Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Shores of Maine or Beyond the Sea

Life is good, folks! Every time I come back to this blog I've got way too much to relate...
Here's this post in a nutshell:

-The Last Green Camp, Vaghatin
-Mid-Service and the End of Beard Chicken
-Back to Armenia
-The Banjo

We finished up Green Camps in Vaghatin, a beautiful little gorge-side village down South near the town of Sisian. It was my first visit to the site where Brett Colson lives, one of my good friends from way back in our training village Gyulagarak. It was also the first camp where the Americans stayed with the host family.

Vaghatin kids

Before my arrival I had heard rumors of a rambunctious family, proud of their delicious homemade vodka. Cory and Robert are two other volunteers in the area, and they were regular visitors and partakers of the incredible homemade, which I came to know as "the Bomb". Brett's Tatik, a woman with grown grandchildren and an easy smile, distinguished and relaxed, greeted me as we first walked in the door, and exclaimed, "I am Brett's Tatik! I take care of him. I am Cory and Robert's Tatik too! Now I am YOUR Tatik! I will take care of you!" she laughed loudly.

What can you say? "Yes." Arevik and the rest of her lively family treated us to a lot of fun and of course great hospitality. The house is huge, big enough to accomodate the seven Americans who stayed for the camp, and the atmosphere is relaxed and fun. The whole family works hard of course, tending the gardens, the sheep and horses, cutting hay by hand and even raising dozens of fish in a huge makeshift metal aquarium out back. The three sons who range from twelve to twenty-two are good-natured and hard-working, and the whole family (including Brett now) have a great relationship with the whole village.

We ate and drank that night, and awoke early in the morning for the first day of camp. We arrived at the school and were greeted by an exceptional man: Zhora, the environmental elder, with his round bald dome and kind eyes, his right arm resting in his jean jacket pocket as he gestures his meanings in the air with his left (Zhora lost his left hand in a hunting accident as a child). He welcomes us with a great grin lighting up his broad face. Zhora is Brett's counterpart, a part-time teacher at the school and an active community member. For years he has helped bring in donated trees and irrigation to the village, beautifying the streets and surroundings and helping to prevent the village's typically dry Armenian soil from sliding into the gorge.

Zhora and Brett with honorary camper Tina

The camp turned out pretty great. The counselors were solid for the most part and (what really made it) the kids were lively, engaged, active, fantastic. It was of course a busy week, and I long for more time to return and be with the people and explore the surrounding mountains and gorge.

Shaki Waterfall

Mid Service Training and the End of Beard Chicken

Shortly after we left Vaghatin was MST where we stayed three nights in Tsaghkadzor near the ski resort. It was the first time all of our A15 group had been together since last November. It was great to see everyone, and our EE volunteer group met with representatives from the Armenian Tree Project, an organization that uses American partners' donations to train and oversee community tree plantings in Armenia. With certain conditions (including community support, a fenced-in area, an irrigation system, and enrichment of the soil) to ensure high sapling survival rates, they are willing to donate saplings and training materials for community tree plantings. The school I work at in Martuni is applying to ATP for trees to be planted on school grounds in the Spring of 2009.

The culminating event of the conference was an A15s vs. A16s (our group of year-old volunteers vs. the new volunteers) softball game which took place in the defunct Olympic training facility above town. Just before this event I decided that the complaints and ridiculousness of our massive beards had reached a threshold and that the time had come to end the madness that was Beard Chicken. With some help I cut and shaved my substantial facial hair into what was dubbed the "Starfish", and Kevin, the only other remaining contestant, did a victory lap and did some damage to his as well. Together we pranced onto the softball field in grand style.


The next couple of weeks I had a little time to relax (much needed after eight straight weeks of camps). I went to the SunChild environmental camp which gave basic EE lessons to kids who will become part of rural film-making groups. SunChild has produced some great environmental films while training rural kids, which is a very cool thing. Then I headed to Ijevan and chilled and watched the Olympics with the Green Tavush guys Artsrun and Arko. We also talked about the summer and how we'd like to change Green Camps for next year. I'll talk more about those plans later, once I've gone to visit them again and we've finished the reporting for this year. Right now Green Tavush is working on translating An Inconvenient Truth (Al Gore's film about global warming) into Armenian. They will then do showings at the various schools they work with and (I assume) make it available as a resource for PCVs. This is good because very few Armenians I've met have ever heard of "global warming".

SunChild Trash-as-Art project

We swore in the new Peace Corps trainees as volunteers with ceremony and speeches, and got to sit and talk with them for the first time really afterwards which was great. They are a fun group, talented and excited to get to work in Armenia. Fresh blood! It's a very good thing. Then two days later I got on a plane for America.

Being in Maine for three weeks was wonderful, and I've never felt such a strong urge to return to where I grew up, reestablish old connections, and live and enjoy the incredible beauty of Maine. The flip side is that it was hard to leave.

My friend and beard brother Jason Rhoades picked me up in Boston, and we met with Rud (another just-finished volunteer who worked with Green Tavush) and met his sister Ashley and her fiancee at their place near the Boston Commons, which was great. The next day Jason and I headed up to Phoenix Farm and got a reception full of fresh veggies from my folks. And the day after that my Dad took us down to Small Point where we put in and paddled in his homemade, beautiful old Loon sea kayaks up the coast of Phippsburg and camped out on an island. We spotted two bald eagles and three pairs of osprey on our paddle, as well as herons and cormorants and gulls of course.

I should say that I was in a daze through all of this. Getting off the plane and parking on the quintessential Boston street with its red brick and cobblestones and walking over to India Day with music and delicious food and incredible magical diverse people in great numbers and grabbing some Chicken Tikka Masala and a six-pack of Harpoon IPA and sitting on the Charles with beautiful green grass and unhampered trees everywhere shading my brow and all these fit healthy people running or biking or roller-blading by--I couldn't believe what was happening. And then the Maine coast--ah! the smell of the fresh salt air just kicked up from the sea and crusted on your arms and shoulders as the bright sun beats down! Cormorants the prehistoric fishswallowers and sailboats and bobbing buoys and moorings and the beautiful thick deep green of the forest giving way to grey and white barnacle-encrusted rock walls jagged standing against the pounding waves and the sheer primordial power of the Sea.

To be continued...

My mother Nancy, my sister Laura and I went to the Bangor Folk Festival, a beautiful weekend in mid-August. Laura loves small children and has worked for years at daycares and as a nanny. Nancy runs an organic vegetable farm in Monmouth, ME, and has forty shareholders who come every week and receive the delicious fresh veggies. Many of the shareholders also come once a week to volunteer in the fields. Nancy is very busy throughout the summer months, but she took the time to see some great music with her kids.

The six stages, the delicious food and drink, the row upon row of blue and green portable chairs, the Penobscot river, and a great diversity of talented musicians from Virginia and Brooklyn to Senegal and Norway, from Bluegrass to Irish Fiddling to Quebeqois, Trinidadian Drumming, Persian Percussion, Gospel, Cape Breton, it was a great time even though the "American" Folk Festival didn't quite stick to its name. The picture below is of a "Banjo Roots" session with a couple of bluegrass players and this fellow from Senegal who plays the "akunte", a three-stringed instrument with the body of a gourd, apparently the ancestor of the modern banjo. There were some similarities in the style of playing but the akunte music and singing was distinctly African.

Four of my good friends from Vassar came up for a weekend at the Mooring, the summer guest house of ours on Small Point Hill right next to where my sister and I grew up. There was kayaking and swimming and frisbee throwing and a lot of Yacht Racing--an amazing time. The Mooring is incredible, a big one-story house overlooking the harbor that will no doubt serve as a summertime gathering place in the future. The idea of a big reunion there next August makes me want to forego post-Peace-Corps travel and just jet home.

Tyler and I at the Mooring

Mooring quiz: what kind of bone is that hanging above the hearth?

Kevin, Hutch, Genevieve, Tyler, myself, Laura on the beach at Ice Box Bend

Lauren Gass and boys on the dock with a Loon Sea Kayak

Thanks for readin' everybody, and do drop me a line if I haven't heard from you in a while. I have always found strength and presence of mind through change, and I wish you all the same.