Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fleeting Holiday Joy

Fleeting Holiday Joy

As I changed careers over the years, I have found the need to adjust to different vocabularies.  Marketing in the construction industry wasn’t too bad with some technical terms and jargon and then some very “direct words” used out on the jobsites.  But when I went back to teaching high school, I needed to re-learn the vocabulary of the youth.   Things were no longer “cool” as in the 50’s but they were “tight” or “dope.”  At first I thought they were talking about how my pants fit!   And finally during my Peace Corps time, I noticed the 20-something crowd seemed to favor the word “random.”  Sometimes, they used it to refer to someone’s behavior that was unpredictable and other times it seemed to refer to something that was “cool.”  As one of the Senior Corps of our group in Armenia, I wasn’t always sure which it was. 

Now over the past couple weeks as I have been reading a fascinating book entitled, Buddha’s Brain, the concept of random has come to the front again.  The authors are looking at what current science has to say about the practice of meditation.  Here “random” is used to describe the way our mind and emotions respond the various external stimuli around us.  There is a pattern to how our thoughts trigger various feelings but it often buried in the experiences from our own past.  But beyond this subjectivity that is based on our own personal history, there seems to be a pattern that emerges for all humans.  We have all descended from someone who survived evolution.   And our brain shows the imprint of this.  Those that learned to notice “danger” quickly and respond quickly had a much better chance to contribute to the gene pool.  This is not too surprising when we consider how small and slow man was combined to many of their companions in the jungle.  It makes sense why The Odyssey and other ancient classics applauded their heroes for being “wily.”  So up to this point, the book seemed to point out things that might be learned in Evolution 101. 

But then they begin to draw new insights into our “survivor” minds as illustrated from current research into the physical wiring of the human brain.  It is amazing to think that we have more neurons firing in our brain than stars twinkling in the Milky Way.  But how these neurons fire, connect and form patterns in brain again is conditioned by our personal experiences.   We possess a capacity unlike any previous species to have words, meanings, and emotions connect in ways that are very personal to each of us.  Listening to talk show radio is an obvious confirmation of this.  But despite this subjective nature of our experience we all have inherited brains from survivors that are wired first and foremost to notice danger.   All our thinking, planning, and problem-solving skills have some pretty strong roots going back to the survival of our species. 
What was most interesting is that these patterns of thinking are not just emotional but physical in our brains.  Living in Arizona now during the winter, I got this image of a dry creek bed just waiting for the next storm.  The more technical description used by the authors is: the neurons that fire together tend to wire together.  This has obviously been a good thing for the survival of our species but has a downside for those of us seeking to find joy and peace in our current lives.  As the human brain has evolved it has developed what the authors call a kind of a Velcro quality when it comes to threats.

The flip side of this, as we often notice even during the holidays, is that our brains give our positive experiences kind a second tier importance,  or a relationship with joy that has a Teflon quality to it.  It is not just the taking down of the tree and the soon-to-arrive Visa bills that push joy to the side so quickly.  You might say it is the nature of the beast.  Those early primates who spent too much time dawdling in the woods to smell the flowers could easily find himself in a losing footrace with a nearby cheetah. This wasn’t exactly cheery news for me to think about my brain’s default setting is for danger.  Especially after surviving the dangers of Corporate America, did I now want to spend my retirement years focused on new threats that await me?  Looking at my aging body and dwindling savings, my brain could easily turn the issues of health insurance and protecting my little 401k into the top priorities.  It is obviously no coincidence that Health Insurance and anger over execs with million dollar bailouts has evoked so much emotion of late from the American public.  Fear has surely become a dominant feeling in America politics, along the discussions to indentify and punish the appropriate villain: Bush, the terrorists, Obama, the immigrants and on and on.

But just when things were looking a little gloomy, the authors returned to their basic discovery about our brains: neurons that fire together, wire together.  And here I found a ray of hope.  Recent science seems to be confirming the old adage to Stop and Smell the Flowers.  Not just to smell them but to savor the experience.  The longer something is held in awareness, the stronger the pathway is developed.   And that holds true for all experiences like our relationships not just for flowers.  That is where my practical side used to be in the way.   Why sit around thinking about friends who are no longer in your daily life?  But apparently thinking of friends who are not part of my daily life is not a waste of time. I am not just being nostalgic but actually enhancing a pathway in my brain to enjoy relationships now and in the future. 
            For me this helps to put things in perspective.  I have felt the pull since arriving back in the States to sort through all the investment and Medicare options that I need to decide before I retire next year.  I have found myself resisting this pressure and not wanting to do the research.  I can now see I need to find a middle path, to choose the best I can and realize my “survivor brain” will still be listening for footsteps after I choose. But even better, I now realize the importance of allowing all the joyous experiences both present and past to dance through my brain.  When I return to my school assignment tomorrow, I can actually allow myself to dawdle as I watch all the youngsters playing on the jungle gym.  My brain may be still looking for dangers but I didn't seen any cheetahs when I left so I think I am safe.  I can savor all the spontaneity and joy I am seeing, knowing that my brain has just increased the opportunity for that in my life.    And so too with all the wonderful smiles of children I have met abroad, they are still part of my experience to be enjoyed when I choose. My thoughts may continue to lead my mind in a rather random path but my heart does not need to follow.  I like that.

Have a joyous 2011.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Holiday Carousel Ride

Last week the headlines read: Dollar Stores taking Wal-Mart’s Lunch Money. That is definitely the case in Arizona where price-conscious shoppers abound, myself included. I never thought I would find items where Wal-Mart was over-priced but an $1,100 a month salary can sure change a fella’s perspective. Then today’s headlines offered what appeared to be some promising news to local residents about the direction of our economy: Foreclosed Homes Hit 32 Month Low. The bright light shone for about a minute until I actually read the article and discovered the cause of the change.  The Phoenix area was averaging 50 foreclosures a day so B of A had installed a moratorium for the past two months. Not exactly a long-term solution. Even poor Obama seems trapped in his search for a solution. He tries to compromise with the GOP on the tax legislation and has his own party turn on him for siding with The Enemy. You kind of wonder after a while whether politicians are so focused on the other party being wrong that they have forgotten to do what’s best for the country.

So in the midst of all this Grinch News from the economic world, where can I turn? Where is Tiny Tim when I need him most. Still on a movie reel I guess with the other holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life. (I must admit a preference for Chevy Chase whose holiday challenges always puts mine in perspective.) And on top of these discouraging national trends, I am currently immersed in my own Grinch Event: trying to crunch data regarding my school assignment to justify our program’s federal funding. It is truly déjà vu. After two years in the Peace Corps, I already know this dance.

So with this as the backdrop for my current life, I was delighted when one of our social workers invited me yesterday to attend a little musical performance. Even though there were 150 students standing on a grandstand in our cafeteria, the fact that they were all kindergartners still qualified this as a little musical event. As you might imagine, the sight of them was just delightful and a true injection of B-1 for my flagging spirits. I stood in awe as their teachers proceeded to move their charges into a semblance of order despite their overflowing energy.

Just when I think the concert is ready to start, in march another 150 students visiting from a nearby pre-school. Apparently this has become an annual exchange between the two schools with differing economic status. The visiting students have each brought a book purchased and wrapped by their parents to be given to our kids at the completion of the musical performance. And a performance it was! We Wish You a Merry Christmas was sung with mucho gusto and even had some arm gestures included to add to the dramatic flair. But my favorite had to be the resounding rendition of Feliz Navidad. With almost 90% of our kids being Hispanic, one has to agree with the MasterCard commercials that some things are really Priceless. This was actually our second musical event at our school in the past 3 days with the older students playing the violins and wind instruments two evenings before. But it wasn’t quite as easy to recognize the songs as their efforts far exceeded their talent. But it was still sweet to watch them perform before their proud parents.

Since I will not be going back to California for the holidays, this was actually the second installment in Jack’s Early Christmas. Over Thanksgiving my son Shane flew down for the Monday Night game where the 49ers actually won a game.  You would never know it was the Cardinal’s stadium with all the jerseys sporting names of SF players. And while the football game might have been culmination of our family holidays, the time leading up to Monday night was even more special for me.  When we weren’t wandering around the local malls, we would sit around my daughter’s apartment watching movies or renewing our old Monopoly rivalries.  And we even cooked our first turkey together without basting each other.

With Shane flying back to the Bay Area, I returned to my little carousel pony and the ups-and-downs of my current life in Arizona.  There are the boys in my 8th Grade groups that I struggle to have impact with as they slowly drift closer to the gang affiliations of the friends and families.  But then I walk by the playground on my way back to my office and all the joy and enthusiasm of the little people dissolve the cloud over my head.  Then school lets out and I drive home, devoid of energy and wondering when the flexibility in my back will return.  But I walk out on my balcony and see the soft light still showing through the neighboring trees and my perspective widens again.  Such has been my carousel of late.

Last night I was fortunate enough to sit with a new friend from our mediation group. His home built decades ago sits on a hill with a marvelous view of the surrounding mountains. He was having a birthday party and suggested we come early to enjoy the setting sun. I can only imagine since his diagnosis with cancer that he spends a good deal of time out there. The sky went from bright red to salmon and finally to those fine wisps of pink in the clouds. It was peaceful sitting there with 10 people who felt very little need to speak. I figured out that Nature’s Movie was over when someone started passing around the popcorn.

And so my carousel ride continues. Some days I feel fragile, both in body and spirit. And with it come feelings of separation and doubt. Other days my spirit is lifted by the smiles of our youngest students, who chase each other around for no apparent reason. Then they take each other’s hands and go back to where they started from. That makes very good sense to me.

I hope that you are holding onto the hands of your loved ones this holiday season. It really is a short journey we are on.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Swinger of Birches

                              A Swinger of Birches

There is that classic line from the Thomas Wolfe novel saying:  You can’t go home again. Of course I didn’t think that applied to me. After two years in a foreign culture, it would be nice to finally come home. Many Peace Corps Volunteers who visited home during our two years of service commented how hard it was to return after a visit. There would naturally be an adjustment from the slow pace of Armenia to the hectic pace of America. It might take a couple weeks or a month but I would be fine, home again, at last.

Fast forward three months from my return from Armenia and I am still trying to get my footing. Several of you had encouraged me to continue my blog upon returning. The new focus would be on my AmeriCorps service in Arizona. Sounded like a good idea, especially since my monthly blogs helped me to process the various challenges I met. But now I was hesitant. The Peace Corps suggested that we share our experiences so fellow Americans got a fuller understanding of other parts of the world. But now what?  I had no Post-Soviet culture to discuss or even visits to Egypt, Turkey or India to share. I was in Arizona and hadn’t even seen the Grand Canyon yet. The only dramatic changes seemed to be going on inside me and that is not always easy or even comfortable to write about. So I decided to cut my mailing list down to relatives and friends and just share my current confusion as it was.

The first thing that showed up upon returning was my age and my health. Since I would turn 65 in September, it was time to sign up for Medicare. But it soon became more than a theoretical event as my health took a dip for the worse. After a month of fighting some kind of viral cough, I had my back go out. Now that was really a blow to my ego. If I had been climbing a mountain or running a marathon, it would have more acceptable. But it happened after a tai chi class, that slow motion exercise you see 70 year old Chinese doing in the parks. After a week it returned to normal and then went out again. And then again. Having been blessed with good health most of my life, this was surely a challenge to my spirits.

I say this without any self-pity as the sidewalks of Arizona seem filled with people whose ailments are much more severe. In fact, the first couple months here were kind of shocking to notice how many people are out there in wheel chairs or even pushing a shopping cart with their oxygen tanks in it. I really don’t know if Arizona attracts more people who are the final stages of their lives or whether I had been insulated in my master-planned community in Sacramento. But whatever the reason, I am now much more aware of the harsh physical realities that many must deal with daily.

I used to think that if there were Life Lessons we came to learn, And I was sure mine were compassion and patience. Well, it looks like I am back in School, in more ways than one.  The past couple months have truly been a crash course in life classes. Every day is a reminder that our bodies definitely have a limited shelf-life. When I was younger, I remember seeing senior citizens sitting in coffee shops comparing their ailments. That is not the way I want to write the final chapter. So I have chosen to bring these limitations into my meditation practice and see if I can use them to be more mindful through the day. They definitely provide an opening for patience and slowing down. Funny, I came back to America with the expectation that my ears would be pinned back with the speed of modern life. Instead, everything seems to have slowed way down. Whether signing up for Medicare, finding a new doctor in town, or just filing for reimbursement claims, you don’t have to worry about things going too fast.

And so I go forward in my new life in Phoenix, almost by necessity required to slow down to the speed of life. And with that comes a greater appreciation of the little things in my day. I work as a volunteer in a grade school where the vast majority of the families (about 95%) are Hispanic, and many are just getting by. I watch the families arrive in the morning, mostly mothers but some fathers walking hand-in-hand with their children to their classrooms. And I see the kindness and patience of the teachers and the social workers assisting their wide-eyed charges. Most families fall under Title 1 so the kids are given a free breakfast. I pass through the school cafeteria each morning to put my lunch in the teachers’ lounge. The place reminds me of a hive with all the baby bees eating and buzzing with their neighbors. It is more like an extended family than a school. All it takes is to look at the shining faces of the children, and my concern about my nagging back problem seems to dissolve. We may still be a month away from Christmas, but our cafeteria is already glowing with a thousand points of light from all the smiling faces.

Robert Frost concludes one of my favorite poems, Birches, with the lines:

That would be good both going and coming back. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

It has taken me a couple months to accept this experience of “coming back.” But as I hang on this thin branch wavering in my hand, I am slowly coming to accept the uncertainties that come with this journey that is my life. It is an illusion to expect it to be any other way. One could do worse than be a Swinger of Birches.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Completing My Service

 You see if you come to this country you must understand that here it is the 19th Century. These people, our people, have been left there by a combination of events.  The still have the strength for fighting and building.  The have a passion to clarify and create.  They are willing to sacrifice. Here, we are in our fathers’ time.”

Although these lines came from a story about a Jewish soldier, they capture my experience of living in Armenia.  You can feel the imprint of the past, the spirit of the ancestors in all aspects of everyday life.  The first time I went into a grade school I expected to see a photo of a sports hero, like the middleweight boxer Arthur Abraham, or one of Djivan Gasparyan, the world famous duduk player.  Instead the walls were filled with photos of 19th century Armenian soldiers.   Even though there are no current wars, the role of the soldier is still highly regarded in the culture.  The enlistment of young men for the army is still mandatory and their arrival at the town square once a month is always an event of great social significance.  In fact, weddings seem to be the social event that exceeds the neighborhood party sending their boys off to the army.  The eyes of the mothers may be filled with sadness and doubt but the fathers are filled with pride as their sons begin their rite of passage into manhood.  For a female in Armenia, it is marriage.  An unmarried 30 year old is still called a “girl” but a married teenager is given the status of  “woman.”

Looking at the past century of Armenia’s history, it is not hard to understand why the people cling so strongly to the traditions of their past.  Wars with their neighbors have taken many of their ancestors and much of their land, not to mention the collapse of the country’s economy just 20 years ago with the fall of the Soviet Union.  You see families over the weekends walking to the war memorials and fountains and can feel they are paying tribute to their history.  Similarly, many homes have a painting of Mount Ararat which is now on Turkey’s side of the border.  In many ways it symbolizes the soul of the Armenian culture where these longings and memories of the past are in fact stronger than the present realities. These traditions and beliefs obviously give strength to the Armenian identity, but it also tends to fix their vision on the past.  And while most citizens are looking at the past, the government is creating a version of the future that has little to do with the democratic process.  The past decades of a Socialist System has lulled many to sleep as to the importance of shaping their own society.  

While the village life continues to follow 19th century values and traditions, the capital of Yerevan is desperately trying to become a hub of   21st century life.  But I am not sure if this experiment is very successful.  For these new offices and apartments being constructed are done at the expense of the city’s historical architecture.  It has little of the character of the villages.  Even the residents of Yerevan seem to be trying too hard at this modern “makeover” with their fashions and vehicles. Part of this disparity can be attributed to the huge divide in Armenia’s economy, where a very small minority of Oligarch families controls most of the wealth.  But it also seems a residual of the earlier Soviet life where appearances were passed off for realities. 

So what happens in the present while the 19th and 21st  centuries movies are playing in different regions in Armenia?  Just what you would expect: the women of Armenia are carrying the families and the country forward.  While the men of the country continue to smoke their cigarettes in the town squares, give 10 minute toasts at the celebrations and argue about politics, the women continue to raise the children, cook the meals and clean up after all the celebrations.  This old-fashioned division of labor is obviously difficult for many of our Volunteers to watch.

I could not help but be reminded of a poem we studied in my Sophomore English class back home.  I think most of the women in Armenia could relate to the experience written by a famous African poet, Gwendolyn Brooks.

Kitchenette Building

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,

Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong

Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”


But could a dream send up through onion fumes

Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes

And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,

Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms


Even if we were willing to let it in,

Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,

Anticipate a message, let it begin?


We wonder. But not well! Not for a minute!

Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,

We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.


The sad irony is that the females of the country are the ones who demonstrate more aptitude in the classroom.  Towards the end of middle school age, the boys seem to have slid to the back of the classroom with their buddies as the girls compete for academic achievement.  This will continue until their college life is completed when young women must deal with the limited career paths open to them.  Many of the ambitious young women I have met are resisting the family pressure to marry, realizing they will be trapped with domestic chores.  It is much more difficult for a young woman to find a man with an open-mind than for the men to find a good wife. Some will have to make the difficult choice to stay in the country they love so dearly or create a more fulfilling life for themselves abroad.  This and the continual corruption in hiring practices will continue to fuel Armenia's ongoing problem with migration.

As I have observed these struggles over the past two years, I cannot help but be inspired by the determination of many of its people.  Seeing many of the older woman sweeping the streets and cleaning the buildings, I can only admire their resolve to  "keep on keeping on."  While I have never achieved much competence in the language, I will still carry back home with me a connection with many new friends.  As the Armenian proverb says: From heart to heart, there is a path.

In conclusion, I just want to thank all of you who took the time to write back.  Your support carried me through many trying times.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Another Inconvenient Truth

Lately I have been reading and enjoying a book my sister sent me, Half-Broke Horses.   In it the author portrays her life growing up in the American Southwest during some difficult times in our country, the 30’s and 40’s.  One of her first experiences in a new town brought back vivid memories of my arrival in Armenia:

I felt nature calling and asked Old Jake where I could find the facilities.  He pointed toward a little wooden shed in the north corner of the compound.  “It’s nothing fancy, just a one-holer,” he said.”No moons cut in the door to advertise it, either, ‘cause we all know what it is.”

            Inside the outhouse, once you’d closed the door that didn’t have a moon, enough light came through the cracks in the wood so that you could see.  Spider webs dangled in the roof corners, a sack of lime sat on the dirt floor, and there was a scoop to sprinkle it into the hole to keep the flies down.  A distinctly malodorous aroma arose from the hole, and for a moment I missed my snazzy mail-order toilet with the shiny white porcelain bowl, the mahogany lid, and the nifty pull-chain flush.  As I sat down though, though, I realized you can get used to certain luxuries that start to think they’re necessities, but when you have to forgo them, you come to see that you don’t need them after all.  There was a big difference between needing things and wanting things – though a lot of people had trouble telling the two apart – and at the ranch, I could see, we’d have pretty much everything we’d need but precious little else.

            Next to the seat was a stack of Sears, Roebuck catalogs, and I picked one up and leafed through it.  I came to a page advertising silk bodices and lacy chemises.  I won’t be ordering from the page, I thought, and when I was done with my business, that was the one I tore out and used.

            Now, I would be less than truthful to say that I have fully adjusted to all such physical inconveniences.   In fact, I could probably name the location of all the public bathrooms in my town that are actually equipped with toilet seats.  There are five.  In fact, I still remember the exciting day when the city official on the 4th  floor of our office building gave me a key to the locked bathroom.  Not exactly the “key to the executive bathroom” but it sure felt like it.

            But over the next two years, I discovered another “inconvenience” that was much more difficult to adjust to.  During our initial language training, I was a little surprised to be taught the phrase, hamar che, it is not convenient.  We were told if someone wanted us to stop and talk or to go drink coffee with them when we were busy, we could just use this phrase. What I did not understand at the time was how much this embodies the Armenian view of time.

Early on in my service at my Non Profit site, I would arrive at 9am for a meeting that the Director had arranged himself the day before.  He would then show up at 10:30 as if he were on time.  He would ask me where my Armenian tutor was.  I tried to explain that I pay her for an hour every morning to work with me and ……… she had gone home.  He usually had this startled look on his face, like “why?”  I guess he expected that I would pay her to just sit around and wait for him to arrive.  This became all too typical of meetings at my NGO.  Apparently in the Soviet system, the boss is not expected to be a “role model.”  This was one of the perks of being the boss, of having a title.  And once our meeting started with a half dozen staff members, it was not uncommon for a friend of his to knock on the door and walk in.  All of us would then be expected to just wait while their personal conversation took place over the next ten or fifteen minutes.

                 This is not unique just to Armenia but also occurs in Turkey, as I mentioned in my blog about my trip to Istanbul.  My British acquaintance also struggled with this at meetings he conducted.  The members of his team would have two to three cell phones sitting in front of them on the meeting room table.  They were not in the least bit hesitant to take a personal call right in the middle of his managers’ meeting.  When I began to teach English in the school in my town last year, I discovered this was also an accepted part of the school culture. The grade school students, as in America, have mastered the art of “texting under their desks.”  But even more disturbing is the tendency of the teachers to pretend it’s not happening or even allow them to leave the classroom to answer a personal call.  I have asked several teachers I work with, why the principal of the school doesn’t just have a rule for all the students to “turn off their phones” when they come to school.  They look perplexed at the logic of my question.  Maybe they are afraid they might have to do the same.  Either way, the quality of education suffers.     

                    If Armenia is ever to compete in the business world, they will have to deal with this cultural value that still puts relationships (friends and family) above performance.  Now it is not hard to understand how this value evolved in a society where family support was a key to survival.  I had actually come across this phenomenon back in the late 60’s working at a Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota.  Even though they lived at the poverty line, I was surprised to hear that no one had phones in their houses.  I should qualify that.  Nobody has a phone for more than a month.  For when their neighbors found out about it, the owners would soon have a $500 long distance bill the first month and have to discontinue service.   The concept of sharing obviously made sense during the times when the culture relied on hunting the buffalo.  If your family didn’t succeed in killing a buffalo one season, you would obviously rely on friends and family for food during the winter.  The practice made perfect sense during the era of buffalo hunting.  But while I was working there, it was surely an impediment for the families to adapt to the modern world. I imagine for those with casinos on their land, this is no longer a problem.

Recently a group of successful Armenian business people visited our town for a conference.  I was invited to have dinner with them afterwards where the topic of opening the border to Turkey was discussed.  I told them that many in our town were opposed to it out of fear that the Armenian businesses could not compete and would go out of business. I found their response very interesting.  They agreed that initially it would be a major problem to for the country to face.  But eventually they felt it would be a “wake up call” to current hiring practices in Armenia.   Employees who are hired because they are relatives or friends expect to keep their jobs not through performance but because of relationships.  The participants at the conference felt competing with Turkey would force many Armenian businesses to consider hiring the most qualified applicants instead.  This would be a huge shock to the culture where relatives and friends expect preferential treatment.   

The offshoot of the current hiring practices is already having a negative impact on Armenia’s migration issue. I recently met with one of the twenty-something Armenians that I tutor in English.  Her face told a story of recent disappointment.  She had already worked through two recent job problems but this looked new.   When I first arrived two years ago she was employed in a mid-level supervisory position with the Courts. But when financial crisis rolled into Armenia, she and many of her staff were laid off.  Rather than sitting around waiting to be rescued by a relative or friend, she began exploring other solutions.  She first started a small internet café in her area of the town.  After a while she realized there was not enough traffic to make it worthwhile.  Then she contacted one of the banks in Yerevan that were planning to open a branch here.  In itself, this was a level of initiative I seldom see among the many unemployed in our town. She was told that an accounting course would be offered in a month and that the bank would be hiring from those who completed it.  She not only took the course but completed it with the highest score of those attending.  When she arrived in my office that day, she had just had her job interview.  Having gotten a perfect score on the accounting exam, her hopes were high for the interview.  With her previous job experience and solid abilities to speak English, I was also hopeful for her.  But at the completion of the interview, they just said:Don’t be disappointed but we won’t be hiring you.” 


It wasn’t a couple days later that I was talking with the Superintendent for the construction of the new bank.  We were having the usual conversation of what our children were doing.  When asked about his daughter’s job he replied that she was a secretary at the police department.  But he added proudly that she would soon be working at the new bank he was building.  I guess she was so talented she didn’t need to take the accounting courses.  My student is now talking about leaving the country.  This cultural value of “insider hiring” is commonplace in Armenia.  But from where I stand, it will not enable Armenia to compete in the world market and will also drive many of the talented youth to look to other countries to find their careers.  The universities in Yerevan may get the short-term benefit of collecting student tuitions but it will be the neighboring countries that receive the long-term benefit of an educated and talented workforce. 


As this summer approaches I am preparing to help run 3 Summer Camps in the region as I did last summer.  It is exciting for the teenagers to make new friends and for us counselors to see them learn some new skills in the area of teamwork and leadership.  This past month I have been working with the local schools to arrange times to make presentations, pass out applications and interview interested students.  One school is up in the hills a ways and has taken me two weeks to set up good time to visit. But after it was all arranged, my counterpart at my NGO whom I rely on for translations told I would need to re-schedule our meeting because it was “not convenient.”   When I tried to uncover the conflict on her schedule, it was something her sister asked her to help her with.  I could see that if she met with her sister an hour earlier both things could happen.  She finally admitted she would have to get up an hour earlier in the morning.  I don’t think her cultural conditioning allowed her to see how “inconvenient” it might be for me re-scheduling a meeting that took me two weeks to create.

Should the border with Turkey open in the next year or two, I am afraid Armenians will be forced to do address these traditional values that no longer serve the Society.    Otherwise, I do not see how they will ever regain a semblance of the stature they like to recall in their long and proud history.


Friday, April 2, 2010

My Trip to India

My first visit to India was 3 years ago as a member of our meditation group in Sacramento.  Like many first-time visitors, I was overwhelmed by the poverty, the garbage on the streets, the overcrowded conditions and still fell in love with the country. India has a way of offending all your standards for living and still gently reaching your heart. 


One that first trip 3 years ago, our group had arranged to meet in Bangkok first and then together travel to India.  Coming from a country where 75% of Americans are Christian (was 85% in 1990), it was amazing to see images of Buddha everywhere.  One day we visited the famous Reclining Buddha, a gold-plated statue that stands 50' tall and 150' long.  Little did I realize that this would not be the case when we arrived in India, Buddha's birthplace.  For while 95% of the population in Thailand is Buddhist, 80% of the India's population are still Hindu with less than 1% Buddhist.  Much like Christ 2500 years later, Buddha's message was one of equality and compassion was not well-received by those in power who wanted to preserve the existing caste system in India.


             The first city I had chosen to visit this time was the historic city of Delhi and India’s 2nd largest city after Mumbai. I was a little restless when I arrived having inadvertently created a 20 hour layover in my layover at the Dubai airport from Armenia. This city in the Arab Emirates has undergone incredible construction in the past decade thanks to the world’s demand for oil. Yet I really didn’t have the funds or the desire to explore the Arabian version of Las Vegas.  I was amazed to see the amount of electronics equipment tourists carried with them that it even required a shrink wrap machine right in the airport. But I was content to take a short bus ride for much simpler fare: a sandwich, baseball cap and a cheap pair of sunglasses.  I was ready for India.


            The first thing I noticed on my taxi ride from the Delhi airport was the flurry of construction projects as they prepare to host the upcoming Commonwealth Games in October.  The growth in the computer world has been good for India’s economy and like China at the Olympic Games wants to use this opportunity present a more modern face to the world.   


Where I had chosen to stay was the opposite of “modern” but was conveniently located next to Old Delhi and the train station that I would depart from in 5 days.  It did have the advantage of cheap hotels and the presence of many foreign tourists.  My arrival on my street was at first a little shocking as I re-entered the world of controlled chaos that is normal on the streets in India. The first day is like being in a 3-D movie theater, dodging and moving as all the sights and sounds attack your senses.  But once you have acclimated, you just take your part in this fast-flowing river and find yourself carried along with all the other amphibian life.  I lived off Main Bazaar Road which is like a narrow alley 100 yards long with storage units every 10 feet.  Of course you have to mix in several hundred tourists on foot, a couple dozen rickshaws, a handful of honking motorcycles and the occasional full-size taxi who decides to clog up the whole area with his vehicle. It was quite a change from the quiet country lanes I had been walking down in Armenia.


As I had discovered previously in my trip to Istanbul, I enjoy my time most when I can find a balance with sightseeing and just hanging out with the locals.  So the next morning I found a cozy Internet cafe two minutes from my hotel that offered delicious chai for 25 cents a cup and surfing for 50 cents an hour.  It was also a great place to run into fellow travelers from around the world.

My days in Delhi were spent just chatting with the various store owners along my street as I slowly wandered out to the main drag for some adventure I had selected from Lonely Planet. My outings into greater Delhi took me to a shrine for Gandhi, the Railroad Museum and a couple historical temples and mosques.  The large bronze sculpture of Gandhi in front of his spinning loom was especially moving.  He and Mother Theresa had been my idols since my youth.  I also enjoyed looking at the development of the trains in India over the past 150 years.  What may have started as a practical way for Britain to manage a rather unwieldy colony has become such a vital link for people throughout India.  As I was to soon find out it in Gaya, waiting for trains has evolved into an extended social ritual as well.


            During one of my outings in Delhi, I was in need of some relaxation between stops and found the Lotus Garden Park on the map.  Sitting in front of a lotus pond, it seemed like a perfect occasion for a brief meditation.  But after about 10 minutes I started to notice some vibrations from the other end of the park bench I was sitting on.  Assuming that it was someone reading a book I thought I would just continue.  Then I started to hear muffled whispers.  When I opened my eyes, I was surrounded by a handful of 9th grade boys, their eyes wide with curiosity.  Their desire to have a conversation was apparent.  Once the unofficial leader of the group had introduced himself, I began to ask him questions about his classmates.  Who was the best cricket player in the group?  The best dancer?  The fastest?  Each answer came with the person’s nickname and much laughter.  Before long our group had tripled in size as others on the same school trip joined in as their female classmates kept a respectful distance.  Their energy and interaction with each other was delightful to watch and I offered to take their photo before leaving.  Hesitantly the smaller group of young girls approached as well to have their photo taken.  Standing there in their school uniforms I could feel the energy for India’s bright future.

My evenings in Delhi were usually spent along Main Bazaar Road near my hotel, having dinner or sitting around chatting with locals and tourists I had met.  One evening our little international group included two young men from Canada (who lived within an hour of each other but had never met before), a young man from France and a young store keeper from Nepal. They had all be traveling for at least 6 months and some for over a year. One of the Canadians had gotten his degree in Finance and then came to Mumbai to explore possible career options. But finding out his salary would be less than he could make at a McDonald's back home, he decided to start researching products he might import to Canada.  His current plan was to import prescription glasses which could be made in India for a 1/3 of the cost.   The other Canadian was just finishing up a year on the road make possible by the snow removal business he started during college and sold upon graduation.  His plan upon returning was to work with a friend who was opening a restaurant in a new snow-boarding resort in British Columbia.   The French student had started traveling after high school and recently finished a couple years stay in Barcelona. Now 26, he was pursuing a career in art and particularly creating sculptures. Our “ringleader” that had brought us together was a young storekeeper originally from Nepal. He had an infectious sense of humor and spent the evening at the end of the table drinking Coca Cola and translating the Indian songs that played in the pub.  The night went longer than I would have chosen but was filled with much interesting conversation.

 I also spent a couple evening with was a group of young men from Kashmir.  Since the 15th century the Himalayan goats in their region have been famous for producing the wool used in cashmere sweaters and pashmina scarves. The photos my young friends showed me on their computers also portrayed a land of forests and mountain lakes.  But all this history and beauty has unfortunately been overshadowed of late by its border with Pakistan and the periodic incidents of violence.  Without the usual flow of tourists, these young merchants have been forced to bring their handcrafts and soft goods to Delhi for sale.  It was apparent how difficult it was to be away from their families and friends for extended periods of time.  As they tried to sell me on a mini-vacation on their families' houseboat, I sensed it was less for the profit than an excuse to return home for a week or so.  As Muslims, some of them are also subjected to verbal abuse from Hindu merchants in adjacent stalls. My personal take was that it had less to do with religious differences than business competition.    These men were much more confident and engaging with passing tourists and thus did more business than most of the reticent Hindi owners just standing in front their stalls waiting for business.


            So after 5 days in Delhi, I boarded a 10pm train and headed out for my next destination:


  This little city of 30,000 residents made a good next stop on my vacation for several reasons.  For one thing, Kolkata (as Calcutta is now spelled) was an 800 mile train ride away and Bodhgaya was close to a mid-point.  It was also now the site of a famous Mahabodi Temple built to honor the bodhi tree where the Buddha first “awoke.”  And since we had visited here 3 years ago on our Sacramento pilgrimage, I had a couple friends to re-visit.


            After I checked into my hotel, I walked down probably the only street in the whole country that felt familiar. It was easy to find my friends since their businesses share the same hallway.  One has an Internet Café and the other carves Buddha statues from wood and stone.  The young internet owner was in the flush of success as this past winter had seen the most travelers to visit the city. He was the first one to have Wi-Fi in the city thanks to the generosity of one of our members from Sacramento upon returning.  In a country where power outages were common, he felt this gave him an advantage over his competitors. With a big smile he told me: I’m Number 1.   My other friend’s business seemed to be enjoying the additional foot traffic of tourists the internet brought as he had three apprentices working on carvings on the floor of the corridor.

As usual it was something unexpected that turned out to be the most memorable part of my brief stay here.  As I was having supper at an outside café that first evening, I met a bright young man who had started a new school. He was offering free education for underprivileged and handicapped children.  He invited me to see his school.  At 7:45am his motorcycle pulls up in front of my hotel and we were off for a very heartfelt excursion. The children were just lining up for morning prayer in front of the school when we arrived. Standing there in the little school uniforms, hands folded and eyes closed, they were a vision of sweetness. This was followed by a brief period of meditation in the classroom and then their regular lessons in Math and English. My friend and his wife both teach at the school and live there with their new child.  The behavior of the children mirrored the kindness and respect they were given by all their teachers.

       The next morning I arrived early for my train departure at 9:40am.  As I mentioned at the beginning, I was to spend the next 7 hours waiting for the train.  The Indian families were obviously much wiser about the train schedules.  As they like to say: India great but everything late. Many families came prepared with tarps and blankets to spread out on the platform and enjoy their time together.  As the lunch hour approached, jars of food appeared, food was rolled up in bread and cucumbers were sliced and passed around.  Eventually the children got sleepy and were fanned by aunts and grandmas as they slept next to their parents.  And the train eventually arrived.


         My original plan to leave Bodhgaya in the morning was to avoid arriving in the dark for my first visit to India’s third largest city.  As they say, be careful of what you resist.  As a result of the 7 hour delay, our train pulled in about one in the morning.  A young Japanese tourist and I were happy just to find a flophouse 5 minutes from the station to await the next day’s sun.  In the morning I took a cab ride to the mid-range hotel I had picked out from my 2007 edition of Lonely Planet.  As the cab pulled away, I discovered that since the guidebook was printed, the hotel had been demolished and was currently being re-built.  Fortunately, an older man about my age showed up at my elbow and directed me to a nearby hotel.  My guide explained to me later that he had pulled tourists around for over 20 years on rickshaws and finally got too old for the work.  He obviously found it easier to pull tourists around now “standing up” to stores and hotels for a baksheesh (kickback) from the businesses. 

It’s funny how things turn out. The hotel he led me to had everything I needed: a fan,  private toilet, and best of all a cold shower.  It was a bargain at $7 a night and centrally located for everything I needed to do over the next week. Yet if I had followed my usual procedure of following Lonely Planet reviews I never would have selected the Capital Plaza Hotel.  In their  review for budget hotels in the Sutter Street area, it was the very last one and began with the phrase… As charming as a prison.  I could only laugh later that night when I finally ran across the review.


One of the main reasons I choose Kolkata as part of my trip was to visit one of the Houses for the Dying founded by Mother Theresa.  I tried to find out about volunteering over the Internet before coming but couldn’t find much information.  But the next day, one of local street guides told me that 3pm on Mondays is when the Missionaries of Charity meet with visitors seeking to volunteer. When I was arrived, I was surprised to find a room filled with at least 75 people and presentations in 3 different languages. A couple hours later I was signed up for Prem Dan, one of the facilities for men with mental or physical handicaps.

The next morning all the volunteers met at the Mother House at 7am for a light breakfast (a banana, slice of bread and chai) and then made our ½ hour walk to the facility.  Our work detail started with clothes washing and then hanging them out to dry on the ceiling.  We looked like a well-organized fire brigade as we passed the buckets of wet clothes along on their way up to the roof. I had forgotten how refreshing it can be on a hot morning to walk slowly under a clothesline of dripping clothes.  After that a couple of us would gather up our shaving kits and offer shaves to the men sitting around in the courtyard.  It didn’t take long to figure out that it wasn’t about the quality of the shave. It was just a wonderful opportunity to provide a little kindness and respect to men whose physical and mental problems had taken away so much of their dignity.  When finished I liked to take the towel and gently remove any water or shaving cream left on their faces.  As I held one man’s face in my hands, I could sense that it had been a while since anyone had held his face with any tenderness.

 Later there was a meal for the men and we helped in whatever way was needed from carrying metal plates to those who couldn’t walk or even helping to feed them.  I remember seeing one young Japanese volunteer in his mid-twenties wearing a black shirt saying: Doesn’t Play Well with Others.  Ironically enough, he sat there for a half-hour patiently feeding this one man. I asked him later if he know what his shirt said.  He had bought it on a recent trip to California and had no idea what it meant.   

After the first day, the time working not only became easier but more meaningful from previous contact with the men.  They would be lined up sitting on benches in the morning and always had a way of recognizing our arrival.  For some it was that little waggle of the head so common in India and for others it was just a nod or look in the eye.  Some even extended hands on arms that were not fully functional.  It didn’t take long to realize that we were the ones being blessed by our daily interactions.  I can only hope to be as gracious should my life require me such dependence on others.

             During the first orientation day, I happened to meet a mother and daughter who had just arrived from Seattle.  It was a very special trip for them both.  Nancy had adopted her daughter Katie from Kolkata almost 21 years earlier and this was their first trip back to her city of birth.   Since volunteers did not work on Thursday at Mother Theresa’s, they asked me if I would be interested to visit a business created to help get prostitutes off the streets: freeset (   (If you have seen the documentary Born into Brothels, you know how this lifestyle becomes a economic necessity and then a trap for many women.) There were now 120 women working at freeset there making journals, bags, shirts and other handicrafts to be exported. All the profits went back to the women. I thought it would be great to visit this remarkable enterprise.

It wasn’t until they handed me a roller and a 5 gallon bucket of paint that it dawned on me that I had really signed up for another volunteer work project.  Oh, well I had nothing better to do with my day off!  So for the next several hours my new friends from Seattle and I sanded the cement walls and applied an undercoat in preparation for the next day’s painting.  Of course, the Old Navy shorts and polo shirt that I wore will never be the same with all the paint splatters.  Some day when they join my wardrobe of gardening clothes, I will remember with fondness my unplanned day as a painter.  

Looking back at my days of volunteer work in Kolkata, I can see there was something special that is lacking for me in Peace Corp work, except for the summer camps. Here there was a strong sense of community not present in my usual days in Armenia. Working shoulder to shoulder in service surely deepened my connection with my fellow volunteers. I will remember: the two ladies from Milan who I walked with to that first orientation; the rowdy group of Irish lads whose hearts were even larger than their voices; the shy Japanese student accepting the awkwardness of shaving others when he barely shaved himself; and the German couple who would return later to their advertising work in Munich.  The generosity with which all these people shared themselves, doing whatever was required was inspiring for me.

When I finally stood at the baggage carousel in Armenia, I realized the strap binding my back pack had been cut.  It wasn’t until that evening that I would discover that someone had stolen my camera and with it, all my photos from my week in Kolkata.  Fortunately for me, all the memories were already safely tucked away in heart.