If there is a nuclear accident here in Armenia I could be in more trouble than most. First, I have managed to lose — or simply failed to pick up–the very expensive, giant horse pills which Peace Corps issued, and which we are meant to swallow as the cloud goes up. They are potassium something, wrapped in silver foil covered with red Xs, and are about the size of sofa coasters If you see them, don’t eat them, unless of course things turn nasty near you.
Armenia has an old Soviet era nuclear power plant at Metsamor, about an hour from where I now live. It was built in 1976 and, although it produces about 30% of the country’s electricity, there is very little money to maintain it. Peace Corps assures us they do not post volunteers within 20km of the site. This cordon’s limits must be based on some intelligence, but I know not what.
In accordance with Peace Corps instructions, I have packed my emergency evacuation bag to be grabbed in the event of war, earthquake or the aforementioned nuclear mishap. I have a warm cardigan, a torch, American dollars, my passport collection, medical supplies and two pairs of drawers. I don’t know why I bothered with the knickers because I would rather die of radiation burns than risk a showdown with medical experts in the ones I packed. Luggage restrictions imposed by Peace Corps mean I have a limited amount of underwear to hand–2 weeks supply in a country where rinsing, wringing and pegging out is often impossible due to lack of running water. It seems a shame to leave the best bloomers on emergency standby and make tired pairs work overtime. I worry about it, but the bottom line is that I think I have made the right decision: best to have my best for everyday and gamble against an unscheduled scandal in unsuitable scanties.
“But why not buy additional undies now you are safely (?) settled in Armenia?” My sister’s voice rings in my ear. “I know you are–ahem–more substantial than the average Armenian woman, but surely you could buy something stretchy to cover all eventualities?”
Well I could of course, but bear in mind that the Peace Corps stipend is $3 a day—-1500 dram. That kind of money doesn’t cover much, in nether regions or otherwise. For this amount, a person can buy a bottle of good Armenian wine– in a glass bottle, with a label and everything, but gusset-lined goods imported from China cost rather more.
You may think that standards are surely permitted to slip in a country where washing machines are rare and tumble driers unheard of, but all the evidence suggests that Armenians take a visit to the doctor very seriously. Yesterday I bumped into a neighbor about my age on her way to the doctors’ office. Despite the dust and the heat of the day, she was dressed in a very crisp navy and white dress, belted black jacket, shiny candle glow tights and shoes with a block heel. Bear in mind that all thewomen in our neighborhood habitually wear dark pants and sweaters with thick socks and flat mules. Sometimes the older ones top this off with a fluffy dressing gown. Shoes are quickly ruined by the dusty tracks and potholes make any kind of heel inadvisable. My neighbor made a point of telling me that her daughter had reminded her to smarten herself up, what with the doctor and all. I took this as her way of assuring me that her foundation garments were both impeccable and irreproachable. These things matter.