Another visit to a village. Another incredible time with an incredible family which feels like some kind of gift I do not deserve. But what to do but completely soak it in which, of course, is what I did.
This time another PCV and I, plus a Latvian friend of mine from the European Volunteer Service, headed to Privolnoye up in the mountains near the Georgian border. We met Ruzana, an ethnically Russian woman who returned to her village after a disheartening time trying to make a life in the capital city. Ruzana runs a hugely successful children’s club which she started in her village from scratch. The club meets daily in a partially run down building, the bottom floor of which was preserved by World Vision to help set up a health post and later to house Ruzana’s efforts.
From the outside, the building looks like a crumbling mess, but inside you’ll find a brightly painted room with shelves full of costumes, art supplies, toys and books. There are two new computers and two sets of furniture that World Vision provided. Of course, what is much more impressive than this slowly developed facility is the devotion of the club’s participants. Comprised of mosly young girls with only a couple of exceptions, the kids meet everyday with Ruzana to practice songs, poetry recitation, theatre performance and dance.
I personally feel like a sham compared to this lady and her work with these kids. I asked her, this highly motivated and innovative woman why she doesn’t try to work in a larger town or city. “You’re clearly skilled,” I told her in my somewhat comfortable Armenian.
“I could,” she said, “but I tried living in the capital. I was working all the time, and the life there was just so hard. I worked a lot with very little reward. And while I was there I kept thinking, ‘Every sweet thing I have tasted in my life, every happy memory, it is back home in my village, Privolnoye.” She paused to sip from her coffee cup. “So I came back here. I just hope that the kids in this village are able to experience all of the good things I experience in this beautiful place. Why would I want to go somewhere else when I can work towards this here?”
I, a middle class American with a short commitment as a Peace Corps volunteer, am simply humbled by that commitment to this small remote group of people. And after only a few hours in her home, I understood what a beautiful life her village had to offer.
When we weren’t working with Ruzana in her children’s club, we were hosted in her home. We sat and chatted over cups of Armenian coffee, turning the cups over and joking about what our fortunes might be. Ruzana’s mother, a round-faced, thinned-eyed smiler, told me story after story about life in the village, about her children growing up, about taking care of her home, and about the first years of marriage to her husband, Dadya Roma.
“I was fifteen when we got married,” she told me. “I had a daughter within the year, but Dadya Roma and I were insistent that we finished school. We would work all day on our farm, and then from 7 to 11:30 at night we would leave the baby with my mother and go to school. Then we would wake up and do it all again.” She smiled at her husband, proud of their commitment to themselves and to providing a high standard for their family.
“And my wife,” Dadya Roma continued, “she would carry a bottle of vodka in her bag for me and fold little drinking cups out of our school papers.” He mimed taking a shot, laughed and slapped his leg.
We talked late into the night, me insisting that, despite Armenian cultural rules, Americans feel much more included if we’re allowed to do some cleaning up after dinner. So, in the tiny kitchen we talked about my family, life in Texas, what winter was like there.
On the second morning I asked if I could wash my hair. “My head gets very oily,” I explained to Ruzana, pretending to squeegie oil from my bangs and flick it on her. I had thought she would heat up a kettle of hot water so I could do a quick rinse, but her mother instead lit the wood stove under the bath basin, and before I knew it I was standing barefoot on years-smoothed, wooden planks throwing steaming water over myself. Later, warming up by the wood stove in the living room, I explained to Dadya Roma that people pay a lot of money for a sauna in the States, and they have a wonderful one right here. He jokingly stuck out his hand and asked for 1000 dram.
We came to the village to work on a tourism project, setting up a blog for the village to use for attracting visitors. However, for me the real fun came with an unexpected project Ruzana set up herself. Knowing we were coming, she organized a trash clean-up in her village. This is a fairly standard small project for Peace Corps volunteers to do, and I was expecting the usual plastic grocery sacks, unenthused kids and disillusioning moment where we realize that we don’t know what to do with the trash. But that’s not what Ruzana had in mind.
She asked World Vision to provide matching shirts (they brought donated NFL XL turtlenecks), plastic gloves and large, donated, pink biohazard bags. Ruzana and her girls sewed and decorated two costumes to look like bags of trash. I, the long gangly American ,was invited to wear one of them. Ruzana wore the other, both of us pretending to be a bit of trash. Then while the kids were cleaning, Ruzana and I stopped people on the street with a dialogue that went something like this:
Ruzana as Trash, “Don’t you think trash is beautiful? Don’t you think that there should be trash covering our village streets?”
Passerby, “Well, no.”
Ruzana as Trash, “What?! You don’t think there should be trash all over out village? Brent, did you hear that? This guy is clearly not on our side. Sir, I think if you don’t think there should be trash in our village then you should just go over and help those kids get rid of it.”
And it worked. Our group of eight girls grew to about 30 young people and even adults stopped to help for a bit. And after I exclaimed that they were gathering up my family in bags, after I saved one candy wrapper saying that it was my dear dear grandmother, the kids brought every piece of trash to me asking me which member of my family they were holding. They all ended up in the biohazard bag.
Later that afternoon, Ruzana’s brother, Gevorg, drove a few of us out to the hills to have a mushroom hunt. The mist was thick; the road ragged and curvy. I’d never searched for mushrooms before and Gevorg and his village friend enjoyed showing Greg and I the mushrooms we were missing in the loam. At one point, with the voices of the others spread out over the hillside, I walked unknowing up to a ring of mushrooms. I’d never seen one before; I didn’t even know they grew in a circle like that. Looking through the mist-drops collected on my glasses, I picked a few of them and headed down the hill towards my friends who were calling me back to the road.