Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Armenia
Few countries in the world offer mail service comparable to the United States and Armenia is no exception. Fortunately, there have been improvements over the past few years. At your pre-departure orientation (staging), you will be given a temporary mailing address to use during pre-service training.
We suggest that people not send you packages while you are in training. There is a chance you will move to your permanent site before they arrive. You must pick up packages in person, which requires absence from training and payment of duty and/or storage fees. After you are sworn-in as a Volunteer, it will be easy to receive packages at your site, and you won’t have to pay duty fees for items sent through the U.S. Postal Service. (An agreement with the government exempts Volunteers from duty fees.) Please note, however, that items sent to Volunteers via DHL, FedEx, UPS, etc., are not exempt from customs fees and you are required to pay a fee of 20 percent on the declared value of any sent items.
You and your family and friends should number your letters so you can ascertain what is and what is not arriving. In the past, letters have taken as few as 10 days and as long as six weeks to arrive. Do not send valuable items through the mail.
We strongly encourage you to regularly write family and friends. Family members typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so it is a good idea to advise them that mail can be slow and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly. If a serious problem were to occur, Peace Corps/Armenia would notify the Office of Special Services at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., which would then contact your family.
Long-distance telephone service is generally available but expensive. Do not expect to have constant access to a phone all of the time. You may have to use a neighbor’s phone or travel by bus to another village or town if phones in your area don’t work. If you call from outside the capital, it may take longer to get a line. The cost of a long-distance call is approximately $2.40 per minute, although many now use Internet or callback services at lower costs. Staff members have had success in using Sprint, MCI, and AT&T calling cards from local telephones. If you wish to use this option, obtain a card before you leave the United States. Inexpensive international calling cards are also available in most towns and in Yerevan.
Advise your family that in an emergency, they should contact the Office of Special Services in Washington, D.C. The daytime telephone number is 800.424.8580, extension 1470; the after-hours number is 202.638.2574. This office will then immediately contact Peace Corps/Armenia.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
E-mail and Internet access is becoming more available, particularly in Yerevan and other large communities, but service tends to be slow. Peace Corps/Armenia suggests you obtain a free e-mail account with www.freenet.am; it is easier to access than other services. You will probably not have regular and easy access to the Internet. Please prepare family and friends for this reality and inform them that responses to e-mails may be delayed. Some Volunteers travel for hours to get to an Internet café.
Smaller communities are also gaining Internet access through the school connectivity project. This project, managed by Project Harmony, will connect all Armenian schools over the next few years. The Peace Corps works closely with Project Harmony, and Volunteers are helping schools apply for connectivity and equipment. Volunteers also teach computer applications and Internet use at these schools.
Housing and Site Location
During pre-service training, all trainees are required to live with host families. After completing pre-service training and swearing-in, all Volunteers live with host families for a minimum of four months at their permanent site. Living with a host family provides several benefits including accelerated language acquisition; a deeper and more profound cross-cultural understanding; and an improved, in-depth community integration. Being a respected and equal member of a family not only provides strong personal and professional rewards, it can ensure your safety and security as well. Host family accommodations will vary depending on the community. Some may be apartments or separate detached houses; some may have European-style bathrooms while others might use "outhouses" or "squat" toilets. Regardless of the situation, trainees and Volunteers live as the members of their community do. After the four-month period, Volunteers may remain with host families or change to another living situation in their communities depending on availability and personal preferences.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer, you will receive a number of allowances in local currency. A one-time settling-in allowance is provided in order to buy basic household items when you move to your site. You will also receive a one-time allowance to cover heating-related expenses (e.g., to purchase of a wood stove and wood or installation of adequate electrical wire for electric heater use or to offset increased electricity costs in winter).
Your monthly living and travel allowances, which are paid directly to your account here every month, are intended to cover food, utilities, household supplies, clothing, recreation and entertainment, transportation, reading materials, and other incidentals. Costs related to the living allowance are reviewed annually (generally in February). You will also receive a housing allowance based on the lease agreement signed between you and your landlord. The housing allowance is provided at the same time as the living allowance.
Volunteers are also eligible for a tutor allowance to pay for continuing language study. Payments are made monthly upon presentation of a completed tutor reimbursement form.
A leave allowance is provided with the living allowance. If you are asked by Peace Corps to travel for official, medical, or programmatic reasons, you will be given additional money for transportation and lodging.
The Peace Corps sets up a bank account in local currency for each Volunteer and deposits all the allowances and other payments into these bank accounts. Volunteers can set up personal accounts in dollars if they choose.
Most Volunteers find they can live comfortably in Armenia with these allowances. You are strongly discouraged from supplementing your income with money brought from home. Consistent with the philosophy that development and learning are most effectively achieved when people live and work together, it is important that Volunteers live at the same standard as the people whom they serve.
Nevertheless, many Volunteers do bring extra money (in cash, traveler’s checks, or credit cards) for vacations. Credit cards can be used only in some of the more expensive hotels and a few big stores in the capital, but are handy for travel outside the country. They can also be used at ATMs in Yerevan to obtain cash (in drams). Retail outfits in Armenia do not accept traveler’s checks, but they can be cashed for a fee at some banks.
Food and Diet
Much of Armenian social life revolves around food, music, singing, and dancing. Typical meals include bean and beet salads, cabbage, lavash (thin bread), sliced cold cuts (e.g., salami and bologna), cheese, and potatoes or pilaf.
Some of the best fresh vegetables and fruits found anywhere are available in Armenia during the summer. The apricots and tomatoes are of extremely high quality. During the long winter months, cabbage, potatoes, and meat are mainstays.
It is possible but difficult for vegetarians to maintain a meatless diet. The Middle Eastern influence in Armenia has brought vegetarian food, but this is more readily available in Yerevan and larger cities. Although your refusal to eat meat may seem strange to your host family, they are likely to respect your decision and accommodate your needs accordingly. Although cabbages, carrots, and potatoes are widely available throughout the winter, you may want to prepare preserves during the summer and fall to avoid having to purchase other produce in the capital. With a little planning, you should be able to maintain a healthy alternative diet.
Typical drinks are tan (made of yogurt, water, and salt), homemade fruit juices, Armenian and Georgian wine, and Armenian brandy and vodka. Armenians are noted for their endless toasts, but you should not feel compelled to drink a large quantity of alcohol just to appease your host. Armenians respect self-control, and most will respect yours if you drink moderately or not at all.
Most Volunteers travel in the country in public buses, vans, or taxis. Peace Corps/Armenia prohibits Volunteers from owning or driving vehicles in Armenia for any reason. Violation of this policy will result in termination of your Volunteer service.
Although the Peace Corps provides Volunteers with transportation home at the end of their service, some choose to remain in-country on their own or to travel to other countries on their way home. If you choose to do this, you can obtain a cash payment in lieu of the government-rate airplane ticket to your home of record. This benefit is not available to Volunteers who terminate their service early.
Geography and Climate
Armenia lies in the mountainous Caucasus region. The landlocked country is bordered by Turkey in the west, Iran in the south, Azerbaijan in the east, and Georgia in the north.
Because of its protected position and generally high elevation, Armenia’s climate is mostly dry and continental, although there are regional variations, such as hot, dry summers in the Araks Valley and cooler, more humid summers in the more elevated areas. Intense sunshine occurs for many days of the year, and the summer is long and hot (except at the highest elevations), with an average July temperature in Yerevan of 77 degrees Fahrenheit, which can rise as high as 108 degrees. Winters tend to be moderately severe, with an average temperature in Yerevan of 26 degrees. Autumn is generally mild, sunny, and long, while spring is usually short and wet.
On weekends and in the evening, Armenians love to stroll with their families and friends. In summer months, in some of the larger cities throughout Armenia, sidewalk cafés appear on every corner and in every shady spot. Armenians enjoy relaxing at these cafés late into the evening.
In smaller towns and villages, activities tend to focus on spending time with family. Chess and backgammon (called nardi) are popular, and Armenian boys and girls play basketball, soccer, tennis, badminton, and ping-pong. In addition to participating in these activities, Volunteers enjoy hiking and exploring local historical sites.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Outside the capital, Armenians tend to be conservative in both dress and behavior. One of the difficulties of finding your place as a Peace Corps Volunteer is fitting into the local culture while maintaining your identity and acting like a professional all at the same time. Peace Corps will provide you with guidelines we hope will prove helpful as you make this transition.
You will be serving as a representative of the Peace Corps and will be expected to dress and behave accordingly. While some of your counterparts may dress in seemingly worn or shabby clothes, this is because of economics rather than by choice. The likelihood is that they are wearing their best clothes. A foreigner who wears ragged, unmended clothing is likely to be considered an affront. For men, professional dress calls for collared shirts, slacks, and occasionally suit jackets and ties. For women, professional dress calls for dresses or skirts (knee- or mid-calf length,) modest blouses or tops, and dress slacks. Women should be prepared to occasionally wear suits or formal wear for presentations or other business-related events.
Volunteers need to continually strive to maintain neat and clean clothing and hair. This may be an on-going challenge, as water is rationed in many regions and it can be difficult to heat water when you have it.
Since Armenia is fairly conservative when it comes to personal appearance, long hair and/or ponytails on men are considered unacceptable. (However, the hair you cut off could go to a good cause and get you a free haircut! Locks of Love (www. locksoflove.org) is a not-for-profit organization that provides hair prosthetics for children that have developed long-term medical hair loss. It is a great way to begin demonstrating your cultural sensitivity and at the same time helping children in need.) Nose rings and other facial piercings, in both men and women, are also unacceptable. Throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union, tattoos have a negative connotation and historically have been associated with the underworld, mafia, and prisons. When dressing, every effort should be made to ensure that large obvious tattoos are covered by clothing.
Personal identity and individuality is very important in American culture and hair, piercings, and tattoos are some of the ways that Americans express that individuality. The challenge lies in balancing that expression and acceptance into your community and understanding of the culture. In the end, your hair will grow back, your nose can be re-pierced, and a T-shirt instead of a tank top can easily cover your tattoo.
Rewards and Frustrations
The living conditions of Peace Corps service affect Volunteers differently. Do you need a lot of privacy or very little? Are you oblivious to dirt or fairly sensitive? Nearly all Volunteers, at some point, find the conditions under which they live and work to be difficult or challenging. Most experience feelings of discouragement and futility–usually during the first year of service. Things that seemed clear become unclear. The direction to take seems obscured. You may often feel that you are not in control, and this can be frightening. When this happens, you may wonder whether you are really up to the job, whether you may have caused the problem, whether it is really possible to accomplish anything, or whether what you are doing is really worthwhile. You may feel fatigued although you have been working no harder than usual. You may find yourself short-tempered or annoyed with yourself and others.
There is no magical or easy method for overcoming these feelings but, fortunately, they are usually short-lived. Bear in mind that the frustration of “not getting anything done” usually derives from the realities of the country, not from your own inadequacies. It is often helpful to break up a problem into smaller units and work at it one step at a time. If you can step back and try to assess the problem afresh, you will feel more positive about the headway you have made and are making. Without a doubt, when you have completed your service, you will recall your time here with fondness, and you will be amazed by the personal change that has resulted from overcoming the challenges.