Friday, May 31, 2013

A blast from the past...

For some reason this afternoon, I decided to look up a haunt I used to know about when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia.  During training, we were introduced to a restaurant in Yerevan owned by an Armenian-American named Gerard.  It was called The Chicken Coop.  Gerard also owned a small upscale food store that carried a few odds and ends that Americans would most likely be interested in.

For some reason, I thought of The Chicken Coop today.  I only ate there one time during the entire two years I lived in Armenia.  But I wondered if it was still operational.  I looked it up on Google and didn't really find anything about the restaurant that suggested that it was still open.  But I did find a photo that mentioned it.  I clicked on the photo and suddenly found myself looking at a whole gallery of pictures taken by a man who had served in the Peace Corps with me.  The pictures were posted in 2008 and it doesn't look like he still maintains the album.

As I looked at the photos, I was suddenly transported back in time about 18 years.  In fact, today is an anniversary of sorts.  On May 31, 1995, the 32 people in my Peace Corps training group boarded a United Airlines flight to Paris, France, where we would spend the whole day waiting for a 7:30 flight  to Yerevan, Armenia.  Since Armenia is two hours ahead of Paris, we would be landing in Yerevan in the middle of the night.  As I recall, it took many hours for us to get out of the airport.  The public restrooms were filthy and disgusting and the place was poorly lit because there was little electricity back then.

I remember how the group that came before us, A-2, showed up at the airport to say hello to us.  I think they gave us drinks and snacks as we passed through.  Seems to me we were headed to Hotel Armenia just as the sun was rising.  We had breakfast there and a meeting, then went to our rooms on the "old side" of the hotel.  I think I slept all day and regained consciousness sometime that evening.  The next day, we had another meeting and then got shuffled off to our host families.  I remember my name was the first one called when we were getting our host families.

I was 22 years old then... and would be turning 23 about three weeks later.  It was my first big adventure and really quite a daring thing to be doing.  Back then, I was quite a mess and probably had no business going to Armenia.  But I got through the 27 month commitment in one piece and came back profoundly depressed, yet stronger than I was before.  I learned a lot during that time.  Being in the Peace Corps made me braver and awoke the travel bug that I was probably born with.

I wish I could say that I was an exemplary Volunteer or that I joined for altruistic reasons.  I joined the Peace Corps mostly because I wanted to break out of the life I was in at the time.  I was actually very surprised the Peace Corps accepted me, since I didn't have a particularly exciting resume at the time.  I went to an average college and wasn't involved in that much service work.  I'd had average grades in college, too.  Maybe it was because my sister was also a PCV at one time.  My overachieving sister had also been a Volunteer, back in the 1980s.  She went to Morocco and the proceeded to embark upon a successful career working for an non-profit organization.  I thought maybe I was headed in the same direction, but fate intervened.  

Looking at Zach's photos, I learned that one of the Peace Corps Volunteers who served in A-5-- they had come two years after my group-- died in a car accident just as she was on her way to start a new job in Nigeria.  She'd done her time in Armenia, plus worked there for three more years.  I'm ashamed to say that I barely remember her, though she apparently did some really great things for the people of Armenia.  What a tragedy that she lost her life so young.  She sounds like a remarkable young woman.

I pulled down my own photo albums, which are full of a lot of pictures that aren't as artistic as Zach's are.  In a way, those photos are kind of painful to look at.  It was an exciting time and I learned and grew a lot, but I was really depressed and unsure of myself back then.  I don't think I really lived up to my potential.  I can't say it was wasted time... but I'm sure the time I put in there could have been more wisely spent.  I wish I had spent my time there being more productive than I ultimately was.  I did accomplish some things, though, and I can honestly say that the Peace Corps affected my life in a profound way.

I still talk to some of the people I knew at that time in my life, but it all seems kind of like a dream now. I mean, the years have flown by very quickly and it seems like yesterday... and yet it also seems like a lifetime ago, almost like it never happened.

The group that had survived up until four months before our service ended...  I was really ready to go home by then.


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