Stewart Brewster of Los Gatos is living in Armenia as a Peace Corps volunteer
By Stewart Brewster, for Silicon Valley Community Newspapers
Posted: 04/23/2012 07:33:38 PM PDT
Updated: 04/23/2012 07:33:39 PM PDT
I'm freezing, adjust the thermostat; I'm bored, drive to the mall; I'm hungry, I order some take-out; my roof leaks, so I call the building manager.
These are simple problems to remedy in Los Gatos, but I guarantee my self-reliant neighbors in Armenia take little for granted. In rural Armenia, there is no central heating, no mall and no ordering out. Water through frozen pipes does not flow, and if your roof leaks, grab a ladder and call a limber relative.
Ten months ago, at age 63 old after 41 years in the insurance business, I retired, said good-bye to my family, friends and Los Gatos neighbors and flew off to start an adventure serving as a community development Peace Corps volunteer in a remote Armenian mountain town at a 6,800-foot elevation.
Landlocked Armenia sits in the South Caucus region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Armenia is the size of Maryland, and has less than 3 million people. Armenia takes pride in being the first sovereign country to adopt Christianity (in 301 AD). Armenia's 2,600-year-old culture is rich in art, literature and dance. For centuries, goods heading west from Asia traveled the famous Silk Road not far from my town.
Skill at "shakmat" (chess) has long been a source of national pride, with Armenia winning the 2011 World Team Chess Championship, edging out China and Ukraine. Its star player, Levon Aronian, is now ranked second in the world. Chess is a mandatory class in the Armenian schools, and in village squares men pass the time huddled over boards.
Armenia today is about 10 percent the size it was at its zenith in the first century, when it controlled land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Caspian Sea. From Yerevan, the Armenian capital, volcanic Mount Ararat is clearly visible as it rises to its snow-peaked majestic 16,854 foot height. Mount Ararat, sacred to Armenians, is considered the landing place of Noah's Ark. Scores of businesses use its name, including the famous "Ararat Cognac" favored by Winston Churchill. However, Mount Ararat is also a source of great frustration for Armenians as it is now within the borders of Turkey.
With a modern capital and 98 percent literacy, Armenia is considered a developed country. However, the per capital income is only 10 percent of the U.S., with 36 percent living below the poverty level. After the breakup of the USSR in 1991, Armenia gained independence and is gradually shifting its ideology from Soviet-style autocracy to a "democratic-like" parliamentary republic. The 70-year Soviet reign, with its welfare system, became an institutional crutch and change to a market-based economy has been painful. Older Armenians wistfully reflect on fond Soviet memories when jobs were guaranteed, even if freedom of expression was not. While older Americans might muse about simpler days of old, our steady 235 years of democratic self-government is reassuring.
My town of 4,600 residents is relatively vibrant because of its mountain water bottling companies and its reputation as a beautiful holiday destination drawing visitors to its hot mineral springs. During Soviet times, the community was a popular vacation spot for Russian elite. In 1985, the population was double its current size, with 25,000 tourists each year. After 1991, tourism dramatically fell off, the town shrank by half and the local airport closed.
Sadly, political clouds hang over Armenia. My community closely follows the long-standing dispute with Azerbaijan, only 14 miles away, and sniper shootings are common here. A heavily fought three-year war over the break-away ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, situated within Azerbaijan, ended in 1994 with a tenuous cease fire--36,000 died in the hot war, including 26 men from my town. I often walk by the town's Karabakh War Memorial, where the young heroes' faces, etched into granite, stare out with a solemn countenance. To the west, the Armenian-Turkish border has been closed for 20 years as Turkey is politically aligned with Azerbaijan. This leaves landlocked Armenia with two open borders, Georgia to the north and Iran to the south, resulting in higher costs and limited goods.
In modern times, Armenia has had two periods of independence, from 1919, when the Ottoman Empire of which it was a part, broke up, until 1921 when it joined the USSR. Then, with the breakup of the USSR in 1991, Armenia was suddenly an independent republic, but with little experience with democratic institutions. In the void, groups rushed in to dominate key commodities, resulting today in monopolies that control much of the commercial trade.
All Armenian males must serve a mandatory two-year stint in the army when they turn 18, leading most male students, by the time they're in high school, to focus more on their service, not their studies. Not surprisingly, Armenian universities are 70 percent female. Families hold extravagant parties as army recruits depart their hometowns; army life is not only dangerous, but living conditions are notoriously harsh.
Much of Armenia's energy focuses on formal recognition of the Armenian Genocide as the 100-year anniversary approaches in 2015. The genocide is well documented with firsthand accounts of the systematic removal and killing of millions of Armenians, Greeks and Kurds from eastern Turkey, as well as Ottoman Turkey's organized confiscation of personal and Armenian Church property. Besides demanding world-wide condemnation of Ottoman Turkey, Armenia's ruling party, supported by the diaspora, is resolute in seeking reparations and return of all Armenian territorial land unilaterally confiscated by Turkey just after WWI. Importantly, Armenia seeks return of sacred Mount Ararat.
Both the Karabakh war and the genocide issue drain national energy from other important quality-of-life needs. Recently, concern has heightened about its southern neighbor, Iran, as well as the long-term impact of the Arab Spring on the region. While in Los Gatos we are concerned about the war in Afghanistan and terrorism in general, this pales next to Armenia's collective worries.
One million Armenians have migrated in the last 10 years, seeking jobs and opportunity elsewhere--Russia, former Eastern Bloc countries and the U.S. California has 450,000 Armenian diaspora, many in the Bay Area. Worldwide, 7 million diaspora send money to relatives, bolstering the economy. This brain-drain is a serious problem, and my Peace Corps mission is, in part, to embed confidence to stay.
With the stark economic collapse following independence, Armenia's middle class contracted. The oligarchs desire to keep the status quo, while the patient poor live day-to-day living frugally in typically cold, decaying Soviet-style apartment buildings. Rural unemployment exceeds 30 percent, with the average rural family living on $190 per month.
Part of my mission is to promote civic capacity--a challenge where apathy is rampant and to be optimistic is to tempt fate. There is wide distrust of all things government. After hearing suggestions for more civic involvement, a respected town member advised me twice, "The people are not ready for democracy or any type of civic involvement, so don't try." However, 17- to 25-year-olds are showing signs of energized activism, particularly on environmental issues.
I lived with a hardworking host family my first 10 weeks in town, living in their Soviet-era apartment. Wives clearly run households while men are in charge outside, huddled in small groups debating the daily issues. One day I noticed my host dad (many years my junior) rubbing his jaw because of a toothache. I gave him ibuprofen from my Peace Corps medical kit and encouraged a dental visit. The next day, when he smiled, his front tooth was gone. Sadly, he could not rationalize dental excessive repair costs over other family needs.
My Armenian neighbors are all jacks-of-all-trades, skilled in making do. Little of value is discarded. If repairing an item proves difficult, then a relative or a friend will succeed in repairing cars, plumbing, electrical, walls, sewing--you name it. Common are homemade snow shovels, just a broom handle and a plywood base. Value is stretched, whether it is twice soaking tea bags or again using soda bottles for raw milk delivery or bottling homemade wine. American-style restaurants are few outside of cities; restaurant food cannot be as healthy or tasty as Armenian women can cook at home. Why waste money?
Subsistence farm plots surround every village, cultivated with care for maximum yield. Armenians are good farmers and take pride in the variety of vegetables and fruit they grow. Every male dreams of owning a car, and if so lucky, will spend many hours under the hood to keep it running.
In Los Gatos, with Safeway, Whole Foods, Nob Hill, Lunardi's and Trader Joe's, we have an abundant choice. In contrast, rural Armenians have few shopping choices, and the price of commodities is surprisingly uniform in Khanuts, or stores.
The cost of staples, relative to income, is much higher here. Meat is served twice a week, if the family is fortunate. Cheese, often homemade, is a main protein staple. Breads or "hats" and the famous Armenian clay-oven baked unleavened flat bread "lavash" are offered in abundance at meals. Armenians have reverence for bread, their symbol of life. It would be culturally shameful to discard stale bread in the trash; rather stale bread is fed to birds to continue the cycle of life.
We can learn much from Armenia. Loyalty and familial support is paramount; young married couples start off living with the husband's parents, grandmothers take care of grandchildren, allowing the mother to work or look for work. Sometimes, the greatest threat to misbehaving children is to threaten to tell their "tatiks," or grandmothers.
Serious crime is almost nonexistent in rural Armenia because shame to the family is a greater punishment than anything the criminal justice system could hand out. I have never felt safer than I do living in my mountain town. I now rarely count my change. Politeness abounds with particular sensitivity to the old, as seats are automatically surrendered to the elderly in a public van, or "marshrutni." Students stand up when teachers enter their classroom. Armenians cherish their children and make sure their sons and daughters are dressed in freshly ironed clothes for school each morning.
Armenians truly take pride in believing they are the most hospitable people on Earth. My experience living in both a rural town and a village bears this out. Strangers are treated as honored guests almost to a painful level, with precious food heaped on the plate. They are proud of their beautiful mountainous country and often ask me to agree that Armenia must be prettier than California.
As I said up front, the Peace Corps is not for everyone. I am the only native English speaker in my town. Volunteers must accept hand-washing clothes, bucket baths, not driving cars (prohibited by Peace Corps rules), no English newspapers, no American coffee, little heat, treacherous winter ice, few sidewalks, different food, no sports or watchable TV (unless one is fluent in Armenian or Russian), walking and more walking, and perhaps the toughest adjustment, being alone more than any other time in your life.
The Peace Corps is highly supportive and methodically prepares each volunteer. Volunteers know they will eventually return to their cushy American life, their family, friends, communities and most importantly, opportunities.
Armenia needs a helping hand. The modest amount of taxpayer money spent on the Peace Corps is vitally important at a time when Armenia is walking a political tightrope in this unstable region.
Sometimes we need to pause to appreciate our supportive infrastructure, highly invested civil capacity and developments such as our new Los Gatos library and police building.
But Armenians demonstrate important values as well--faithfulness to their ancient culture and history, strong family loyalty, trustworthiness, resourceful self-reliance and their magnificent love of children. As for material things, Armenians take pride in their version of the old saying, "Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without."