Hello, I'm just finishing up my peace corps application, but have been wrestling with the essays here's the latest revision. Any insight would be great! I realize there's a lot here, so if you only have time to look at one please do and comment, someone else can always look at the other. Also is there anyone with greater knowlege of the peace corps who can help me with these questions: Should I title my essays? How strict are the word counts (essay #1 is over by 34)?
Return from Travel
I first began thinking about joining the Peace Corps when I hit a major crossroads in my life path during my first semester at college. I started college with a major in Clinical Lab Science; a field that promised lucrative job opportunities. After just one semester, however, I changed to Parks Recreation and tourism; a field that promised work in the great outdoors, but a less financially stable future. It was around this time that I also began working as an outdoor educator and studying wilderness medicine, both of which ignited my interest in travel and helping others. By the end of my freshman year, the Peace Corps had secured itself a spot as one of my goals for the next crossroads in my life: graduation. When graduation finally came, however, the travel bug had bit me and I was itching to see the world. I took off on a journey with no real end in sight. It was a journey based around my love for snowboarding and the outdoors. I was searching for deep snow, low responsibility, and new friends, but I found something much deeper. I gained invaluable travel knowledge and cultural experience that cannot be taught in classrooms. I had the chance to interact with people of many different cultures, all of whom seemed to agree that they weren't fond of Americans.
Now that I have returned home from traveling, the Peace Corps is back on my radar. I am excited about the opportunity to immerse myself in another culture and leave a lasting positive impression of Americans (core expectation 9). I am also excited to take home part of that culture with me (core expectation 10). The most exciting prospect of Peace Corps service, however, is the opportunity to work with people a world away to exchange knowledge in a mutually beneficial environment (core expectations 2,4, and 5).
I am now coming to another crossroads in my life; moving from my seasonal worker lifestyle to a professional lifestyle. I think that the Peace Corps is the perfect bridge for this gap. The Peace Corps presents me with an opportunity to continue traveling, but to do it selflessly. When I return home from my 27-month commitment I will bring with me the skills, knowledge, and experiences that I have gained abroad and put them to use as I begin a professional career. I hope that this experience will also open new career paths for me.
I hope to begin my service next October, which allows me to work one final season at Squaw Valley before hanging up the snowboard for a few years. It would also allow me to spend my summer with friends and loved ones before leaving (core expectation 1). This is very important to me because I think that, the hardest part of Peace Corps service will be leaving at a time when there is a lot going on in the lives of those closest to me. While I think this will be hard, the bigger picture is much more important. I am content to see everyone before I leave, say my goodbyes and then embark on the most exciting and fulfilling part of my life thus far.
Journey with People
While I feel like I have traveled fairly extensively during my 25 years on this planet, I can't think of many situations that required much cultural adaptation on my part. When I visited both Mexico and Japan, I was in a cultural environment very different from my own, but I was only there for two weeks.
These trips made me feel more like an outside observer that an integrated member of their culture.
During my year in New Zealand on the other hand, I did integrate into another culture, but it was not very different from my own.
My largest dose of culture shock actually came from within my own country, while I was living on an Army Base in Alaska. Life on the base was not all that different, especially because I was living in a US Forest Service barracks occupied mostly by wildland firefighters. In fact, I rarely ever interacted with any individuals from the Army aside from when I was re-entering the base. The Army's presence, however, was constant. I woke up every morning to the sound of jogging troops and helicopters landing. Returning home from a long week of fieldwork meant going through the front gate, which entailed waiting in a line of cars only to be subjected to a series of questions, and if it was late at night, the truck would probably be searched. Once through the front gate, I was told not to drive a single mile per hour over the 25mph speed limit because ALL speeders would be stopped and prosecuted. If I was riding my bike back onto base I had to wear a helmet and reflective vest, neither of which were required by Alaska state law. All of the rules, regulations, and the presence of uniformed men promoted a feeling that big brother was constantly watching you; a feeling that ordinary actions might somehow still be wrong.
I remember one particular instance when some friends and I had purchased some fireworks during our 4th of July trip to Valdez. After much discussion and debate, we finally stopped at the side of a road to light them all off before we returned to base. Although fireworks are legal in the state of Alaska, we still feared the repercussions of the dogs sniffing them out as we passed through the front gate.
In the end, all of the limited interactions that I did have with members of the Army were positive experiences. They were not all watching and waiting for me to do something wrong, most of them were just regular people doing their jobs. I imagine that Peace Corps service could feel the same way sometimes. Being the only American in a small village, it must feel like its all eyes on me. Talking to the people around me, however, will most likely provide nothing but positive interactions; the type of interactions that I am searching for with this journey.
I love love love hearing about the traveling experiences of others, and envy your experiences. I'm glad that you didn't go with a stereotypical situation, but I don't think that this essay really answers the prompt. You just talked about how the experience was, but didn't talk about how you modified yourself, or what efforts you exerted, to be a part of the community. You also invalidated the experience you have traveling, which is what you said was your most valuable experience in your last essay. You have to be careful to be consistent. I'm not really sure this example would be the best choice for you.
Here is a suggestion for an outline:
Paragraph 1: Start with an intro (what led you to the experience, introduce what the experience was)
Paragraph 2: Go into more depth about the particular experience (give background and explain the environment, and say how you decided to approach it is a positive way and saw it as an opportunity to expand your horizons)
Paragraph 3: Talk about what you did. (Did do personal research, learn from the actions of others, join in the community in some aspect?) Also, talk about how this changed your perspective, and what ways did modifying yourself make a positive impact on the community.
Paragraph 4: What was the overall lesson you learned. How will you apply that to your time as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Hopefully an appropriate experience will jump out at you while looking at this outline, whether is comes from the Army base, or another experience. You could even pull from something like eating in a restaurant, going shopping, or attending an event during one of your travels. Anything could apply. I wish I could give you a suggestion, but I don't know your background.
Good luck, and let me know if you need anymore help. I know you'll do great! :)
On Sunday, June 25, 1997, I left my Virginia home for Chicago, thence to embark on Peace Corps service in Armenia. The Peace Corps had been in this small and distant Transcaucasian country since 1992, one year after it proclaimed itself an independent republic amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union. My Peace Corps class would be the fifth in Armenia. There were 39 of us, half male, half female, mostly single, mostly young but with a generous sprinkling of persons in mid-career, and a handful of retirees like myself. At 76 years of age, I was by far the oldest. Geographically, we were a cross section of the country, though I detected a preponderance of Westerners—five from Colorado alone. All of us had rearranged our lives, for whatever reasons, to serve the requisite 27 months (three of them as trainees) in a strange land across the seas.
The “staging” in Chicago went without a hitch, and on Monday afternoon we embarked byway of Amsterdam to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I carried with me a new book, hot off the press, Black Dog of Fate, a memoir by the young Armenian-American poet Peter Balakian, that, read in flight, completed my course of study on Armenia. The only way to fly in or out of that country is by Armenian Airlines, an inelegant yet servicable spinoff of Aeroflot. Peace Corps V reached its destination at the break of Wednesday morning, nine hours ahead of Chicago time. I finally fell asleep in a hotel bed at 4:30 a.m.
As it happened, a mistake had been made and we arrived on site several days before the Peace Corps staff had expected. So, after a brief introduction to Yerevan, we were hustled off in small groups to half-a-dozen different places in the country where volunteers were currently in service. This improvization proved to be a good idea. I was one of six dispatched to Giumri, formerly called Leninakan, about 60 miles north of the capital, and one of the cities most badly damaged in the great earthquake of 1988.The scars were still there. Indeed, I was appalled by how little seemed to have been done to clean up the rubble and rebuild the city. Giumri, I learned, had once been the cultural capital of the country, spaciously laid out with tree-lined boulevards and parks and fine edifices with classical facades. Now it takes a leap of the imagination to form an idea of what it must have been. The city is economically impoverished as well. Once busy factories are closed. Upwards of 70 percent of the adult population are unemployed. Thousands live in makeshift shanties called “domicks.” Giumri opened my eyes to the real Armenia.
We visited classes in a local college, where one of the PCVs taught English, and also learned of the work of other volunteers in stimulating “micro” business development. The highlight of the excursion occurred Saturday evening in the great civic square turned over to the “last bells” celebration of the 16-year-old boys and girls who had completed the normal ten years of public school. Loud pop music, Armenian mixed with Russian, filled the square, and the dancing began. We Amerikatsi inevitably attracted attention. A group of pretty girls, whose picture I had snapped, drew me into their dance, and I surrendered to the joy of the occasion.
Returning to Yerevan on Sunday, we had two more days of orientation, got better acquainted with the staff, listened to the welcome of the U.S. ambassador, and learned in detail about the radically remodeled training program in which we would be the guinea pigs. Heretofore, the entire class had trained together in Yerevan. But the staff, apparently pressed by Washington, decided Yerevan was not the real Armenia, and the training should be shifted to towns and villages in the country. The training center would be in Abovian, a city of perhaps a hundred thousand 20 miles north of the capital; and although a small group would reside there, the others would be divided among five or six satellite villages. The whole class would reassemble in Abovian for instruction on Fridays and Saturdays. Although the plan presented obvious logistical problems, it had genuine merits, as I came to appreciate.
I was one of the few placed in Abovian, where on Wednesday, July 2, we were all introduced to our host families for the next three months. Without any foreknowledge of whom or what awaited us, everyone, I suspect, experienced anxious moments as we waited for our names to be called, coupled with that of the host. At the sound of my name I observed an attractive woman, Larisa Badalian, approach with a smile and an extended hand. After some pleasantries across the language divide, and the mandatory treat, we were driven to the Badalian home, a second-floor flat in a big gray concrete apartment building on a shabby street. Once across the threshold I forgot the forbidding entrance. The four-room apartment, with balconies front and rear, was tastefully decorated and furnished. I was given the smaller bedroom, which had a desk.
Soon Larisa’s husband, Ashutz, appeared. A man slight of stature with dark features, he conveyed strength and competency. Both hayr and mayr were some years over 40.Both worked in a candy factory, but neither had been paid for six months. They had hoped, they said, that their Peace Corps guest would be an older man, and they seemed pleased with me, even proposing to call me pap (grandfather), which I waived in favor of my first name. That evening I realized that the family already included a pap as well as a tat; and I met the two children, Arminé and Armin. The daughter, 17, had her mother’s bright smile and radiant auburn-brown hair. She had a good command of English—her younger brother had some—and served as the family’s translator. This, while a necessary function, nevertheless defeated the main purpose of placement with a native-speaking family, that is to acquire Hayeran. All the family understood Russian, still the dominant language of television, and I sensed an overlay of Russian culture on top of the deeply rooted Armenian. I never understood where all the family slept. But in such matters, and in the delicious meals we ate, the Armenians have the knack of making much of little. I became fond of the Badalian family—really a tribe of many relations—and especially Larisa—the drudge of the family who also contrived to be its queen—and she will always have a place in my heart.
The weeks of training that followed proved stressful, and I found opportunities to reflect, sometimes critically, on the motives that led me into this adventure. Everything traced back to my wife’s sudden death in the 51st year of our marriage near the close of 1995. Jean had reached the degenerative stage of Parkinson’s disease and had long since required more care than I could give her. Her death was, in different ways, a liberation for both of us. And I began to reflect upon its implications for my life. I came to realize how much the frantic pace of my research and writing was driven by the mind’s need for activity to offset my worries over her. Now that compulsion had disappeared, and I asked myself if writing another book in American history was really what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had on occasion expressed unhappiness over what I took to be the narrowness of most academic careers, and wished for fulfillment in other, or at least collateral, directions. I am neither restive nor restless by nature, yet the course of my scholarship proves that I become uncomfortable with subjects or themes pursued too long. Thus I had turned away from Thomas Jefferson and his era after I had become among the foremost scholars in the field. I had also taken brief excursions into academic administration. But I never found the will or the opportunity to make a clean break into a new order of work and experience.
Three or four months into this course of reflection there appeared in the mail a brochure from the Peace Corps soliciting application. Of course, I knew about the Peace Corps. Had I not voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960, in part because of his visionary appeal to American youth? And had I not been stirred by the rhetoric of his inaugural address and watched as he, almost without taking a breath, launched the Peace Corps? But my obligations to family and career did not allow me to think of serving in it. Besides, wasn’t it meant for the young? I was 40 years old when it began. Now, however, reading the brochure, I saw how much the Peace Corps had changed, not in its purpose, which remained peace through cross-cultural exchange and understanding, but in its methods and appeal. The emphasis had shifted, it seemed, from the benefit to the volunteer to the benefit of the recipient. Peace Corps programs had become more technical in nature. It was almost a junior Agency for International Development. The age distribution of the volunteers had also changed. In the early years the typical volunteer was a greenhorn college graduate; now they were thirtyish on average, and they brought varied skills and competencies to the service. I fancied that the future of the organization rested more and more with elderly recruits like myself. Finally, with the collapse of communism and the breakup of “the evil empire,” the dross of Cold War ideology had been lifted. These earthshaking events opened many new countries, those in eastern Europe and those of the former Soviet Union, to Peace Corps Volunteers. Already Russia hosted hundreds of them. I could not help but note the small print in the eligibility criteria: No Age Limitation.
In May I drove to Washington to attend a public information session on Peace Corps service. Of the 30 or 40 people in the room, I was easily the oldest. We watched a video, then listened to a panel of returned volunteers talk of their experiences. In the question period that followed I was told that, on average, 25 percent of the volunteers failed to complete their two-year term of service—a sobering statistic—but on the positive side increasing numbers extended their service another year or longer. The unanswered question was whether I was qualified for any of the Peace Corps programs. I had no apparent technical skills. My experience was strictly academic.
Nevertheless, I returned home resolved to submit an application. Happily, my two sons and their families were sympathetic, and I met a reassuring response from several friends. The application called for a statement of 300 words on why I wished to become a PCV.I said, first, that I welcomed another opportunity, late in life, to serve my country; second, that having spent most of my years in the groves of academe, I wished for a different land of experience—one less sedentary, bookish, and private—and third, that while I lacked technical expertise, I was a highly educated generalist with a record of productivity and achievement; I went on to say that since my retirement from the University of Virginia eight years ago, I had taught a year at University College Dublin, completed one major book, and conceived, researched, and written another from scratch, since published, and, indeed, embarked on still another. I added, however, that I was experiencing burn-out in the writing of American history and craved a different challenge.
A month later, in June, I was invited to Washington for an interview with a recruiting officer. She, fortunately, having some familiarity with my work, knew who I am, and seemed determined to find a good “match” for me in the University Teaching Program, where I could unite the teaching of American history with the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). This would likely be in Eastern Europe or in one of the emergent states of the former Soviet Union. Such countries as Uzbekistan, Armenia, Bulgaria, Poland, and Albania were mentioned. I was alerted to the arrival of reference forms and medical kit in the mail. The whole process would require another three or four months. But unless I flunked the physical, everything appeared to be go.
The physical examination proved more rigorous than expected. In the end, however, my only problem was with the Peace Corps dentist. For 25 years a periodontist and a dental surgeon had collaborated in a heroic effort to preserve my teeth, more or less successfully, and none of us liked to be told, on the basis of X-rays, that I would not be allowed to leave the country as a PCV unless extensive, and expensive, reconstruction was done on the teeth. That was hard to take, but I could not be diverted from my purpose by anything so banal as my teeth.
In December my placement officer in Washington called and offered me the choice of service in three countries: Poland, Albania, and Armenia. I quickly eliminated Poland on the grounds it did not feel like a Peace Corps country. I expressed my liking for Armenia because of its fascinating history and culture; as for Albania, while it lacked that, it had geographical location in its favor. In the end, placement opted for Albania. Immediately, I plunged into a course of reading on this Adriatic country, once the Western outpost of the Ottoman Empire and only recently emerged from a long night of totalitarianism. Months before my scheduled departure, however, Albania fell into anarchy, verging on civil war, and the Peace Corps withdrew from the country. Fortunately, there was still a place for me in Armenia, and I grabbed it in March.
During the next three months I exhausted the holdings of the University of Virginia Library on Armenia. I learned that Armenia was not only a country but a people; that its history on the Anatolian plateau traced back to the 9th century B.C.; that it was a cradle as well as a crossroads of civilization; that in 301 A. D. it was the first state to adopt Christianity; that a century later Mesrop Mashtots created the Armenian alphabet, giving rise to one of the unique languages of the world. Through the centuries, although the nation knew periods of independence, it was subjected to one great power or another—Rome, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, Russia. In the 19th century the Armenians became Westernized, partly under Protestant missionary influence, before their Turkish oppressors, and the jealousies thus aroused probably contributed to the systematic campaign to annihilate them, commenced by Abdul Hamid II, the Red Sultan, in 1894, and carried to conclusion by the Young Turks during the Great War, when an estimated one and a half million Armenians lost their lives. The compelling literature in English on the genocide continues to grow. It is fueled by the Armenian-American diaspora, which is more nationalistic than the brothers in the homeland.
Among my elderly contemporaries, I discovered, the only thing they knew about Armenia was what their mothers had told them, as my mother had told me; and I was so struck by the coincidence between the memory and my plan to live and work in that country that I was moved to put it into verse.
My mother’s command in the dim light of childhood,
“Clean your plate! Think of the starving Armenians!”
Echoes in my mind seventy years later
When, at last, I have come to understand
The tragedy that evoked the command.
The unspeakable horror of the Turks’ grand design
Under cover of war to annihilate millions
Of Armenians with their centuries-old
Civilization in Anatolia
Is surpassed only by the hard refusal
Of Turkish authorities to acknowledge
The deed. For denial of the genocide,
With the accompanying impunity,
Invited repetition of the crime.
And so upon the invasion of Poland
Adolf Hitler could scoff, “Who, after all,
Speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The answer to his question was the Holocaust.
Sans gas chambers, the massacres were primitive
In execution. The men, wrenched from families,
Were slaughtered. Gendarmes hustled women and children
From homes and villages by the ruse of “deportation.”
Wandering aimlessly over the torrid plain,
Some died violently, others from sickness,
Rape, starvation, still others were suicides.
Survivor memories are testament
Against oblivion. An observer thought
Of Dante’s Inferno, yet no words equaled
The litter and rot of death upon the land.
Surviving children found refuge in orphanages
In the Levant. Thence came the wispy legend
Got from our mothers. How strange that such a
Historic tragedy should hang by so
Slender a thread, signifying nothing.
For all the humanitarian relief and all the sympathy the West extended to the Armenians during and after the war, the aspirations of the people were shattered. An independent republic, established in 1918, was short-lived. Claims against Turkey were unrealized. Among the Great Powers, President Woodrow Wilson was Armenia’s champion. He proposed a generous western border with Turkey, including access to the Black Sea. When it became obvious that Armenia could not survive without a protector, Wilson recommended the United States assume a League of Nations mandate over the country. This, of course, was laughed out of the Senate. In the end, Armenia was left with no choice but to become a part of the new Soviet empire.
When Armenia declared itself an independent republic a second time in 1991, the questions raised about its viability were no less urgent than before. A landlocked country, about the size of the state of Maryland, with a population under three and one-half million— nearly all ethnic Armenians—and few natural resources apart from its people, how was it to find a place in the global marketplace? As a member of the Soviet Union, she had enjoyed a large and ready market, and excelled in manufacturing. When the Russians left, they stripped the factories of machinery and left them empty shells. Of the former Soviet republics, none had been generally as free, prosperous, and livable as Armenia. And none had suffered such a downfall. One response is nostalgia for the good old days of communism. Most Armenians, however, are too proud of their independence to entertain that sentiment. The “transition economy,” as it is called, is beset by troubles. Only the agricultural sector, approximately 75 percent decollectivized, is performing well. The national income per capita in 1994 was but $670 a year, and only six countries worldwide had a lower gross domestic product per capita than Armenia. A significant part of the national income consists of remittances from abroad. Twenty percent of the people have gone abroad to find work. The income of émigré workers is supplemented by dollars from the Armenian diaspora, especially in the United States. All this money is unreported, so it is impossible to know the amount, but estimates range as high as one-third of national income. Another part of the underground economy is the huge trade carried on in the streets, in shukas, where vendors sell everything from sunflower seed in detergent, from cheese to sleaze. Where income is low and goods and services scarce, bribery becomes endemic. Police, teachers, and doctors survive on it.
The United States quickly extended diplomatic recognition to Armenia, and a stream of foreign aid began to flow there. On a per capita basis, American foreign aid to Armenia is the largest targeted to any country except Israel. A humanitarian program administered by AID to furnish kerosene heaters helped to keep people alive during two dreadfully cold winters. As a retired university professor, I was impressed by the collaboration between the State Department, the University of California system, and the Armenian General Benevolent Association to establish the new American University of Armenia which, curiously, is housed in the former headquarters of the Communist Party. What accounts for the keen American interest in Armenia? First and foremost, the political influence of the Armenian-American diaspora, especially in California, and its powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. Second, historic ties stemming from the Great War and the relief effort in the Near East. Third, the value of a friend in a remote part of the world. There are, however, real limits on that friendship as manifested in official opposition to congressional resolutions condemnatory of Turkey, a NATO ally, for the genocide, and American reluctance to offend Armenia’s enemy, oil-rich Azerbaijan.
The economy, of course, is adversely affected by the geopolitical isolation and victimization of Armenia in Transcaucasia. Of the neighbors on its borders—Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran— only the last appears friendly. The prolonged war with Azerbaijan over the predominantly Armenian ethnic enclave, Karabach, exacted a heavy toll on both sides. Armenia prevailed, and Karabach declared its independence, but the only country in the world to recognize it is Armenia. Poor in natural resources, the nation must import fuels like oil and gas as well as electricity; but blockades at the borders together with the collapse of the economic infrastructure have resulted in an energy crisis. Last year, in a desperate move to alleviate the crisis, the government restarted one of two Chernoble-era, though reformulated, nuclear power plants. The United States and several European nations protested, but the government felt it had no alternative. The game for Armenia is survival, and that is a dangerous game.
Turkey remains the dominant power in the region. Nothing so well demonstrated to me the clash between the ideas of the Armenian-American diaspora and the geopolitical realities in the homeland than the government’s overtures for reconciliation with Turkey. The diaspora leadership continues to give high priority to demanding Turkish acknowledgement of responsibility for the genocide. But that is a moral luxury Armenia cannot now afford. Turkey’s economic interest would be served by commerce with Armenia, yet she defers to Muslim Azerbaijan, a close ally.
A stable government is necessary if Armenia is to deal successfully with its domestic and international problems. Generally it has had that under the leadership of the major political party, the Armenian National Movement. The new Constitution, adopted in 1995, commits the country to democracy, guarantees basic human rights, with some exceptions, secures private property and a free market, and sets forth the distribution of powers. The Constitution follows the French model more than the American. It provides for an elected president, with a renewable five-year term. Much power is vested in him. He appoints the prime minister and heads of ministries. There are regional and local governments, but they lack legislative power. The system is highly centralized with a minimum of citizen participation in the everyday work of government. Unfortunately, there is no supporting tradition of volunteerism in the society. Observers have remarked upon the absence of consensus-building structures and processes. This bodes ill for continued stability. The presidential election less than a year ago returned the first president, Levon Ter-Pertrossian, to office, but only after suppression of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the remnant of the old Dashnak party, and amid charges of electoral fraud and corruption that culminated in a foiled coup d’etat.
Peace Corps training was demanding. It was like starting school all over, but with an adult’s sense of responsibility. My day began at 7:00 a.m. Larisa, my host-mom, had a light breakfast ready at 7:15.Thirty minutes later I set out on foot for my “one-room schoolhouse” among the cackling hens, barking dogs, and mooing cows. There for four hours three of us, the only PCVs in the University Teaching Program, sat around a small table in excruciatingly uncomfortable chairs as our native-speaking teacher coached and coaxed us in Hayeran. The method was direct oral immersion in the language. There was, and there is, no suitable textbook in English. During a break we became acquainted with the host-family and its property: a large stone farmhouse surrounded by a rambling, well-watered vegetable garden dotted with fruit trees—cherry, apricot, apple, pear, mulberry, and a grape arbor to boot. On the fringes the place was a junkyard, with broken-down cars, old oil drums, and antiquated machinery. There were three outbuildings, including our schoolhouse. Less than an acre in size, the place had a funky appearance: a junk-filled pastoral. Four mornings a week, and often in the evenings, I struggled with the damned Armenian language, to borrow from Mark Twain. Early in the 5th century, Mashtots, an authentic cultural hero, reduced spoken Armenian to a written language with its own alphabet. The alphabet has 39 characters, which I finally learned with the aid of homemade flashcards, though I never acquired competency in reading or speaking the language. Eastern Armenian is different from Western, such as was spoken in Constantinople, of which I have no knowledge. Thinking to lampoon the language, I composed this little verse:
Armenia is a dandy country
But its language is the devil’s own.
The tongue to speak it belongs to the Hay
Alone; and here we beg to atone
For the grief of the Peace Corps Volunteer
In the throes of the Hayeran chimere.
No sooner does he begin with inch pes ek,
Followed by the greeting’s response lav em,
Than he is led to exclaim, “What the heck!”
Upon meeting the English mayhem,
Shnorakalutsyun, for a grace
So simple and oft repeated as “thank you.”
Our afternoons, directed to cross-cultural activities, were more relaxing. This, too, was an element in the training program on Friday and Saturday each week, when the whole class came together in Abovian. Sometimes we had field trips to historic sites and cultural institutions. Most memorable was a visit to Echmiadzin, the Holy See of the Armenian Apostalic Church. The cathedral dates from the 4th century; it was rebuilt on a larger scale 500 years later, when towers and cupolas and belfries were added; and was fully restored in the 1950’s with the cooperation of the Soviet Union. A museum of relics and artifacts is attached to the cathedral. The whole is splendidly surrounded by a spacious park, where I spent my most restful moments since coming to Armenia. A later tour of the Matenadaran, in Yerevan, is also etched in my memory. It is one of the world’s great libraries of rare books and manuscripts. The most spectacular holdings, I thought, were of illuminated manuscripts from Cilicia (“Little Armenia”) in the 13th century; but the exhibit, in entirety, spoke eloquently of the rich tradition of art and learning in Armenia.
Separate sessions were organized for the Business and TEFL trainees. My two classmates and I were included with the latter of course, but the instruction focused on strategies and methodologies of teaching English to school children. We were already pointed toward teaching English at Yerevan State University, and not in the usual manner but by way of teaching American history and literature, thought and institutions. Soon after arriving in the country, I proposed this project, for which I was abundantly qualified, to the director of the TEFL program, and she not only adopted it but got the cooperation of the authorities in the university. My classmates, both recent Ph. Ds, one in Classical Archaeology, the other in American Literature, wanted in on the project, and to my surprise it was decided to constitute us as a team to develop a foundational program in American Studies at the national university. Arguments for the program ranged from the Armenians’ need for cultural literacy about the United States, their best friend, to the practical value of knowledge of the world’s oldest democracy by the future leaders of one of the newest. This was, in any event, an exciting opportunity, and I could hardly wait to get started. Meanwhile, we organized a “practicum,” to test our approach with some forty volunteer students in Abovian, Unfortunately, I would never know the results.
During July I experienced two weeks of acute constipation. The medical staff, while well versed in treatment of diarrhea, had little experience with constipation. Finally an enema was obtained from the U.S.Embassy—”the last enema in Armenia,” it was said—but upon administration it proved ineffectual. Within a few days another problem arose, inability to urinate, and this soon became so painful that the doctor hauled me off to a hospital in Yerevan. Hospital is a dread word in Armenia, for since independence almost nothing has been harder hit than health care. Yet my hospital, although rundown and uninviting, had good doctors, and I had no complaint with it. I was given the appropriate tests; my constipation was overcome by three enemas; and my bladder was drained and connected with a catheter. I learned from the doctors that the seat of the disturbance, indeed of both problems, was that troublesome gland of older men, the prostate. One held out for drug therapy, but two senior physicians believed I required an operation, which they were prepared to perform. The Peace Corps staff, meanwhile, was in touch with the Medical Office in Washington. It ruled that I should be immediately medevaced for observation and treatment there.
In the hurry-up of leaving I scarcely had time to say goodbye to the Badalian family, to say nothing of my fellow trainees. Early Thursday morning I was placed on the night flight from Yerevan to Paris, thence to Washington via United Airlines. The Peace Corps doctor accompanied me, an unnecessary precaution but a thrill for her as this was her maiden voyage to the United States. The consulting urologist to the Peace Corps, upon examination, thought that I could be successfully treated by a new drug. But several failed attempts to function after removal of the catheter proved him wrong. In retrospect, I think the writing was on the wall from the beginning, and I was soon duly informed that I would be medically separated from the Peace Corps. Under the circumstances, I could not quarrel with the decision. The legwork and the paperwork completed, I returned home August 1, and five days later underwent the operation urgently recommended by my own urologist. Happily, it was successful.
Under the terms of separation, I may seek reentrance to the Peace Corps within one year. That possibility now seems remote. Unaccustomed to dealing with defeat and disappointment, I am not likely to risk it again. I had looked forward to becoming within a few months the oldest PCV in active service, as I was reliably informed. But that was not to be. The flesh betrayed the spirit. I had imagined that the ranks of the Peace Corps would be increasingly filled with elders like myself; now I seriously doubt that, for it runs against nature. The Peace Corps is for the comparatively young after all.
What else did I learn? I learned something new of the world and rejoiced in it. I acquired a taste for international volunteer service, sand hope to find another road to participate in it. I learned as well something about myself. Life, it has been said, is but an unfolding acquaintance with oneself. It also imposes limits as we grow in years. The idea of throwing my life into a new orbit of experience, which I entertained, was doubtless naïve. Finally, and perhaps most important, I was brought sharply up against my mortality for the first time. I had to enter the Peace Corps, it seems, to learn I am growing old. Now I have dispatched my farewell letters to Armenia. Let the following poem stand as my farewell to that troubled yet inspiring nation:
GIRL ON A BICYCLE
As I came from the bahnik,
Cleansed of the dust of Armenia,
A small girl in a cool green frock
Whizzed past me on a bicycle.
I watched until she faded away.
Then magically she reappeared
Peddling rhythmically with gay
Abandon. And stopped at my feet.
“What is your name?” she asked brightly.
I replied, “Im anuna Merrill”
In my best Haveren. And so we
Conversed pleasantly of nothing at all.
Her name, she said, was Arminé,
So very fitting to a girl
With big brown eyes—a young Athena
In a smart dress, a bow in her hair.
The image of her shining grace
Lingered as I walked through the ugly
Street, and I wished for her a happy place
Midst the fates of her star-crossed country.