|By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, April 05, 2003 - 10:47 am: Edit Post|
Eric Nankervisbegins his service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia
Eric Nankervisbegins his service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia
Welcome to Armenia
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not think that any of us would exchange places with any other people or generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you: ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of mankind.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
January 20, 1961
As I reflect on these words, spoken 40 years ago, I think of what sort of speeches our new president will make, what new ideas he will present, where he will lead us. I think of how I ended up here, in Armenia, working in those villages that Jack spoke about. I think of that airplane. And I think of that bus.
It was a good landing. So good, in fact, that the pilot decided to try it twice. No sooner than the plane touched down at Zarvanots Airport in Yerevan did it bounce up, give a little hop, and land again. There were 39 sighs of relief as we remained on the ground--grounded in what would become our home for the next two years. The six hour flight from Frankfurt was over.
After flying United Airlines from Chicago to Frankfurt--with its personal movie monitors on the back of the seat in front of you, 25 channels of music and commentary on the armrest, four different meals and snacks, free drinks, pillows, blankets, hot, moist towels every two hours--the Armenian Airlines flight was uneventful as far as flights go. There was a food cart and a beverage cart. There was Armenian cognac and vodka in plastic cups, brought aboard by the passengers. And then there was the video presentation.
The video presentation was less of a video than a presentation, providing the entire cabin a computer image of where the plane was on a map. With graphics like something out of an Atari 2600 game, passengers were able to follow the path of the flight, updated every 50 kilometers or so. Germany to Austria. Austria to Hungary. Hungary to Romania. A small line showing the way as we flew east over the European continent. Every now and then a screen would pop up and tell the distance to the nearest cities, both those ahead of us and those we had passed. And then back to the graphics. For hours I watched the screen, hoping the monotony of it would drive me to sleep. And it did, in 100 kilometer increments.
Toward the end of the flight I began to pay closer attention to the map. Instead of flying over Turkey to get to the small landlocked country of Armenia--what would have been the direct route--we followed the coast of the Black Sea to Georgia, crossed the Georgian border, and flew south to Yerevan. At no time did the line we were following cross into Turkey.
The ancient city of Erebuni, what would later become the Armenian capital city of Yerevan, was founded in 782 BC, 29 years before the founding of Rome. While the small country is surrounded by four other countries and has no access to international waters, Armenia was once a thriving empire that stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea and south to the Mediterranean Sea. From 99-55 BC, under the rule of Tigranes the Great, Armenia was at the height of its power. Since then it has been struggling to keep its identity. And it is this identity that keeps the Armenians proud in spite of their difficult past.
The British poet Lord Byron once wrote that if the Bible were to be true, it was in Armenia that Paradise stood and the Armenians have paid for Adam and Eve's fall. It was in Armenia that Noah's Ark came to rest, and is possibly still perched in the glacial caps of Mt. Ararat. And it was in Armenia that Christianity first became accepted as a national religion, 1700 years ago this year.
Shortly after Christianity was adopted as a national religion, the territories of Armenia were divided between Persia and Byzantin. Armenians looked for something which would help them to survive--something that would define them as a nation, as a people. "If the Armenians were to survive without territory," an Armenian priest once said, "they had to have a common idea, something that was theirs alone." This idea became the Armenian alphabet, created in the early fifth century by Mesrop Mashtots. Margaret Mead once suggested that the Armenian alphabet, an odd assortment of 39 characters, was best suited to be an international alphabet.
The alphabet worked as a unifier, for the Armenians restored their kingdom in 885. But this, too, only lasted for a short time, as it was conquered in 1061 by the Turks, beginning centuries of Turkish rule and aggression. This aggression escalated in 1894 when the Ottoman Turks began exterminating select Armenians, and culminated in 1915 with the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians. To this day Turkey denies any involvement in a genocide, but the international community is slowly recognizing it. There are travel restrictions on Armenians in Turkey and just recently Armenia banned the sale of Turkish goods within its borders. And any flight coming into Armenia cannot fly over Turkish airspace.
[On January 18, 2001, the French National Assembly adopted a resolution affirming the genocide of 1915, and with the signing of it by President Chirac on January 30, France became the first country to adopt a law recognizing the genocide. Even with closed borders, Turkish goods make it through to Armenia. Since France's affirmation, Turkey has banned the sale of French goods in Turkey and cancelled several multi-billion dollar contacts. In response, Armenia is banning the sale of Turkish goods in a sloppily-run boycott.]
Shortly after the First World War Armenia was again recognized as a independent country--albeit a small one. When it was absorbed into the Soviet Union in December of 1920, it was the smallest of the Soviet Republics. And when it voted for its independence 71 years later, the Armenian people were able to once again find hope and pride in their overrun country. At 11,500 square miles--less than one-tenth of its size during the reign of Tigranes the Great--the Republic of Armenia is approximately the size of the state of Maryland. But Maryland is the last thing one thinks of when viewing Armenia.
The airport in Yerevan reminded me of the airport in Moline, Illinois--gray stones, cold (even in the sweltering heat), a relic of an age past. The only difference was that this one was built during Soviet times in a Soviet republic. It seems as if most things here are leftover from that era--everything from buildings to buses to business practices. And as many of these have not been updated or maintained since the Soviets pulled out, they appeared, more than anything else, tired. And tired we were. The 39 of us stumbled off the plane, jet-lagged, in a daze. But we were quickly brought back to reality by the screaming.
We had met only 48 hours before in Chicago and already the friendships were forming. Out of the 39 trainees there were four married couples (three with the first initials of J & J, and all with husbands with the first initial J), four Jennifers, three Jeremys, five people over the age of 50 (one who was serving his sixth Peace Corps assignment). Four were from Wisconsin, three from New Mexico, two from Montana. One was a Hindu from New Jersey who knew my cousin. We participated in a whirlwind of introductory sessions--introducing us to each other, to Peace Corps, and to Peace Corps' rules and regulations (no espionage, no riding on motorcycles without helmets in Africa, no driving automobiles, to taking drugs that are illegal in the U.S. but may be legal in the country you are serving). The introductions continued when we arrived at the airport in Yerevan and were greeted by the current Volunteers. They were screaming at the sight of us through the window looking into the baggage claim. And to be honest, I am uncertain if it was for excitement that they were cheering, or if it was more of a warning--a warning of how things might be.
After picking up our bags we boarded one of the tired looking busses and headed to the Hotel Divin, another throwback to the glory days of the Soviet Union. Bare, hardwood floors that had not been taken care of in years. Floor attendants (called "servant girls") who issued you your key every time you entered your floor. No showers. No running water. In fact, on the bed, next to some filtered water, was a welcome packet from Peace Corps with a cover letter that cried out in capital letters: "DON'T DRINK THE WATER!!!" I heeded this warning and headed to the bar to continue the introductions.
The following morning I walked to the window and took a look for the first time at the strange country I had arrived in. The sun was just rising and already it was becoming unbearably hot. From the view I had I could see not only the faint outline of Noah's Mt. Ararat--the pride of Armenia that lies 5 kilometers inside the Turkish border--but a skyline littered with cranes. Just below my window was a part of town that consisted of shacks, rubble, chickens, and little old women who were so old and tired that they were almost doubled over as they walked in their three layers of woolen clothes. On a summer day, even. And this was the capital city.
That day was filled with more introductions, specifically with the Peace Corps Armenia Staff, the Armenian language, and Armenian food. In the afternoon we boarded a bus and headed towards Vanadzor, where we would train for the next three months. Sitting next to the window, I watched as Yerevan faded into the haze of the hot summer day and the landscape transformed into the rocky hills of the countryside. The sun shone brightly as we rolled north. Sweating, tired, shielding the sun from my eyes, I strained to look at a small village in the distance. It was one of those villages that Jack spoke about 40 years ago. And then it happened, a defining moment in my short stay in this small country--the bus broke down. Overheated.
Welcome to Armenia.