. The few solo expeditions I made didn't convince them otherwise - though I made it home safe and sound every time, and even managed to communicate enough to do some shopping. In general I was treated as everyone's favorite idiot cousin - much beloved, but hardly to be trusted to cross the street by myself. It was a bit frustrating at times, but really, there are far worse fates.

The last day came and went eventually, and the next morning we waited on the curb with all our luggage (somewhat increased by shopping expeditions) once again; loaded ourselves back into the same white marchutney, tired and sticky and sleepy; rode through the 12 hour journey in close quarters, back across the bumpy dusty roads and through the border and home again, home again at last. My cat crying to the door.

It was good to go; it was good to be back. To my own sweet apartment in mine own town, where I can understand people at least some of the time, and with mine own wicked little cat miaowing up at me in the morning, my alarm clock with claws. Yes, I now have a cat to keep me company and to complicate my life - no doubt a monumental foolishness, but mine own. Zöe Malinka, grey tiger girl with white markings and sharp little teeth, maybe two and a half months old. One of the things I found in Batumi (and bought, and carried home across all the miles and the half a day) was cat litter - I haven't been able to find it here in Armenia, and it is just SO handy. You can use sand, as most people here do, and the price is certainly right, but it gets tracked through the house something dreadful, and I'm way too lazy to sweep and mop every day. Nellie cleaned up while I was gone; took care of the cat and cleaned my house as well, made me dinner my first night back. As I said, it's good to be back. The cat was a 'gift' from Nellie's family - she now lives in America, fat and happy.

That, in a nutshell - a rather large nutshell, I must admit - is the synopsis of my summer. There was also my high school reunion announcement and the perverse pleasure I took in writing in my current occupation and that, no, I wouldn't be able to make it as I'd be in Batumi during that time - o, such a snob I am! I also threw my back out yet again, and that put me in a world of pain for a while. It's still giving me much too much trouble, but is slowly healing. I hope - the pain is intense. Like a thick rope run through the flesh of my left leg, from heel to hip, tightening down until I can feel every white hot fiber bristling out, a spiked rod running the length. I do miss my chiropractor, I do indeed. I was taken to the local hospital for the worst X-rays I've ever had and then told I needed a series of injections - it's the answer for everything here. I passed on the offer - Peace Corps offered me Advil at first, but I got them to look at the X-rays and cough up Tylenol with codeine. I'm staying off the drugs for now, but want the security of knowing I can change my mind if there be need. It was another lovely thing about being in the sea - I hardly hurt at all. And there's the impending arrival of a new sitemate at the end of this month - I'm hoping I get someone somewhat compatible. No drinkers or smokers, no whiners and, please god, no one with better language skills than I. That would be too painful for words.

I feel I could go on forever - like swimming out to sea or walking into the desert - the endless details of my life, the politics of the personal that abound here, what I brought back from Batumi, and what the others bought there, but, really, aren't you tired by now? I know I am. Last minute request for Ann-Elise - I'm looking for sweet corn seed (self propagating -
probably not the term I'm looking for, but it's close. Something that will produce viable seeds for next year's crop). All they have here is something like feed corn - edible, but less than tasty. I figured you'd have the source if anyone does. Climate similar to Vermont, mayhap a bit warmer. If you could slip a few packets in a padded envelope, I would be most appropriately grateful, truly I would.

Love and squalor to all of you,


Monday, October 04, 2004

quick note - with datestamp!

So you can tell how long ago this all really was - I gotta say I was absolutely delighted to be able to write something worthwhile in to the 20th reunion (rather than, say, I'm still a copy slave at Kinko's - the job I had before I joined the Peace Corps. I still have anxiety dreams about that place).

We were supposedly going to Batumi for a competition in Ureki, and I had to get special permission to skip an all-volunteer conference - I said I was going as an escort for the female members of the karate group. It turned out there was no competition, but somewhere in Georgia it's recorded that I won my mythic bout. I also didn't mention in this email that I had screwed up my back immediately after my father and Mary left, and I was in rough shape. I swear, I didn't do anything - I was going to reconcile accounts with Varton at the karate school, I went to sit down and I screamed instead. It was an unbelievable amount of pain.

Wed, 25 Jul 2001

Hey you -

Am off to Batumi (Georgia) as of this Sunday/Monday - traveling with my karate compatriots - and will be absent through the 15th of August. So...... once again expect delays on the snail mail! I did get a number of letters off, but more came in, so it all balances out. Plus packages - HUGE ones from Abby and Scott (thanks so much guys!).

I'm very happy here. And vacationing with Armenians - if that isn't the coolest thing?! Just think, during my 20th high school reunion, I'll be swimming in the Black Sea. I wrote and told them about it, too. Snob that I am.

My summer vacation, part 1

What I did that first summer at site - part 1 of a wretchedly long email. Having my dad and Mary come to visit was amazingly difficult at times, but also really wonderful in many ways. Nellie was my language tutor and friend, she was a great help to me throughout this first year, and the rest of the time I spent in Armenia. Having good Armenian friends and being close to my host family made my life in Armenia very easy in many ways - it really became my home.

I'd go back in a heartbeat.

First, the grant:

As you all know, we got the funding we needed - as soon as it actually came through, we started work, and by now it's as good as finished. New aluminum roof glinting in the sun, four new windows letting the breeze through, sturdy new floor in one main room, and the worst spots in the other rooms patched. We're still working on patching up the ceiling (not actually part of the grant conditions, but a possibility now that the roof doesn't leak) and various other odds and ends - but the bulk of the work is over and done with. I've filled in the final paperwork and will file it in Yerevan the next time I'm in. For all intents and purposes, that part of it's done.

The next thing is to work on locating mats for the school - what we had been using (basically pieces of foul foam cushioning mixed with various other materials -origin undeterminable- matted into one grotesque mass) was sodden and filthy and sticking to the floorboards. They had to scrape it off to pull up the boards, it was utterly disgusting - it will NOT be going down on our nice new floors. Not if I have any say in it. Of course, that leaves us with nothing between our bodies and the floorboards but an ancient (but clean!) rug - not exactly the best reality for these aging bones of mine. So we're working on finding mats. Which is presenting more of a difficulty than you might think - apparently locating gym mats in Armenia at a reasonable price is next to impossible. I'm holding out hope though, and we're working on it. I don't suppose you know of anyone who would like to donate gym mats (and shipping of said mats to Yerevan) for a sports school in Alaverdi, Armenia? I thought not, but it's always worth a try.

In the middle of the school renovation, my father and his partner, Mary, came for a three week visit in Armenia before taking off on a tour of Europe - at the end of their time here, I think they were more than ready for Europe. Three weeks can be a very long time if you don't speak the language, and aren't used to bucket baths, and street dogs barking, and the general differences between here and there. I got them their very own apartment in a nearby shenk (Soviet style apartment building) for their time here in Alaverdi, and on the whole they did fairly well - but it was harder for them, and hard on me. My father being six feet plus didn't help, either - he simply didn't fit in the local transport (buses and marchutneys) and even taxis were often cramped for him. It wasn't easy for any of us, and Peep knows we all were trying.

We started off in Yerevan for a day or two, saw the city sights there, and then went up to Shahumiyan (my host family's village) for another few days - including a trip to Haghartsin with Karina, my host sister-in-law. It's one of my favorite sites - located high up in the mountains, relatively isolated, and surrounded by lush green. Then off to Alaverdi, and a tour of the nearby sites - Sanahine, Sadahart, Ahktala, Khober, Odzun, Haghpat, and various others. All old monastery and church sites, all truly beautiful. We also walked by the museum for the designer/pilot of the MIG (some of you may have a photo of me looking particularly dashing by the plane parked up there) while we were up in Sanahine, but it was closed. No great loss, truly. After a little over a week here, we took off for Yerevan again (with Nellie, my friend and language tutor - it was her first time at many of these places as well), and visited the various sites around there. Garni, Geghard, Khor Virap, Echmiadzin, Saint Hripsime, and Ambered. Again, all ancient churches, temples, fortresses, or monasteries - all with their own history and their own beauty - some still in use. Garni a Roman temple, Geghard carved out of the living stone with a spring flowing out of the wall in one room and wonderful acoustics. Khor Virap with a clear view of Mount Ararat (the mountain where Noah's ark supposedly came to rest), and a deep well which served as a prison chamber. Echmiadzin, the seat of Armenia's branch of Christianity, and very much in use; the last day driving over treacherous roads to Ambered fortress. Two flat tires that day. Then they flew off to their next destination, and Nellie and I went back to Alaverdi and our lives.

(check out http://www.cilicia.com/armo5_guidebook.html for full descriptions and photos of these sites - it's worth a look!)

It was a lot of traveling and I got to see a bit more of this country I'm living in; we had horovatz (pronounced hore-ah-vahts - roasted meat, served with salads, fruits, breads, etc. Similar to the very best barbecue you've ever been to, but better) at my host family's house; the sports school took us on a picnic, killed a sheep for us and made hashlama (pronounced haash-la-ma - basically stewed meat. I don't really like it, but the roasted vegetables were good). Varton (the director of the sports school) also took us out to a restaurant one night, and presented me with a ring he had had made for me and made me translate various embarrassingly flattering things about myself (which I shan't repeat - all lies anyway). All in all a very good time, but a bit exhausting all around. The very last week they were here, the computers for the Akner village school also came in. Handily enough, Peace Corps staff were making a trip up to Alaverdi the next week and they transported all that stuff up here for me, along with some power tools the American Red Cross had donated for the sports school project and a couple of HUGE packages Abby and Scott sent. My apartment looked like a warehouse for a day or two there, then - just like magic! - everything disappeared, carted off to separate destinations.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

visitors from America - incoming!

Hey you -

The next three weeks I'll be enjoying the company of guests from the fabled land of Milk & Honey - my dad and Mary are flying in to Yerevan 3:40 am June 19th, and I'll be at the airport to meet them. Don't expect any mail coming out of Armenia for a while - if you've written, it'll be your turn to bask in smug self superiority, and won't that be pleasant? After the three weeks are over, life will return to normal, and I'll catch up on all my mail, I promise. You just have to wait 'til then.

The renovation of the karate school continues - we've got the roof done and the windows in. The finishing work on the windows will be completed in the next week or so, and then the major work of tearing up the floor and rebuilding it will start. Classes have been moved to the nearby sports school building (a huge decrepit Soviet relic) for the interim - once we started punching holes in the walls, the classes had to be moved.

Despite the use of the pronoun 'we', I don't actually do anything. I'm not allowed to. My job is taking photos of the progress and handing out the money, and I fulfil its’ requirements admirably. O, the rigors of the Peace Corps! How shall we survive, how shall we ever survive?!???

Somehow, I'm managing.

Love and squalor on all your pointed little heads -


raise high the roofbeams

This was my next letter home - 'scheefer' is corrugated roofing material that we had to get from Yerevan., since we had to use aluminum (rather than the usual cheap asbestos). There was really nothing for me to do once we got the grant money and started the work - everything just swung along nicely. I kept an eye on the work, shot copious photos but though the staff and the students did a lot of the work, I wasn't allowed to lift a finger. It went like a dream.

The children's aid program was the Alaverdi Family Center, and it was just about as corrupt as they come.

May 26th, 2001

Ok, the scheefer is on site and I met with the children's aid organization. THAT was frustrating, to say the least. I did manage to get a list of prescriptions needed for glasses and hearing aids - I'll get that out today. Which doesn't mean it will go out today, of course - sometimes the mail sits at the post a while before it actually gets in the system. As for anything else - well, I'm going to need to work with the organization for a couple of months and see what they're really doing before I can make recommendations. I've no doubt that there's a real and desperate need, but I can't say how well these people are addressing it. They were all over me for a grant - for computers and a TV and a copier (o, Kinko's!). PCV as cash cow - it's a fairly common perception, but one that never fails to irritate me. From what I can tell now, they have a fairly nice space (zippo handicapped access, but that's normal in Armenia, alas and alack), and have gotten a fair amount of aid from other organizations (sports equipment, one older computer, clothes, etc.) but I'm still fairly unclear on what they're actually doing, aside from identifying children at risk and then classifying them in one of five groups (mental/physical handicapped, extreme poverty, one or both parents missing, beggars, and general JDs). Are they running classes? Providing medical help? What are they really doing for these 300 children - and is any of it self sustainable, is any of it working to solve the root problems? Do children actually come there, is the center used by the target population? I've got my doubts, but only the time will tell.

It's going to take a couple of months at least before I have any answers. As I said, there's definitely need - I just don’t know if this center is addressing it. It's discouraging - I was really hoping to be able to work with them, and now I'm sitting here with this bag full of doubts and questions, and a huge chunk of skepticism sitting on my shoulder. I just hate it when people start in by asking for grants - for TVs and computers, for god's sake. Ok, computers you can always justify somehow - but TVs?!? And they were not happy when I questioned that, not happy at all. As for computers - there are better ways to go about it than grants, if you really need computers. Such as the aid organization I'm working with to get computers for the Akner village school. Myself, I'm still thinking it would be a better idea to start raising chickens or tasty little bunnies, or to plant a community garden, or start some sort of co-op. I just can't see the pressing need of computers for the kids that are out there begging for their bread. First, you've got to feed the little buggers, take care of their immediate needs. Then you can work towards the future, by all means - but get them fed and clothed first, figure out a system for that. But computers are the 'hot’ thing now (as are grants) - everyone wants them, no matter the need.

Yeah, and stupidity is a sin against the Holy Ghost, and the poor are always with us, and no matter how badly the idiots outnumber you - they're still the idiots. Thank god for karate - that's coming right along, on time and under budget, believe it or not. I am most pleased. The wonderful thing about these people is that they have never ever asked me for money, never asked me for a computer or a copier or a grant - I've never even been able to pay for classes there. They're out there every day working with what they have, the damp building and the ceiling that drops bits and pieces on us on a daily basis, the floor giving way underfoot - and they truly love what they're doing, they love their work and the children. They're not waiting for anything or anyone, they're doing their work regardless.

Enough to give you hope, ain’t it just?

further notes:

The money came through, the bank took $50.00 as some sort of commission and we still didn't get a toaster. I don't understand the banking system here - do they want business, or are they intent on driving it away? We also lost on the exchange rate, and I'm a bit worried about that - though at the moment it looks like we're still going to pull it off somehow. We've put down deposits on some of the work (carpentry, window bars, etc), 6 cubic meters of (very) rough cut wood has been delivered to the school, and Varton & Armen are going into Yerevan today to pick up the scheefer (rhymes with 'reefer', roofing material. Non asbestos.).

I'm also meeting with the children's aid organization today - finally!

Saturday, October 02, 2004

the child at my door

And with that last email I sent out the next installment of 'Notes From the Edge' my column for the local PC rag - they were obviously desperate, and would take just about anything, no matter how poorly written. 'Hatz' means 'bread' or, more loosely, 'food'; 'sovaates em' means 'I'm hungry'. 'Hatz' and 'sovaates' should both pretty much rhyme with 'rots', despite the differences in transliteration. 'Shuka' (shoe - ka) is the market. Stress is almost always on the final syllable in Armenian.

Somehow he found out where I live, and he showed up at my door; ragged, dirty, and thin, one grimy paw outstretched. ‘Hatz’ he says. ‘Sovaates em’, with his eyes fixed firm on my face, his face calm. This is his job, he knows what he’s doing. He’s been begging from PCVs for years now, showing up at the various apartments, following us home from the shuka, another small animal intent on survival. I’ve felt his eyes on me before, seen him hanging around the edges of reality, sizing up the chances - and I’ve always pretended not to see, concentrated on the person in front of me and turned my body, waiting my chance to escape without confrontation, acutely aware of the child I was willing into invisibility. Now on my doorstep, eyes looking up at me from under a thatch of dirty hair. ‘Hatz.’ ‘Sovaates em.’

I gave him the money, I coughed up 150 dram in 10 dram notes, the grubby ones I usually save for the old women in Yerevan where it doesn’t make a difference if you give to the beggars. The cost of a Snickers bar, or a loaf of bread. 50 dram more and I could get my hair cut; double it and I could send a letter home. What do you do when a hungry child asks you for food? What do you do with a hungry child when they’re standing at your door and you can no longer deny them? Throw money at the problem, hope it will go away, assuage your guilt as best you can.

Become part of the problem - and I knew this, I knew this all along, but I didn’t know what else to do in the moment. I don’t know where the kid comes from, who his parents are, I’ve never seen him with an adult he wasn’t begging from, or even with another child. I don’t know his name or his age, I don’t know if he goes to school. I’ve been careful not to know, not to get involved. After all, where would it end? Give once and you’re bound forever, you’ve taken that first fatal step. The Armenians don’t want to acknowledge him any more than I do; he is always at the outskirts, near the shop doors, standing outside of groups. Looking in with that steady gaze, being told to move along, move along now. The way the shuka dogs watch food, that same peculiar flateyed stare waiting on the twist of fate. Keeping track of food and feet, alert to the possibilities inherent in both. I don’t know how to help this child, I don’t know if I can help this child. Is he really my responsibility once I’ve bought his bread? If he, then why not the others? Am I my brother’s keeper? Is this my brother? If not, then why am I here again?

I know that giving money, that even giving food is not the answer. It solves nothing but that day’s hunger, it does not touch the problem. He was working to solve that day’s hunger - it’s an important concern when you’re the one that’s hungry. But a child should not have to ask for food, should not be dependant on my whim for the bread in their belly. No one should have to ask for food. That dull taste of despair and desperation in the back of the throat, the lessons learned of hunger. To have to ask, time and time again, for the bare necessities. To be refused, time and time again; to know the way people’s eyes slide off you, the very light bending around your body in it’s effort not to see. There is a fundamental evil here, in the asking itself, the forces behind that asking, the way the asking taints us all. The way I work not to see this child, to erase him from my sight and my mind. What I cannot stand to see, what I do not wish to know. Whatever my answer, we both lose, this child and I - for there are no right answers here, no easy solutions. He doesn’t have the time to wait for the ideal solution, he’s living with the hunger now; his dirty hand outstretched and empty, that five mile stare looking up at you. ‘Hatz.’ ‘Sovaates em.’

Two nights later he was back. As I knew he would be, as the contract of need we had entered into demanded. He with his need for food, me with my need for blindness. The poor are with us always, isn’t that what Jesus said?

I still don’t know what to do.

Endnote: I ended up giving him food every week, pretty much thoughout the time I lived in Alaverdi. I would buy an extra loaf of bread, a can of sardines, whatever else I was getting at the market, and bag it up for him every week. Tomato sauce. Noodles. Cheese. Soap. I gave him clothes sometimes, too. He couldn't read, he couldn't write, he smoked, and teased the street dogs at times, he lived with his mother in a shack on the outskirts of town. He had no friends, he was filthy and dressed in tattered dirty clothes. He wasn't the best kid (I don't want to romantise the reality), it wasn't the best solution, but it was the best solution I could come up with at the time. He's still there, or was when I left, probably still begging from PCVs and doing dirty jobs in the market, he has no future. Every child deserves better than that.

grant me

Well, I pulled the grant together, Arko and I went into Yerevan (Armenia's capital and the home of PC headquarters) for the presentation, and I sent off this email to the folks back home:

Ok, y'all -

Last time I was in Yerevan I got up extraordinarily early in the morning to trot off to Peace Corps and do the email thang, wrote a lovely long missive with all sorts of fascinating details, which then promptly disappeared into the ether when I tried to send it. So you got the short note instead - it was all I had time for at that point. I needed to get out the door and catch my marchutney - it's a big concern around here.

So, yes, we got the grant - o, raise high the roofbeams, carpenters! I wasn't best pleased with my presentation - though the grant itself was well written and fairly complete - but out of the six grants, ours was the only one unanimously approved, so maybe I was doing something right. It's also true that we were the final presentation on the schedule and it's entirely possible the committee was simply exhausted by the process, worn down and ready to rubber stamp just about anything in order to get the hell out of there. The result is the same. The school got the grant, I got 11 roses from Varton, the director of the school (even numbers of flowers are unlucky here, and are reserved for funeral bouquets), and a standing ovation from my classmates (yes, I was properly embarrassed) - and soon enough construction can begin. It'll keep me busy for a while - I'm expecting through the end of July - and it'll be a marvelous thing for the school. A roof that doesn't leak, a dry and level floor, windows for the light, and air circulation. No more puddles on the floor. The little things that count.

We still need to get mats somehow and somewhere - they're not easily available here, if indeed they're available at all - but this is a good start. I think it ensures my ascension to black belt status in the next two years as well, which would be nice. Ok, in reality THAT'S never gonna happen, but it is my little fantasy. Manifestly Dangerous Meg. Uh-huh.

Meanwhile, on other fronts, it looks like the Akner school (Akner's a village on the outskirts of Alaverdi, a good 45 minutes away) will be getting two computers donated from a US organization - I finally heard back from the contact person. I'm still not sure when the computers will be arriving - they're shipped out with another aid organization, and the plane seems to leave more or less when it's ready to leave. I'll get a call one day this summer and have to run into Yerevan quick like a bunny for pickup. Not exactly an ideal situation, but the one we're working with.

And I'm still trying to get in touch with that damn children's aid society - I think they're doing good work, and god knows there's the need, but - Christ on the cross! - they're not exactly easy to deal with. Updates will be coming and my apologies for the delay. It's Armenian Standard Time to the nth degree.

The first year's almost gone; my Armenian's still wretched but I survive somehow. My first real projects are underway, and the sun is out. Mary and Dad will be arriving in a little under a month (hi you two!) and I'm way behind on my mail.

A week later:

I've written everyone I've gotten letters from and am once again basking in the smug self superiority of the virtuous. Wouldn't you like to feel that feeling? It's so simple - just dash something off and throw it in the mail with the appropriate postage. Wanna give it a try, Beth? (O, sister, where art thou? ) Janice? Justin? Ted? Joel? Reba & Ron? Greek? Kevin & Kelly - I don't even have a current snailmail address for you guys! Zola? Dana? Huh?

(Quick note - life is better if you use waterproof ink on the international mails. I don't know quite what it goes through, but some of it's damp. The envelope glue tends to re-liquefy and adhere itself nicely to the letter, for example. It does make reading the mail a bit more challenging at times, and Peace Corps is supposed to be about challenges - but there's no need to overdo it.)

Since last week I've gotten 9 calla lilies, five red roses, and my picture on the wall of the school - next thing you know, it'll be a full size statue. Oy vey. It's a bit overwhelming at times, but I think it will die down soon enough. Probably just about the time I've gotten comfortable with it. We're still waiting for the money to actually arrive so we can start the process - we set up the bank account last week, which was an incredibly byzantine process involving various official documents, running around town to acquire stamps on some of said documents, drinking whiskey with the bank president (UGH!), and shelling out a thousand dram at one point to some other official. Whatever happened to free toasters and incentive programs?
I have a funny feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

Meanwhile, I've sent two packages out through the local mails - and I'm not risking any more until I know they arrived at their intended destinations. So, Pat and Brian, did you get the camera back? And John Morrison up there in Wallingford, how about you? And if you guys did, where are my copies of the photos? You promised, after all! Packages coming the other way have been arriving sans problems, even at the local post - though I do end up having to pay some sort of 'tax' there, it's never more than a thousand dram (that translates to roughly $2.00 USD, or a third of my daily 'wage').

past the frozen holidays

About this time I started working seriously on my first real project - a SPA (Small Project Assistance) grant for the sports school in Alaverdi, with the funds being used to renovate the school. Which was in pretty sad shape - the floor was rotten to the point that there were actual holes in it; the roof leaked, and bits of plaster drifted down daily; there was no ventilation or running water. The good part was that the director, Varton Galstyan, and his assistant, Arkadi Yaralian, were consistently wonderful to work with - it was amazing the difference it made.

Of course, that's not to say there weren't problems, and of course I wrote about them. This was in the local PC rag, where I had my very own column, 'Notes From the Edge':

This was meant to be last month’s contribution, but due to technical difficulties (my computer took a nosedive off my table, and I lost access to everything on it until mid April) it didn’t happen. Just think of it as running on A..S.T. (Armenian Standard Time), another feature of the cultural assimilation process.

You know how ‘they’ always say to be careful of what you wish for, you might just get it? They’re smarter than I ever thought - just last month I was whining about my lack of work, and here I am up to my ass in alligators, frazzled at the edges and still trying to get my SPA together.

I thought I had it all done. I had the price quotes, I had the mayor’s letter of support, I had the local language translation, I had photos and documentation, I had a snazzy binder and everything. It was in budget, it was written, it was printed, it looked good to me. I even had brief thoughts about using my suddenly free time to construct a scale model of the sports school, with working doors and detachable roof and color coded rooms. A sort of Barbie’s dream house, only different. No pink, for example, and no Jacuzzi.

Hah! And if you want to make God laugh, make a plan. It turns out the roofing material most commonly used in Armenia, that grey corrugated stuff that’s just about everywhere, is made of - you guessed it! - asbestos. So, remembering that nice young man, Charles Dunlap, and his talk on the various pollutants abounding in Armenia, I got a chunk off the roof, broke it into manageable size on my porch, and trotted it into Yerevan for testing. You see, there’s BAD asbestos, and not-so-bad asbestos and I wanted to know which I was dealing with before confronting my moral dilemma. To use the cheaper (and possibly carcinogenic) material and do the work we’d planned, or to go for the pricy (and safe) alternative and be forced to downsize the project. For the Armenians, it wasn’t a question - they wanted to go cheap and dangerous all the way. No matter what the tests said.

Looking at the daily conditions here, this should come as no surprise. Armenians are used to living with danger, in it’s immediate and palpable form. Earthquakes, embargoes, ‘conflicts’, road and vehicle conditions, and driving habits - it’s hard to worry about effects that may crop up twenty years from now, when you’re concerned about the leak in the roof that is slowly but surely undermining the structural integrity of your building right now. Little chunks from the ceiling drop down on us from time to time as it is, and everyone uses asbestos, anyway, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal turns out to be that asbestos isn’t eligible for SPA funds. Bad asbestos, not-so-bad asbestos, it makes no difference, it’s not eligible. It’s still being tested - I’ve got that morbid curiosity - and I can let you know the results, but as far as this project goes it’s a moot point. We’re not using it, and I’m free from my moral dilemma, thanks to USAID guidelines. I suppose I should be grateful.

We’ll be using aluminum now, which is twice as expensive, and that means everything changes, everything. Currently the budget is almost a thousand dollars over the limit, for example, and all those lovingly detailed and to scale floor plans and elevations may be for naught. Not to mention the other problems Marlena found with the rough draft, all of which need to be fixed before the due date. Can you hear God laughing yet? Can you?


And that was where my table broke, my lovely little laptop fell down, went boom, and henceforth ceased to operate - I’m guessing God got his entertainment value from me for the day. I’ll always maintain that the Higher Power (whoever that may be) has a sick sense of humor - and as far as I’m concerned, the evidence supports my premise. The good news is that I managed to splice my SPA together from disc and memory, back on budget and in time, with all the lovingly detailed floor plans and elevations redrawn. I gave up any ideas of building a scale model and that’s probably all for the better. It’s been handed in to await its’ fate at the hands of the committee - by the time you read this all the excitement will be over and we’ll either have the funding or not.

The other good news is that my computer is once more humming nicely along, thanks to Aram, and the report on the roofing material indicates that it’s not nearly as toxic as I’d feared. 15% not-so-bad asbestos, and the rest various relatively inert binders and fillers. Hardly toxic at all, really - considering how much of it is around, a very good thing, indeed, and a vast comfort for my morbid curiosity.