I don’t know myself at all.

Gazarnaguine they call it here. Carrot orange. The color of my hair ever since I was born. Admittedly my hair– much like the rest of me– has had a little help from the bottle this last twenty-five years, but still it is apparent to everyone that I am authentically a redhead. Until now that is.

My friend did my hair. She's cut and colored it before, with excellent results. She charges the Armenian equivalent of $10– less than a tenth of the price I regularly paid for the same service in Washington DC. She's good at what she does.

"Do you have my color?" I asked Ani when I stopped by to book an appointment. There is not much call for gazarnaguine hair dye in a land of Kardashian lookalikes, and I wanted to be sure.
"Oh yes" she said airily, but I think that she may have been one or two squirts shy of the usual gingery mix. Now my hair is a gothic shade of beetroot and I don't look like myself at all.

Other people say it is pretty of course– what else can they do?–but I continue to be startled by the stranger I catch sight of in the mirror. She looks like Marian "Bomber" Price and not like me at all. At first I thought make-up would help, but current supplies

only seem to worsen my new Provo prison pallor. Everything I apply blot and reapply is too light and yellowy for my new black Irish looks. Elsa bought me an emerald green top for my birthday. I tried it on pre-hairdo and everyone agreed it was 'shat siroon'– very beautiful. Now the green with the black blood looks like a Halloween horror show. The beetroot demands a complete wardrobe reboot.

"It'll wash out" said Ani sheepishly as she ran the thinning scissors through my layers one last time. "It's dark but it will fade". Meanwhile I need to get used to the new me: black cherry hair and whey curdle skin. Note: a search of Google images reveals that Belfast bogey-woman Marian Price is now a strawberry blonde.

A little help from my friends. Part One

The spiced chickpeas were in one bowl and the eggplant curry in another. The rice was cooked, although not very well. It was clumpy and sticky despite having been soaked and rinsed. Why did I buy basmati? If I can't cook it in the U.S. why would I suddenly develop the ability in Armenia? Take me back Uncle Ben…

There were grilled peaches and toasted walnuts. I hadn't been able to find crumbly cheese or salad greens, but a trip to the market ought to sort that out. Except that I couldn't go to the market. I could barely make it to the bathroom.

I had invited a house full of people to a housewarming party on Friday and I was sick. Oh so sick. I couldn't cancel–volunteers were already on their way to Goris from far-flung parts, and my invitations to new Armenian friends had been haphazard and often issued through a mutual acquaintance. Who knew who would actually turn up?

My flatlette needed work to become party central. I began to roll up the rugs on the living room floor. Then I just lay on the living room floor and gasped a bit. That's where I was when Aleta walked by, on her way to feed the hens. Realising that I hadn't the energy to clean (to be fair, a condition Into which I frequently fall), she immediately began shaking, vacing, sweeping, washing and wiping in the living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. I lay on the sofa and was grateful. When I thanked her profusely, if weakly, she said " It's nothing. I will always help you" . Then: " I'll bring you the green beans, cucumbers and yoghurt" Oh yes, there were two more dishes to make…

Dominic and Ryan stopped by to see if I needed anything for the evening. They  were expecting an order for beer, or perhaps to be asked to lug a watermelon up the hill. Instead I told them that I couldn't be around food. Could they organize everything in the kitchen? They said they would. Clayton arrived by marshutni and was dispatched on a beer run.

The hour of the party approached. I didn't get washed. I didn't get changed. I didn't brush my teeth. There was no talk of make-up. I just continued to lie on the sofa. Dominic, Ryan and Clayton got busy in the kitchen and I could hear a very competent clatter of pans. Aleta came with the green beans, which she'd cooked on my behalf. Armenian visitors began to arrive bringing big bags of plums, beautiful bars of chocolate, a huge cake, and bottles of wine. I directed guests on where to leave the bounty and men emerged from the kitchen to offer drinks. I had moved from supine to somewhat upright and was propped in a chair. My capacity to chat, always the last to leave me, was functioning well and the fact that much of the conversation was in Armenian removed my need to contribute much anyhow. Pat arrived and knocked the peaches and walnuts into a salad with some greens bought by Dominic.  The men got the table set and brought the food out. Everyone but me ate heartily. At the end of the meal I had yet to move and so Mary cleared all the dirty plates from the living room. Later, she and Pat did all the washing up and putting away. "Thank you so much. I owe you" I said as my party crew prepared to leave. Afterwards I lay in bed and marveled at how can-do, uncomplaining and obliging everyone had been. It's what makes them good Peace Corps Volunteers I suppose.

On Saturday morning, waking up to a nice clean house and immaculate kitchen, I mixed some special Peace Corps rehydration salts with a liter of water and drank the concoction. I perked up quite considerably–enough to do some work. At lunchtime a message from the next slew of volunteers arriving from out of  town: "We're in Cafe Deluxe. Join us".  Why not? I thought. Do me good. I got dressed–washing still felt like too much of a challenge–and walked five minutes into town to meet them. I ordered and ate some mushroom soup. Delicious in the serving bowl, it was –an hour later–less attractive in a bathroom bowl. I went back to bed leaving my 3 incoming house guests to fend for themselves. I did make a brief reappearance on Saturday evening to watch them eat a meal they'd made from party leftovers. I went back to bed at 9pm (Again, to be fair, this is my regular bedtime, but usually I try harder with guests). Because I went to bed, they pretty much had to go too. Some weekend. At no point did I ask anyone about towels or blankets or glasses of water. Some hostess. On Sunday I got up at 6:30. Jim and I were to go on an off-road trip to see Armenia's ancient etchings– petroglyphs– and I was terribly excited. Well, I had been when we organized it. Less so on Sunday morning. Eventually, noting that I was still sitting around in my t-shirt and underwear, couldn't face breakfast, and seemed to be having difficulty walking more than 20 steps, Jim gently suggested that I should stay home. He closed with the reminder that there are no restrooms and indeed no trees or shrubs in Syunik's stone desert. I went back to bed, too dehydrated to cry. KJ and Amanda went to visit Tatev Monastery while Jim took to the hills. They all brought sun cream and lots of water, for the day was unseasonably hot in Syunik Marz. Which made it all the more odd that I was shivering with cold. Shivering so intensely that my limbs were lifting off the bed. I rolled myself in my duvet and prayed to get warm. After about an hour I prayed simply to die. When I woke up 4 hours later, now swimming in sweat, KJ and Amanda had come home. Amanda sorted out more pills and a new bottle of rehydrating salts and did that brisk, efficient straightening and tidying that nurses do–so reassuring. KJ began a campaign to call the Peace Corps doctors. Pat came to visit and called the Peace Corps doctors. Which is why she and I are now in Goris hospital. But that's another story…

For now, just hear how amazed and touched and happy I am that people I met less than 6 months ago, people I may only have spoken to 6 or 8 times, were prepared to go so far out of their way, and their weekend, to do their best to help me. Problems were solved, treats were provided, misery was substantially reduced, and kindness was in constant supply. The humor and the stories helped. The company was infinitely restorative. I hope none of these folks ever need help like they offered me. If they do, I hope I am up to the challenge. I seriously doubt I would be as flexible, insouciant, empathetic and insistent. Thanks y'all. I really do owe you.

Pictures: Jim Daly

Sights I hope to see for myself someday at the Armenian Stone Henge and the Ancient Open Air Art Gallery

Arnica in Armenia?

I was walking back to my hostel when I tripped and fell. I blame a tarpaulin trailing from building site fencing. I slipped on it and ended up splayed on the sidewalk with two torn knees, a twisted wrist, and a scrape on the heel of the other hand. My entire face collided with the pavement and my nose gushed blood.

I had been walking back to my hostel following a most delicious dinner—roast chicken, baked potato and vegetable khorovats from a street BBQ vendor close to the fruit and vegetable market. Before you ask, I had had one large Armenian beer, water-weak and thirst-quenching, and I was wearing sensible shoes.

The street was dark and deserted. The shops sell wooden doors and coffins and close at 6pm. It was now about 9 o’clock. I got myself into a sitting position and tried to stop blood spilling on my dress and shoes. Damn, no hanky. Just as I wondered what to do next, a young woman appeared in front of me, dressed for a night out. “Do you speak Hayeren?” she asked in Hayeren. I am glad that I do. She didn’t have a phone but, by some miracle, I had mine in my bag and it was charged. I directed her to call my hostel, maybe 150 meters away, and ask whoever answered to come and scoop me up from the pavement.

By now, a car had stopped. A young couple got out, clearly very concerned. By now, there was a lot of blood and they thought that perhaps I’d been mugged. I told them what had happened and asked for a towel or some tissues. They had nothing. The woman spoke English and asked sensible questions about whether I had hit the top or side of my head. I had not. All the damage was front and center. She wanted to drive me to the hospital. I explained that my host was on the way to rescue me and with that he arrived.

FullSizeRender (80)Together he and the boyfriend of the English speaker hauled me upright and then steered me across the road and up the hill to the hostel. Back in the kitchen, he provided a wet towel, tissues, a glass of water, iodine and a mirror. I have reopened an old scar on my forehead (I have always been accident prone), a badly bruised nose, a thick lip and a chin with road burn. My teeth and glasses are not broken.

The iodine hurt of course, but otherwise, my face looks worse than it feels. I have no pain and slept well last night.

The man who rescued me is the son of the hostel owner. He was minding the shop while his mum and dad attended an out-of-town wedding. He couldn’t have been kinder and more concerned. He called his parents to tell them what happened and they phoned several times across the evening to check on my condition. I got an extra especially nice breakfast this morning. I’ll be back to stay with these lovely people again. They may want to up their liability insurance.

This was my second fall in a week, for last Saturday morning I crashed when walking home from English class. This one was worse in terms of ongoing pain and damage to pride. The sidewalks in Goris are uneven and perilous and so I usually walk in the road. But Mashtots street (named for the man who invented the Armenian alphabet) was surprisingly busy and so I walked downhill to the center of town using the sidewalk. This was a mistake. In one place the path was completely blocked by an inconsiderately dumped pile of gravel. I looked at the gravel and looked at the ditch, 18 inches wide and full of fast running water, sundry trash and weeds. The hill was steep and I decided it would be better to inch my way across the gravel where it bordered the ditch than to try to bridge the torrent and land safely on road with only one foot on firm ground. This was my second mistake. I slipped on the gravel of course, and ended up beached on my back, with one foot deep in the ditch. I was wearing a dress that suddenly thought to behave as though it were a t-shirt, stopping just below my waist. I felt pain in my right ankle and right knee, the ones lying awkwardly on the shale. An elderly man saw what had happened and crossed the road to help me. We both understood that my best approach would be to put the other, dodgy, foot in the water, stand in the ditch and then have the ancient pull me on to the road. This took several attempts and caused quite a stir as cars rode by. At least they slowed down. I limped home, squelching. My arthritic knee still aches and my cankle is the size of a swede.

FullSizeRender (81)When I first heard I’d been accepted by Peace Corps, my worst fear was falling. I imagined it would happen in winter, and that snow and ice would be involved. Four months in, and at the height of summer, I have already fallen twice. I have also engaged numerous friends and strangers to hold my arm on steps and narrow stretches. On the cable car in Jermuk I screamed so loudly approaching the step-off points both top and bottom that they stopped the entire contraption each time to help me off. Thank goodness it wasn’t busy, but I would have made a fuss even if it had been. I don’t do velocity and forward motion is not my friend.

A friend of mine once survived serious sexual assault and said that she had reason to be thankful for the experience: it had showed her that the worst could happen, and that she could live through it. It took the fear out of everyday living because she knew she was resilient. I feel the same way. Now I know I bounce.

Awkward

Are you married?

No

Why not?

(Laugh) No one asked me. (This is not true)

But you have had a boyfriend?

Yes 

Do you have a brother?

Yes, I have a brother and a sister and I have two children. 

You have two children? But you said you weren’t married?

I adopted them. (Why did I say that? Why? Why did I want this stranger to think of me as ‘good’ rather than ‘fallen?)

Do you have pictures?

Yes (I hand over my phone)

Why did you adopt black children?

Washington DC is a black city. All the children available for adoption are black. 

But I have been to Washington…

The people you see in the center of the city are not the people who live there. White people are the minority in DC. (This is not now true, but was until very recently. I do not have the language skills to explain urban regeneration, gentrification and suburban spread)

She is light. Not too black. 

(Firmly) She is black

Yes, but light. That’s good. 

(Stiffly) I don’t think it is bad to be black. 

No, but we don’t have black people in Armenia. We are not used to–dark

There are millions of black people in the world. And people of all colors in America. We like it. 

Yes. Is your daughter married? 

No, but she has a boyfriend. (Again, why?)

And your son, is he married?

No.

But he has a girlfriend? 

Yes.

(I didn’t mention my granddaughter, my son’s baby. I am ashamed of that, but not of her. I just think this was enough chat for one day. Awkward.)

Knickers, twisted

No wash today
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 the

    Scale photo of author with average-sized Armenian woman
    women 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.