good news, history, lessons learned

My Peace Corps friend, Loretta…

Earlier this month, I took part in a Zoom meeting memorial my group of Armenia Returned Peace Corps Volunteers held for our former colleague, Matt Jensen, who was struck and killed by a speeding black Rolls Royce in Brooklyn, New York. During that meeting, I learned that another member of my group, Loretta Land, also died this year. She passed in January, having reached the age of 86 years.

I had recently been in touch with Loretta via Facebook, but she hadn’t been posting in awhile. I was afraid she might have stopped following me, as a lot of people tend to do when they don’t like my raunchy humor or outspoken posts about Trump. But, as it turned out, Loretta had simply moved on from this world. It wasn’t a total surprise, given her age, but I was a bit sad about the news.

I knew that Loretta had published a book about our time in Armenia. I decided to download it, and I’m now about halfway through it. It’s a pretty quick read, and if I’m honest, not the best edited or accurately fact-checked book I’ve ever read. And yet, I’m enjoying reading her book so much!

I always really admired Loretta, who was in her early 60s when she joined the Peace Corps. Loretta was about my dad’s age, and I think that had my dad not been married to my mom, he would have liked being in the Peace Corps himself. He was very excited when I told him I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, as my eldest sister, Betsy, had in Morocco during the mid 1980s.

For some reason, Loretta always made me think of my dad… the best parts of him, anyway. Dad and I had kind of a rocky relationship, but he had a very altruistic, adventurous, adrenaline seeking side of him that was fun. Loretta was like that too, as I’m discovering as I read her book, Yes, You Can! Have a Second Life After 60.

I remember when we arrived for staging in Washington, DC, Loretta was interviewed by a reporter for the Associated Press. A newspaper article later surfaced about Loretta’s decision to join the Peace Corps at her age. She was the oldest one in our group, but the subsequent groups I encountered also had older people serving.

Loretta served as a business volunteer, and lived on the outskirts of Yerevan, not too far from the very last metro stop heading east. I never visited Loretta, even though I also lived in Yerevan. Yerevan, in the 1990s, was like a really big village, but it’s also pretty vast, with over three million people living there. Her work was in a village about fifteen kilometers away from Yerevan called Zovk, while mine was at a Yerevan city school that, at least when I was there, served kids of all ages. Now, I believe my former school is what’s called a “basic school”, that doesn’t serve the youngest or oldest children. My students were all among the youngest and eldest at the school.

It’s been so much fun to read Loretta’s memories of our time in Armenia. There are some things in her book that I never knew about– a lot of it is about her specific work in Zovk, as well as Yerevan proper. She’s written some things that were common experiences that I don’t remember, like when our training group was asked to write letters to ourselves about what we thought our last day in Armenia would be like. I don’t remember doing that, but I’m sure we must have… because I remember the training director and his wife, and it’s exactly the kind of exercise they would have had us do. Unfortunately, someone lost the letters we turned in, although Loretta said she’d kept hers, but then decided to throw it away instead of reading it. She wrote that she was sorry she’d done that.

She’s also spilled some tea about some things that I knew nothing about… like, for instance, that a couple of Volunteers traded their kerosene for a car and a driver (which they were not supposed to do). She doesn’t mention their names, but she does mention the area where they lived… and I have a feeling I know who they are. But at least they got something truly valuable for the kerosene. I remember one lady who lived with a host family came home to find that the family had traded her kerosene for 200 kilos of potatoes!

I got a kick of reading her mentions of people we knew from our group, or people in the very small and close-knit American diaspora that existed in Armenia in the 1990s. So far, she hasn’t mentioned me. I don’t expect she will, despite my unforgettable charm. 😉 But I have seen some names of our colleagues, as well as Peace Corps staff and other Americans in the community during that time. I had forgotten just how challenging and difficult life in Armenia could be back in the 90s. Reading Loretta’s account makes me proud that I managed to survive that tough existence, even if I wasn’t as amazing and effective as a Peace Corps Volunteer as she was.

Loretta’s book is reminding me of the traditions and customs in Armenia, as well as the very warm and hospitable nature of its people. I got pretty bitter and depressed during my time there, and I think I lost sight of what an amazing opportunity it was to get to experience life in what had been the Soviet Union, just after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. When I think about it, it just blows me away that I joined the Peace Corps. It was not something I had really aspired to do until I felt the itch to do something drastic to change my life. My life didn’t change in the way that I thought it would, but it did change. If not for my time in Armenia, I’m not sure I’d be living in Germany, for instance.

I find myself oddly gratified, too, to read that, like me, Loretta experienced depression while she was in the Peace Corps. I remember, back in those days, feeling like such a loser. I felt like I couldn’t accomplish anything. By the end of my second year, I had actually done some good things, but they felt insignificant. It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d been suffering from depression, which is a medical problem. It wasn’t until many years after I had been treated for the medical problem that I realized that, in fact, I had done some things that made a lasting and good impression. One of my former students now works for Peace Corps/Armenia. I had nothing to do with him landing that job, but I do realize that at least his experiences with me didn’t turn him off of Americans. 😉 And yes, he still remembered me many years later, and now we’re friends on Facebook.

I expect to be finished reading Loretta’s book very soon, and then I will write a proper review, which I will post on this blog, and probably the travel blog, too. But for now, I just want to post that I’m glad I bought the book and am now reading it. I wish I had read it when Loretta was still alive and I could talk to her about it. She was an amazing lady and I am so honored that I got to meet her. Honestly, I met so many incredible people thanks to my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia. It truly changed my life in so many wonderful ways… even if it didn’t always seem like it at the time.

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