It’ll make or break you, said the people of Shady Side when I announced I was moving to Armenia to spend two years volunteering with the Peace Corps.
I’ve been here exactly 24 months, and, as of this month, I am broken.
I have been an accident waiting to happen, for the whole country is full of slippery tiles and uneven surfaces. There is not a handrail or a grab bar the length of the land. This includes the hostel I stay in when I am working in Yerevan. (Armenia’s capital is about five hours north of my home. I live close to the borders of Azerbaijan and Iran.)
Now my accident has happened.
I was drying myself after a shower when I slipped and fell, smacking my right hand, my writing hand, hard on the wet tile. The new shape and doubling size of my hand immediately let me know it was broken. The dizzying pain and numb fingers provided additional clues. I hauled myself to my feet with the help of the door handle and sat on the bed to make a plan. I didn’t have my phone. I had left it behind in a restaurant the day before and had thought I would pick it up that morning after my 10am meeting.
My 10am meeting! I would need to let them know I couldn’t make it. I maneuvered my laptop onto the bed, and after several failed attempts with my shaky left hand managed to make a Facebook call to my boss. We spoke in English, and I worked hard to keep my voice calm and steady. Perhaps I did too good a job of this. It is also possible he does not know the word wrist or recognize the use of the verb to break in this context. Either way, he wished me a good morning and prepared to go to the meeting without me. Which left me sitting damp and naked on the bed with an unusable hand.
I walked gingerly to the door of the room across the ever-slick tiles. I yelled for the landlady. I wriggled my good hand into a jacket sleeve and pulled the rest of the fabric across my belly as I let her in.
Luda’s first, perhaps only, goal was to get me dressed. She stuffed my huge misshapen arm into the flapping jacket sleeve and tried to pull its scratchy woolen lapels across my breasts. I screamed in the international language of pain.
“Take me to Peace Corps,” I howled. “Take me like this!”
She gave me her slippers. Under particular circumstances, an Armenian might agree to leave the house nearly naked, but never without slippers.
Luda called a taxi. The young male driver coped very well with having an underdressed fat person crying hysterically and unhygienically on his leatherette. He drove as smoothly as he could in the start-stop traffic on the potholed hills of Yerevan.
At Peace Corps offices, Dr. Nune sent us straight to the hospital, where an X-ray confirmed I’d need two surgeries. The first would happen right away, using only local anesthetic.
The resetting was a success, but the pain-killing wasn’t. Internal bleeding stopped the medicine getting to where it was needed. They haven’t heard screams like mine here since the day Lenin gave Ararat to the Turks.
First surgery over, I was parked in a three-bed hospital room with two other sick women and their extended families. There were about 10 of us in total. Everyone but me was on the phone. Women poured coffee from flasks, changed socks on the feet of their sick relatives and produced endless homemade snacks from tote bags. Only private patients get a meal service. Men went out to smoke and came in again. A lot. Slamming the ward door every time.
Peace Corps takes good care of casualties, suspending the usual rules about us living exactly as our neighbors do. By afternoon, this Amerikatsi had been moved to a private room. I knew I was lucky, and I appreciated it.
My clothes had been brought from the hostel. Luda had washed, dried and folded them, of course. I compromised with Dr. Nune, who had stopped by on Decency Patrol. Yes, I could have the window open if I would pull on more clothes. Yes, she would help with both maneuvers.
I turned out to have made a bad deal. Armenians are deathly afraid of fresh air and any time an orderly, nurse, doctor or surgeon came into the room they would immediately close the window.
“I want it open,” I would say in Armenian.
“You’ll get cold” or “you’ll get sick,” they would reply. I was in no position to fight back.
Then came surgery No. 2, in which a titanium plate was added to my forearm. I was wheeled past rooms where medical staff could be seen working on unconscious bodies, the door to each theater open. In my own operating suite I could see all the scary stainless steel I knew only from TV medical dramas. I tried not to worry as the anesthesiologist used surgical tape to make the blood pressure cuff big enough to fit my one good arm.
Then the recovery room, cheek by jowl with a man who’d had a nose job, and a woman whose scars I couldn’t see. Screens aren’t a thing here.
Back in my room, I ate a couple of bananas dropped off by my office mates and peeled by an obliging doctor. I made a plea to open the window so the room wouldn’t be too hot for the freesias and tulips delivered by Peace Corps friends. I slept.
In Armenian hospitals they don’t believe in fresh air, vegetarianism, lactose or gluten sensitivities, or any of that stuff. Breakfast for private patients was oatmeal or semolina, served with a pot of curd cheese, a tub of yogurt and some bread and cheese. Lunch was soup with poached chicken. The fresh dill and tarragon were delicious. Another mountain of bread and more yogurt and cheese. Supper was buttermilk soup with barley, bread, yogurt and cheese. Kindly friends brought me apples and many, many oranges. I ate the apples but could not work my way into the oranges. Voch inch. No worries. Never mind.
When time came to change my dressing, a nurse wheeled in a trolley with a box of sterile bandages. These she handed to a newly gloved doctor, using long-nosed tongs. Everything was super- hygienic until the doctor’s phone rang. This he pulled out of his pocket with his gloved hand, answered, spoke, ended the conversation and put the phone back in his pocket, presumably together with quite a lot of gunk from my gash. He then went back to treating my wound.
My two years in Armenia have been useful in building acceptance and appreciating what in life does work well — or at least, well enough. I finally realize just how much privilege I have always had. Health. Vigor. The means for a private room. The space to be by myself. People who want to know how I am. Flowers. Fresh fruit. Good food served regularly. The prospect of dressing myself again after my recovery.
It’ll make or break you, said the people of Chesapeake Country. Sure, a bit of me is badly broken just now. But overall, I believe two years with Peace Corps in Armenia may have been the making of me.
I’ll be sorry to leave this country in eight weeks’ time. I hope that as I wave goodbye with my one good hand, I remember to say thank you, and to keep with me the resilience, acceptance and gratitude that I have begun to practice here.
Read more about Liz Barron’s two years with Peace Corps Armenia on her blog, marigoldmoment.com, and find her other dispatches for Bay Weekly at www.bayweekly.com