“When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a Valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine…” —The Beatles
On July 21st, I will turn 64 years old. When you’re young, you just never think that you’ll live this long. So, what’s the plan for my big day? Nothing! Although there’s no formal Stay-at-Home order, here in Utah, all my time is currently spent indoors.
I must admit. I miss being able to travel. If I were able to have one special “birthday” meal, it would be Mexican food, in Addis Ababa or Red Thai Curry, in Yerevan.
There were a handful of Mexican Restaurants, in Addis Ababa. Village Cafe was our first choice, after swearing in as Peace Corps volunteers. Finding good Mexican food, after my “eating” issues, during the 12 week homestay, was amazing! I could only manage to eat one small taco, but I didn’t care.
My favorite Mexican restaurant, La Morena Taqueria, was new. It opened on the site of our former favorite iced coffee and banana bread spot. The old coffee house was just down the block from the “Peace Corps” hotel. The hotel wasn’t owned by the Peace Corps. It was the hotel where volunteers were put up, for orientations, meetings, and medical appointments. La Morena Taqueria opened a few weeks before our COVID-19 evacuation.
Once at my permanent site, I lived off the kindness of others. Every month or so, a care package would arrive from the USA. It was like Christmas or a birthday. Friends would mail me packs of tuna and Spam, along with treats and pasta seasonings. The open market in my village was every Monday. To shop, I could also travel to my Hub Town, have lunch, buy what I needed, and make it back to site, all in the same day. Once a month, I stayed over, rented a room, and took a hot shower.
I also went into town for banking and post office trips, once a month. Often, I carried along my household trash. Once, after first moving to my permanent site, I gave my little host brother a bag of trash to throw away for me. He took it, walked out of the gate, and threw it on the ground. I retrieved the bag and figured that I needed to come up with a Plan B.
Plan A was doing what everyone one else living in the compound did. They purchased fresh foods, at the local open market, and then all their scraps and leftovers were fed to sheep, on the compound. I was the only tenant with piles of tuna cans and other food packaging. My Plan B was to save up my trash and deposit it, in the garbage can outside my local bank, in my Hub Town.
Along with trash, cooking at site could be a bit of a challenge. The electricity on the compound would often go out, between lunch and my early dinner. I always tried to cook and have dinner eaten before dark. When the lights were out, I used a paraffin stove. A few months into my second semester, the school director opened a small lunch cafe, for teachers. I could buy tea, coffee and bread. I could also place a lunch order.
In Armenia, my food situation was different. I loved living with my host family, and I still miss the big family spreads. I went to every single family gathering, with my Peace Corps host family. I was invited to engagement parties, baby’s first tooth parties, sons going into the Army parties, and too many birthday parties to even count. There was always so much food, Armenian BBQ, fresh cheese, bread, tomatoes and cucumbers, plus sweets.
On the weekends, I went from Peace Corps volunteer to American tourist. My site was the closest to Yerevan. Peace Corps Armenia volunteers were allow to leave site, every Friday, after 2:00 pm. We could be away all weekend, but had to return to site, on Sunday, before sundown. In Ethiopia, we could only leave site four days a month.
Each Friday, I would walk into town and catch the local bus to Yerevan. At the end of the bus line, I took the Metro downtown. Once there, I would rent a room, drop off my things, and then feast at one of my favorite restaurants. During my two years, in Armenia, I made friends at Best Western, Holiday Inn, IBIS Yerevan and other hotels. Food wise, there was nothing better than Red Thai Curry, at Wine Republic, a burger at Angus, or salad from Eat & Fit.
I ended up with so many friends. I would have certainly returned, to Armenia, this summer, if I were still serving in the Peace Corps.
I remember turning 61, in Armenia. Yerevan was still pretty new to me. My friend and fellow volunteer, Amanda, came to town, to spend my birthday with me. We shopped around for yarn and tea. At some point, we stopped in a local coffeeshop that I had been to once or twice before. We began chatting with the couple next to us. When they learned that we were both Americans, serving in their country, and it was my birthday, they picked up our tab. Then, something very special happened. The staff presented me with a birthday treat.
My three years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia and Ethiopia taught me many lessons. The greatest one is there are no bad apples. I learned to peel away the bruises, slice the fruit into pieces, and share. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at some type of food on the table that we in the USA would have simply thrown out. My host mom or sister would simply cut around the bad and we would all share in the good.
Next week, when I turn 64, I hope to remember that lesson. I may not be in Ethiopia or visiting my Armenian family and friends, but during this time of COVID-19, on my birthday, I will find a way to share the good. —GGT