I purposefully set my weather app on my phone to read Vaghatin’s weather in Celsius. This not because I want to further integrate by becoming used to the same units of measurement. I simply do not want to be able to understand just how cold it is outside. While seeing -10 degrees Celsius is certainly frightening to someone from the Sonoran Desert, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that that it is warmer than the same reading in Fahrenheit. I am a firm believer in the unyielding power of ignorance.
Since I last wrote, it has only gotten colder here. Cold enough to keep shepherds in, cold enough to keep khanuts (general stores) closed, and cold enough to stop my male students from sneaking into the abandoned kindergarten to smoke. Wifi comes and goes as randomly as the wind. This is especially rough since I still don’t know how Count Olaf killed Dr. Montgomery. In the meantime, I figure it is best to keep busy in any way I can. This has mostly included reading and watching the hit Indian soap opera sweeping Armenia, Uttaran. I can go into detail telling you why I think Vir should marry neither of the women who seek his hand but something tells me most of the people reading this won’t care.
The good news is that Spring is just around the corner… supposedly. What a calendar says doesn’t do much in terms of dictating the weather in these mountains. The other day, while I waited on the side of the road for the marshutni to take me to Sisian it was about -5 degrees (this time Fahrenheit, I made the mistake of checking). I could see heat radiating from the inside of the small van when I opened its door. I never knew this before winter but apparently there is such a thing as it being too cold for snow to precipitate. While it makes for terrible journeys outside, at least we don’t have to deal with feet upon feet of snow.
Before leaving for Armenia, I read many blogs written by PCVs serving here and in countries around the world. I’ve learned that some RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps volunteers, volunteers who have finished their service) who served elsewhere consider Armenia to be a “Posh Corps” posting. They see that we have somewhat regular access to internet, reliable electricity and many of us have regular and clean water, thus making the assumption that our service is a walk in the park and should not be held with the same esteem as service in other countries. I refute this notion with, among all the other challenges we are given, the long harsh winter we face each year. The lack of insulation gives us no respite from constant shivering, leaving us in at least three layers for the entirety of the day. I have friends who must wait for their pipes to thaw in spring in order to have running water. Roads are impassable for long stretches of time, isolating PCVs from the outside world. Class days are cut short during the winter so children won’t fall ill from spending too much time in drafty schools. Winter itself is insurmountable, it is impossible to escape.
While Christmas (Sorp Tsnunde) is observed here, it doesn’t have nearly the sheer emphasis that we Americans save for it. Christmas commercials are still prevalent on Armenian TV, however. Also Dzmir Papik (literally “winter grandfather”) or Santa Claus brings toys to little girls and boys too. The only difference is that he is always summoned by children chanting his name. When he appears, he inevitably brings Mrs. Claus and is armed with a very sparkly scepter.
On Christmas Eve, the day after all classes were finished, my school hosted something of a Christmas pageant. While some aspects of life here aren’t highly planned, the Christmas show certainly was. Vaghatin Secondary School’s own biology teacher headed this variety show that included most of my students. There were multiple songs, dance routines, sketches, speeches, poems and even some stand up comedy! I was lucky enough to take part in the production by playing Jingle Bells on the guitar while my 5th form students sang both the Armenian and English versions. During the multiple intermissions between acts, dance music was played through the PA system signaling all attendees to leave their plates and dance in the aisles. Eventually, I was coerced into cutting the rug by my school’s headmaster. In all the whole show lasted close to five hours and included plenty of food for everyone in attendance. The night was finished with some of the biggest roman candles I have ever seen being set off over our village. While I was surely feeling homesick during the holiday season, that whole night helped abate it for a while.
About a week later I finally got to experience the famous Armenian Nor Tari (New Year) festivities that I had heard so much about. I’m not sure where to even begin with such an important tradition. Rather than taking place over the course of one evening, Armenians spread this celebration out over the course of a period of days, if not weeks! All business comes to a complete halt. When I say halt I mean that everything is at an absolute stand still. Grocery stores are closed, gas stations are empty, marshutnis stop running, etc. In observation of the New Year, Armenians visit each other’s homes, dining and drinking with one another.
Since I still live with my host family, I was lucky enough to tag along to all of these different parties. In one day alone I visited at least five houses, all of whom lovingly smothered me with homemade food and vodka. I had been told that Nor Tari could be exhausting but I had no idea that it was a test of social and dietary endurance. After a few shots of cognac, it can be difficult to explain in a foreign language why Americans don’t celebrate in the same why or why I’m not married yet.
While this experience was completely exhausting, it was clear that this proud Haykakan tradition presented one of the best qualities of the Armenian people. The stern imposition of making sure to spend time with every person in your circle of friends and family illustrated just how importantly the people here take their loved ones. Staying too long in a neighbor’s home was a literal impossibility as a short visit for tea quickly turned into dinner and eventually I had spent as many as six hours in one home! It is clear that everyone in Vaghatin’s love language is “quality time.” Sons, daughters and grandchildren came home from Yerevan and outside the country just to see their tatiks, catch up with friends from school and meet new additions to the family. There’s a strong appreciation people here have for those they are close to that I hope to one day take with me back to the States.
Since then school has been back in session for a few months (sorry it’s taken me so long to write!). Once Nor Tari was finished (after close to two weeks), people got back to the daily grind. My 26th birthday came and went, which everyone here remembered despite me only telling a handful of people in my village once. I was the subject of many shnorhavors (“congratulations”) and toasts of cognac that we drank between classes at schools. My 9th form students even made me this lovely poster that hangs in my room!
My students are adamant that winter ends on exactly March 1st and although objective science doesn’t agree with them, the weather is visibly turning around. The air is far less unbearably cold than it was a month ago, I don’t wear my gloves and wool hat for the entirety of the day and wood burning stoves aren’t perpetually in use. It may still be a while before I can even look at my flip flops and shorts but there is a certain comfort in knowing that I survived the infamous Armenian winter.
In the meantime, all PCVs serving here are getting ready for a wide array of projects for this spring and summer. Right now, I am helping girls from my seventh and ninth forms study for the National Poetry Recitation Contest, in which they memorize and recite English poems they selected. If they do well enough in the Sisian contest this month, they’ll go on to compete against students from all over Armenia in Yerevan!
Also my some of my friends are putting together this great summer camp called TOBE (Teaching Our Boys Excellence). This camp provides young Armenian men, from around the country, the opportunity to develop leadership skills, the knowledge to lead healthy, responsible lives and the tools needed to bring all this information back to their communities. TOBE has been planned and executed by a coalition of PCVs and Armenians for a few years now, with the hope of one day having it managed entirely by Armenians
Lastly, I’m involved on this year’s Border to Border committee in that I am helping plan its curriculum. B2B (Border to Border), itself, is a yearly program where PCVs and Armenians teach children about leading healthy lives. The big draw of this is that all of the instructors backpack through the country, stopping to teach in villages and cities along the way. By reaching each classroom on foot we try to illustrate the positive power of following healthy habits! Our walkers will be split into three groups with each one going on a different route, one in the northwest, one in the northeast, one in the south. While the routes themselves have yet to be fully planned they will all end on the same day in Yeghegnadzor. We should be on the road for around 20 days this June. You’ll definitely be reading more about B2B as summer approaches!
If you want to know more about these projects, here are links with more information about them!
Everything came to such a standstill as a result of the snow. I felt trapped in my village with not much to do. To many of us it felt like an eternity looking forward to the next season and the freedom it would bring. Soon I can actually spend my free time away from the close proximity of my space heater. I’ll be able to continue my search for a trail to the Vorotan river. I’ll be able to show my kids how to throw a frisbee without it ending up in a neighbor’s eggplant field. I’ll finally be freed from the endless games of Uno. I’ll be able to get started on all the clubs I have planned. I’ll be able to start on my second year of living in Armenia!