Pre Service Training (PST) – Posh Corps and Training (Jun 1 to Aug 5)
After a few days settling-in time in at a small hotel somewhere north of Yerevan, the capital city, my group of 58 trainees was placed with families in 7 villages surrounding the town of Charantsavan. There were 8 of us per village, except for the two villages with married couples who had 9 trainees each. We were armed with a minimum list of Armenian phrases, a maximum allowance of luggage, and varying degrees of terror.
Like Harry Potter and the Sorting Hat our names were drawn during a celebratory ceremony – ostensibly at random – from a common bowl. When my village was announced I learned that I was to be in the “Posh Corps” at Karenis with a group of fellow CBD (Community and Business Development) trainees. Six were young idealists in their 20’s and very early 30’s; two of us were women in what PC calls the ‘over 50s.’ In my training group the ‘over 50’s’ are nearly all 60-somethings.
Mine was a comparatively affluent village formerly known as “Mooshi.” All of us in this village had running water 24/7, indoor plumbing/bathrooms, electricity, internet access and rooms that met Peace Corps standards – more or less. The other villages rationed water, when they had it all. One over-50 trainee in the poorest village had to use a falling-down outhouse, traversing the family’s chicken-poop filled garden when Nature called (pun intended) for the entire 10 weeks of PST. Kath showered in my village (at a fellow trainee’s home) on the rare Sunday when there was free time available for travelling on personal business. I couldn’t begin to imagine how I would have handled that particular challenge. I was thankful every day for the good fortune that had placed me with the Alexanyans in Karenis.
Language: For 9 weeks we had language classes in our villages 6 days a week from 9 to 1:30, except on days when we had Tech classes and/or cultural sessions in the afternoon; and on Central Days when we had a break from the usual schedule. On Tech days we only studied language from 9 to 12. Each village had two teachers who were host country nationals. Most villages divided the 8 students into two classes of 4 individuals each. In June I studied with Zhasmina, a 60 year old PC veteran in her 14th year of teaching; in July my group of 4 switched to Naira, a 33 year old newbie. Both were excellent with unique strengths as language teachers and personal coaches.
At week 5 we had a mini-LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) to assess our proficiency level and to get a sense of what the test would be like. We would need to attain the rank of Novice High at our final LPI during 10 week in order to be sworn in. Not until we passed all the required competencies would we be eligible to move from Trainees to Volunteers, with the rights and privileges attending thereto.
With a great deal of concentration, regular ingestion of fish oil capsules and much advance preparation with my teacher I reached the level of Intermediate Low – one level beyond Novice High. Woo-hoo! Not too shabby for an ‘over 50.’ My teacher was thrilled. So was I. As it turned out, I would be very grateful for this achievement when week 10 arrived. But that is a story for a later blog entry – which will be posted in a day or two.
Tech: For Tech Sessions we were driven by mini-van to another village where a few CBD’s lived. We had classes in Alapars until the younger people begged to go to Solak. I don’t know what reasons they gave our Program Trainer and Program Manager but in reality we were all curious to see the poorest village for ourselves. From the outside it looked like any other crumbling rural Armenian school. In this building, however, the bathrooms were not functional. Other than that it was the usual story of wooden floors with wide spaces between the slats and maybe some broken or missing windows. It was life in the village itself that distinguished Solak from the 7 other training villages.
My home village school had standard Soviet style squat toilets. They weren’t fancy or particularly sanitary, but they worked. The hearty folks who lived in Solak were compelled to use an outhouse, dodging the snakes or sheep or cow dung which could block their path. Fantan, which we visited for Culture sessions, had some crazy German style squats. I won’t describe how icky those things were. (In case you are thinking I am spending a lot of time and words on plumbing, you are right. It’s endlessly fascinating to this Amerikatsi since I began village life with a serious case of dysentery. Most volunteers experience diarrhea in some form during their service. ‘Nuff said.)
As CBD’s we had it easy. The busy TEFL’s (Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) had training sessions nearly every day following language classes whereas our tech sessions were limited to one or two a week. Like the EE’s and CHE’s (Environmental Education and Community Health Education volunteers), however, CBDs were expected to plan and execute a volunteer project in our individual training villages. That pretty much took care of Sundays and any other spare time we had during the month of June. No sooner had we completed our project of digging irrigation ditches with the children and reporting on it at Central Day, than July 4th was upon us and we were tasked with creating an American Independence Day Celebration for our village.
I will spare you a description of the drama that occurred at that time when the 8 of us were all so tired and stressed from the unending daily challenges, yet forced once again to work together as a team. Let me simply say that words were uttered and sometime later apologies were spoken. I attribute the difficulties we experienced to differences in perspective between those ‘over 50’ and those in their younger years and to the usual challenges of becoming a group: forming, storming and norming. For a day or two it was all about the ‘storming.’
Central Days: Once every week to 10 days, all 58 of us were transported from our various villages by mini-van to Charentsavan, where we met at School #6 for day-long Medical, Safety & Security and Cultural Training Sessions. I looked forward to those days both for the respite from language homework and for the opportunity to see new/old faces. We got to walk into town for lunch and sometimes do a little shopping. We also got to see the doctors who had ready supplies of supplements available: like melatonin to help with sleep, pro-biotics for digestion and other items not in our Medical Kit. A fair number of us were glad to get addditional remedies or antibiotics for digestive issues.
Since my village was close to Charentsavan, a mere hour’s walk or less, many of the hale young people stayed in town and strolled home in the evening. They liked to frequent an open air restaurant called Bella Café. Trainees from other villages soon took up the practice, returning to their home communities by train, bus or taxi. I think they (and later myself as well) gave a big boost to the profitability of that little enterprise.
Central Day was not all frivolity and fun however. The Program Training Officer, the Safety & Security Training Officer and the Program Managers all had booklets/journals for us to complete (at home of course) to demonstrate our understanding of and competency for our eventual role as PC volunteers in Armenia.
My village mates: Karenis
Our teachers: Naira and Zhasmina