Out of Water

A month ago, on the day I’m writing this, I was leaving what I had come to know as home to move to a new community where the only thing that I knew was that winter is going to be cold up there, likely colder than anywhere else in the country. A month and a day ago, I was standing with my right hand raised, swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My dark blue button up with a jacket was a bad idea, and I don’t even think I looked at the camera when we had our photo taken shaking the U.S. Ambassador’s hand.

The past month has gone relatively the same. A mild fright paired with varying levels of excitement has carried me through my first month of service. Knowing little of the language being spoken around me, and nothing of the work I’ve been doing, I don’t feel any more like a PCV than I did a month ago when I was riding up to the great rolling green hills in Shirak marz. The only thing that has made me feel more like the preconceived ideas I had about Peace Corps Volunteers, is that I’m slowly collecting an arsenal of stories, ranging from the ridiculous, to the terrifying, and the inspiring, that I’ll retell for years to come. At least for the next two when I meet up with my fellow PCVs.

Although much of my service so far has been met with a slack-jawed, glassy-eyed “What?”, I have been able to do some pretty cool things. I live in the far northwest corner of Armenia, but I’ve traveled to Lori, Tavush, and Aragatsotn Marzs’ since I’ve been at site.  I’ve visit places like Goshavank, the COAF SMART Center in Debed, and Byurakan Observatory on the slopes of the highest peak in Armenia. I’ve hiked to the highest peak in the bowl that I live in, and through fields of wildflowers a few villages away. I’ve spent some decent time in Gyumri and Yerevan, and had shorter experiences of cities like Dilijan and Vanadzor.

I’ve been lucky to be paired with an organization and counterpart that are both very active. Tagging along with them has made up the majority of my travels in this past month, and it has been a great experience to see all so much of Armenia is such a short amount of time. The work, although scattered and unclear at times, has been rewarding as well. A couple of weeks ago, my counterpart asked me to design a logo for him, which was odd because I’m not a graphic designer. After a few hours of fine tuning and reviewing over the work with my counterpart, I showed myself I could graphically design a logo.

I was also very fortunate to be a part of a Zero Robotics camp in Armenia, a project I stepped into without knowing the full depth of my involvement. Zero Robotics is a programming competition held in cooperation with MIT and NASA to teach youth how to code using open source software. After an intensive training, this talented group of kids submitted codes for robots that are used in the International Space Station. With the help of my counterpart, and a new friend and camp leader, I was able to give a presentation about the Peace Corps, teach the kids how to make s’mores, lead them on a hike, and document their entire journey through photographs and a blog. I was even able to talk to a couple of the youth about the differences in our cultures (enter expected diversity issues from a largely homogenous country).

As far as my new community, and specifically my new host family, they’re great. My 15 year old host sister is sassy as ever, and my host mom’s laugh is contagious. All three of my host brothers are family guys. Two of them are married with kids of their own, and three of the four kids aren’t scared to say hi to me. I even have a special fist bump with Karine. My host dad is stoic by default, but he has never been anything but kind to me. They understand that I enjoy my alone time, spicy food, and adventures. I don’t think they could’ve found a better family for me in this village.

I wish I could put into words how my time as a PCV has felt. I don’t know if I haven’t come to understand what service is well enough, or if this feeling is so obscure there’s no word I know to encapsulate it. I could certainly talk about what I’ve done in Armenia. I can tell you the plans that I have while I’m here in Armenia. I can talk about work I’ve done and what’s in the works. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just kind of doing it.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a photoblog, so here’s some scattered pictures of the last month’s adventures. Here’s to hoping purpose finds me, and my next post is more put together.


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Maybe a week before I left Ayntap, somewhere around the time of my last post, there was a major thunderstorm that rolled across the Ararat plain. The setting sun and the rainclouds painted the horizon gold. I got my telephoto out and zoomed up to these countour rich beauties. My host brother and I took turns looking through the viewfinder, exclaiming how pretty this sight was, and telling the next where exactly to aim the lens next. The thunderstorms here in Armenia have been spectacular, house trembling even, but this one will remain particularly memorable.


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This shot was center stage (don’t measure it) where I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Part of the 26th group of Americans to come to Armenia and swear in front of new friends and family, to pursue the goals of peace and friendship. The ceremony was beautiful, thanks to a handful of volunteers, some local musical talent, and this cave like hall.


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Shirak marz is a highland steppe, where the green of the grass starts in the cracks of the concrete houses and runs to the summits of the boundless mountains. The Akhurian River is welcome force for me in Shirak marz. It’s worked to carve out mighty gorges as it flows south from Lake Arpi. THIS is not a picture of the Akhurian River, but rather it’s one of the smaller creeks that contributes to the torrent downstream. It flows from the village next to mine, and meets the Akhurian where the road leads out of Amasia. And when the sun sets and hits the rocks across the way, well I couldn’t help but pull out the reds and oranges in the uncommonly exposed rock.


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As I said above, I was able to lead a group of kids on a hike not too long ago. It was a proper hike, with an incline, a peak as a goal, and a view to take your breath away. On our way down, instead of taking the same route, I led the group down a separate ridge. If you’ve never had the opportunity to walk through fields of wildflowers, I’d recommend that you jot it down on your bucket list presently. A sprightliness tends to wash over you when you’re at the center of so much beauty. H.G. Wells wrote, “I suppose everything in existence takes its colour from the average hue of our surroundings.” When your average hue is filled with the white noise of bees at work, the fluttering songs of birds, and natures finest pallet, everything else feels, maybe not right in the world, but better.

 

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PST Wrap-Up

I’ve been struggling these past few weeks to articulate my experiences here in Armenia. PST is as hard as some volunteers suggested, and I’m ready for life in the slow lane. A typical day for A26 PST starts with four hours of language courses, and ends with another four hours of technical training. When I get home from class, I usually have homework to complete before bed, some conversational learning with my host-family(luckily my host brother speaks a little English), and I may a little time to myself before heading to bed. This is the schedule for about 4 days a week. The remaining three days of the weeks are usually packed with more Peace Corps training, cultural trips, or the necessities of life. The same routine, especially when you’re on the cusp of a great exploration of a new place, is torturous. Although this is my own experience of PST, I know that I’m not alone in this sentiment. Many of us are ready for PST to be done, we’re ready to move to our newly announced sites, we’re ready to start the work we came here to do.

That all being said, it’s not all whining here in PST. There have been moments of absolute joy; moments I couldn’t imagine a life without now that I’ve had them. A handful of these moments have happened to me in the short time that I’ve been here. These days, experiences like this, views, and fleeting moments are how I’ll look back at PST. The immersion headaches, the miscommunications, and the lack of freedom will just be a footnote.

One of these days was my host brother’s 5th birthday. It started out with just a group of the neighborhood kids and a guy in a Spiderman outfit, but it turned into a long night with family and friends coming from all over to celebrate.


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This here is Hyek(pronounced “hike”). After the dancing, after family and friends wished him good health, after Spiderman carried him around on his shoulders, he had the chance to blow out his candle. Spiderman then assisted him in shoving his face in the cake.


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Post cake, pizza, snacks, and sweet and salty goodness, I got a few group photos. Most of these kids are the ones that yell “American!!” when they see me walking home from school. Mixed in there are my host brothers, and my extended host family. Simply put, kids are kids are kids; high-fives and laughter are universal. Also, please notice Hyek, in his Spidey-onsie I got for him, standing in defiance in a way only a five year old can. Oh, Hyek jan. This picture sums up  the first couple hours of the party. Then came the khorovats.


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Khorovats is quintessential Armenia! So basically, it’s a barbeque, but it’s also so much more. In typical Armenian fashion, a khorovats is usually accompanied by dancing, lots of friends and family, and drinking(if you’re lucky, you might even get a taste of the moonshine so many locals make…just have one taste, though). Here, lightly seasoned potatoes, pork, and chicken are placed on skewers over an open pit of coals and rotated as needed, resulting in a mouth watering meal. Vegetables are sometimes available, but are less common. Khorovats isn’t just a way to prepare the food, it’s a social event, and in the case of Hyek’s birthday party, it was the opportunity for me to get to know the men of my extended family here in Armenia, and taste some legendary apricot oghi.


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I asked my eldest host brother, Robert, to pose for this picture here. Rob has been an AMAZING brother, helping guide me through the struggles of learning a new language, and putting up with my antics along the. I wanted to capture this photo before everyone came and sat down at the table. I wanted to show how a typical Armenian family came together to eat and celebrate a loved one. Well, not 10 minutes after I took this picture I was tasked to add another table to the end of this one, with another six or seven plates on it. Food and family are so important here, and more is better. We sat down for four whole hours at this table. Some people stayed at it for even longer. We ate, drank wine, gave toasts, gave thanks, drank oghi, laughed, ate seconds, drank coffee, watched each other dance, shared sentiments, drank more coffee, had dessert, and enjoyed it all, together.


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This picture was also taken on a pretty special day. A week and a half prior to taking this photo, I was approached in the hallway at the school where I take my language lessons by a young girl, asking to have a picnic with the Peace Corps trainees in my town. All of the logistics were relayed through me, and we eventually met together at a monument in our town. We were told by this group of kids to just bring ourselves, maybe a soccer ball, and anything else we might want to eat or drink. What I expected to be a small gathering and quiet picnic at the park down the street turned into an adventure. We were told there was a surprise for us, and that we weren’t at the spot that we were having the picnic yet. We walked a couple kilometers up the hill in my village. We passed some of the larger plots of land on the outskirts of the village, and found our way even further out to the pastures and orchards on the periphery. After our young guides secured permission, we settled in an apricot orchard. Security escorted us to a collection trees that provided good shade, and a view of Mt. Ararat. It was a scene from a post card.

Not only did this group of kids spend the time to take us up to this guarded location, but they provided blankets to sit on, cold drinks to sip on, and snacks to munch on. We played Frisbee in a more open area of the orchard, we listened to music that we all enjoyed, and the kids sang Armenian songs and performed a traditional Armenian dance. The hospitality of Armenians was felt in force this afternoon.


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One thing that has struck me in my time short in Armenia is the quiet beauty on the side of the streets, in backyards, and in houses. Armenia has its own set of problems, just as every place does. There is a fair amount of poverty, a lack of infrastructure especially in rural areas, and some institutional faults. These aren’t issues that are unique to Armenia, but they’re issues that the people living here deal with on a daily basis. What is unique to Armenia, is the pride I’ve notice Armenians take in what they do have. Every morning, in front of this door, my fellow PCT’s host tatik(grandmother) comes out to sweep the dust, petals, and leaves off of the metal walkway. Behind this door, is the pristine patio that’s covered with grape vines. The welcoming bench, and more flowers leading the way to the house. This is just a photo of the street view of a single house, but imagine an entire street where each family takes pride in their little presentation to the world. It makes for a beautiful walk to school each morning. This pride, this little gift of quiet beauty, is something that, in the past couple months, has become something I enjoy seeing manifest uniquely in each house along the street.

Each experience I’ve had in PST has been valuable to me as I continue to grow as an individual. Traveling to ancient churches and wineries is much more exciting. Exploring a city older than Rome, and seeing revolutions are badges I’ll wear forever. In contrast, experiences like the ones I described above are slow-burning. The impact of the simple, kind, and genuine snippets of life are more easily recognizable as you distance yourself from them. They can be, and often are, nevertheless, profound. In about a week, I’ll be sworn into the Peace Corps as a volunteer. I’ll join the ranks of another ~230,000 people who have volunteered in far off places, to improve the friendship between the United States and developing countries. I’ll move from my training site, to what is to be my new home for the next 2 years. I’ll start the integration process over again, with all of its joys and challenges. I’ll begin my partnership with the NGO I’ve been assigned to, with the hope of improving the lives of the people in my community. A new set of challenges, opportunities, and experiences await me as I start my next journey as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Quick disclaimer here: As I develop my voice over the next two years, I expect that the style of this blog will change quite a bit. Please hang in there with me, and feel free to give me input. I decided since my last post that I wanted to give those who read this blog, a more precise representation of my personal experience in Armenia. How I VIEW my time here. Anyway, enjoy!

On the 14th of April, my cohort took a trip to Noravank. Noravank is a 13th century monastery located in the Voyats Dzor marz(region) of Armenia, which is most popular for the wine that it produces. The drive down from Ararat Marz near Yerevan, was absolutely beautiful; about 110km south. We slowly climbed our way into the mountains, barely skirting along borders to Turkey and Azerbaijan. After a making it up and over a mountain pass, the descent south across green mountain sides began. Along the way, we passed through Areni, a town that holds a number of the “oldests” in the world, and turned right near the Areni-1 Cave to drive up a Zion-esque valley. Tall, often red, rock walls lined the road before opening up. Noravank is nestled right in that opening, righ before the road narrows again and continues to wind through the mountains leading nowhere.


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Enter beautiful monastery, landscape, and lighting. I think part of the awe that comes with looking out over Noravank is that it’s hidden from the outsides view.


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Looking up at the bell in the monastery. Couldn’t quite get everything lined up perfectly, but I’ve been enjoying taking geometric photos lately. Here’s a couple more for the road.


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As I mentioned above, we passed through the small village named Areni on the way to Noravank, and stopped for wine tasting. In the Areni-1 Cave nearby the remnants of grapes, cups, and jugs, dating as far back from 6,100 years ago were found, giving evidence that wine production in this region is a cultural tradition that rivals that of other ancient societies. The Areni Wine Factory that we drank at was only founded in 1994, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and their conditions for wine production, but nevertheless had a warm, inviting environment for (a lot of) wine tasting.


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The walls and ceiling were covered with writing from people all over the world. Half of it I couldn’t read. Armenia is absolutely as hospitable as I was told. With how homogenous this country is, I stand out like a sore thumb. The locals seem to know that I’m a foreigner from the way I walk a couple blocks down from them. Despite that, I’ve been welcomed into my new home with baskets of bread, glasses of wine, and flavors new to me. The Areni Wine Factory literally has writing on the walls that show the hospitality Armenians hold in their hearts.


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Beautiful wine barrell seats, with a beautiful wine barrell table, and beautiful Armenian place mats. What better place to find yourself with 11 of your closest friends and a few bottles of wine. If you happen to find yourself in the region on October 6th, I’d recommend checking out the Areni wine festival to experience 100 different local wines!

As always, thank you for reading, and please comment on what you’d like to see more of!

Noravank and Areni Wine Factory

“What’s Going On” – A PCT Story

Seriously, what is going on? As a Peace Corps Trainee, I don’t have the answer, only a tangle of experiences thus far.

For those of you who are uninitiated, the process of joining the Peace Corps is arduous. For me, the entirety of it took just over a year from the time I applied to the moment I landed in country.

And suddenly I’m on a plane to D.C. and telling people the things I wrote on an aspiration statement that’s fogged over at best, then I’m on a plane to Paris choking on “merci” as I try to thank the flight attendant, then I’m photographing churches built in the 13th century and told about how great it will be building a life here in my home of 27 months.

It’s been a persistent gale of emotion and change. I hardly have had time to process my current situation, and because of that, I don’t know that I can give a completely accurate depiction of how my experience with the Peace Corps has been so far. However, I can be sure about a few things. Let me show you.


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Armenia is a strange and beautiful place. On the grounds of the resort where we underwent our initial orientation were a number of relics from a more prosperous time. Hotels, houses, pools, campsites, and more, all fallen into disrepair. It’s beautiful, in a “ashes to ashes” way. The juxtaposition of the gorgeous mountains surrounding, and the thick forests that cradle the resort really add to the feeling of being in a land of another kind.


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The history here is rich, and just waiting to be rediscovered by eager souls like me. This is a nook in the ruins the Ishkhanavanq, which was built in 1207. Let’s pause for a moment to take that in. People have been worshiping in this same spot for over 800 years. Crisp pictures of Mary and Christ are placed above as seen. Armenian currency, known as dram, is donated in a small tin over to the left hand side of the above picture. The walls are burnt black by candles that have been placed on the wall to illuminate whomever’s time spent here. This hidden, humble shrine had an electric air about it, and was truly a gem to be exposed to so early upon my arrival to Armenia.


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There is a visceral-ness and connection to the life here that’s unlike living in Anchorage. Many homes have gardens in the backyard, of which my own host family has apricots, apples, grapes, potatoes, and a variety of greens. The harvest of that is pickled, dried, cooked, etc. We can walk from one end of the community to the other, and see our neighbors out in the streets playing, working, and socializing(except in the early mornings). And then there is Ararat, omnipresent, to remind us of the diminutive roles we play in this world.


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The modern churches are equally as beautiful. This is the St. Thaddeus Church in Masis, just south-west of my town. I was lucky enough to celebrate my first holiday in Armenia, Easter, with a trip to town and a large traditional feast. Goodness there’s so much food I’ve been fed. My favorite part about this picture is what appears to be three generations exiting the church. Family is everything here, and I witness those traditional values at play daily. It’s pure and it’s admirable.


 

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Easter at Khor Virap Monastery.


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The cell of Saint Gregory the Illuminator.


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Did I mention how beautiful this country is? On the right is Mount Ararat standing at 5,137m, and on the left is Little Ararat at 3,925m, both of which lie in Turkey.


While I’m still adjusting, and still trying to conceptualize what my life and work will look like here in Armenia, these simple joys have kept me happy in the moments I have away from pre-service training. I’m hoping my next post will be more organized and concise. Until then, enjoy the shots.

Error 807 – Life in Pause

Preparing for the Peace Corps has been a surreal experience. If you happened to ask me if I was ready to leave in the weeks leading up to my departure, I said simply, “No”. I don’t think that joining the Peace Corps is something that you can prepare for. Or maybe you can prepare for service in the Peace Corps adequately, but it’s leaving a life behind that you can’t.


To quote Neil Gaiman: “Nothing’s ever the same…be it a second later or a hundred years. It’s always churning and roiling. And people change as much as oceans.”

I’ve done the best I can . I’ve prepared letters to leave behind, packed up my things and stacked them nicely, I’ve cancelled subscriptions and credit cards, and I’ve made sure to get some snuggles in with my dog to explain where I’ll be for the next 27 months(in case you were wondering, she’ll be sad but she understands). The way I see it, I’m putting a whole slough of relationships on pause, and it’s my job to pause them at the most opportune moment. On top of that, I’m pausing parts of my identity that mean a lot to me. Making room in my schedule to go camping and hiking in new places is no longer going to be a priority, because of the new responsibilities I’ve accepted. And that’s okay. Change will dominate my life back home and my new life in my new home. The people will especially change. 807 days worth. But, here are the moments I’ve decided to pause on during my last couple weeks at home.


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This is the public use cabin that’s tucked away back in Eagle River Valley. It can sleep eight, is insulated well enough that the wood stove provides ample heat during the cold winter nights, and is a easy-to-access plug into Chugach State Park. The Friends of Eagle River Nature Center, Inc. was formed in 1995 with the vision to “provide connections to nature through education, resource protection, and outdoor opportunities.” You can read more about this awesome organization, or book a few nights in their cabin or yurts here. Growing up in Eagle River, the Eagle River Nature Center served, and still serves, as a fantastic access point into the Alaskan wilderness. With a little foot power, you can find yourself hidden among some of the Chugach Range tallest peaks, at the foot of a glacier, or face to face with moose, sheep, and bear among other, smaller game. The Nature Center has truly been a source of magic and pure joy in my life.


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We didn’t get a photo together during my going away party, so here’s my family during Christmas. My family has been no exceptions supportive of me. I have drug them through some truly horrendous moments of parenting and siblinghood, and regardless they sent me off in tears and with words of encouragement. I couldn’t ask for a better team behind me.


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Chena is a four year old puppy that has nothing but love and play and snuggles for everyone she meets. She and her techni-color hiking sweater are one of a kind. I adore this dog, and I will miss her beyond words.


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A final father/son activity before leaving took us up Baldy(Eagle River’s local hill). I wanted to go hiking with my dad before I left for a couple of reasons. We both love the outdoors, and I like to imagine he’ll be hiking everyday I’m gone getting ready for our first thru-hike together upon my return – Wonderland Trail 2020!! Boy will I miss these mountains.


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For our last night together, I took my fiance to the King Street Brewing Co. tasting room where we first met. Half to be sweet and half so I could take a picture of her to put on this blog to make a point. When I received my invitation to the Peace Corps, it was only about a month after Brooke and I having first met in a scene very much like this. See, I figured that nothing could sap the vigor out of a budding relationship more than putting an expiration date on it(today, yikes!). I did what any guy in his right mind would – call over one of their best friends to slam back a couple IPA’s to figure out how life could be so fatefully cruel. The following morning, Brooke was the second person I told about my invitation to Armenia with the Peace Corps. I asked her, “Should I go?”, and she replied with a hitherto, uncompromising “Yes”. I’ve been lucky enough to have that kind of support from day one with her, and I don’t expect that to change. I am eternally grateful for that. This picture shows how we left each other: smiling, supporting, and loving. So much for an expiration date, here’s to a lifetime of laughs together.


Among the infinite memories I made in my last two weeks in Alaska, these are just a handful of them. The support I received, and continue to receive, from family, friends, future in-laws, strangers on planes, JFK, and quotes I decided apply to directly to me, has been overwhelming. Everything back home has paused for me now. I’m thankful to be able to take these memories and this love with me to Armenia, and I hope to return with just as many and just as much. Then – unpause.

The Journey Begins

Alexander Pushkin wrote in his poem Captive of the Caucasus:

“He turned his back on his native borders

And flew off to a far-away land,

Alongside the merry ghost of freedom.”

The Caucasus is a nebulous region, often inciting the use of Google Maps or Wikipedia when I bring it, or the countries that make up the region, in conversation. It lies on the borders of how we think of the east and the west, and act as a bottle-necked land mass between the Caspian and Black Seas. It’s surrounded by some of the world’s biggest political players: Russia to the north, and Turkey and Iran to the south. Confined between these power players are Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, all former states of the USSR.

Last March I found myself doing what you may be doing right now,  pulling up a tab to see where the Caucasus lies on a map. More specifically, I was pinpointing Armenia. The tiny country where I was hoping to secure a position with the Peace Corps. I was stuck at a crossroads during my final semester at school. I knew I didn’t want to sink into a career immediately after graduating, I felt too restless for that. I knew that I wanted travel and new experiences to feed my appetite for adventure. But I knew true wandering wasn’t going to leave me fulfilled.  It didn’t take much to settle on the Peace Corps. Far off lands, no (super) long term commitment, and a chance to defer on my student loans for a time? Sold. And that takes us back to this scene: me pulling up Google Maps to find out where the hell Armenia is.

Once the idea was planted, I dove in. “Peace Corps or bust!” was my attitude. Luckily, I only had to apply twice, once to Ukraine, and then to Armenia. The application process, especially after being placed under consideration, was tedious, and a focal point of anxiety in my life for some time; as of December 2017, I was all cleared to begin my Peace Corps service in Armenia.

So here I am, on the cusp of embarking on a great adventure, writing a blog. My foremost motivation for doing so is that I’d like a medium where I can record my travels and experiences while I’m overseas. Through WordPress, not only can I update my friends and family on my life in Armenia, but I can, hopefully, impart some cultural awareness and intrigue to those of you who may not know much about my host country and it’s famously hospitable people. I also wanted a platform that provided a degree of accountability for how I hope to grow personally. Photography is my passion, and I plan to use my images to tell stories and share the beauty of Armenia and beyond.

Here are a few bullets to keep in mind as I develop this blog:

  • Shared through this blog are my experiences, opinions, beliefs, and perspectives, photographic or otherwise, and are exclusively my own unless otherwise stated.
  • I’m not a novelist, a poet, or a playwright. Please, bear with me as I find my voice through this blog. I will most certainly grow over the next two years, and I hope that my writing, particularly this style, is wedded to that growth.
  • On that same thread of growth – I CANNOT IMPROVE IF I AM WRITING IN AN ECHO CHAMBER. Please interact with me through this blog. I want to share my experiences with the Peace Corps, but I want it to be experiences my friends, family, and others want to read about. I’m always open to constructive criticism and suggestions on what I should share.
  • Please take everything I share through this blog with a grain or ten of salt. Although I’m going to do my best to write, photograph, and share accurately, I am not capable of giving you, the reader, a full and objective picture. This is the world through the lens of Alex.

I’m turning my back on my “native borders”, as I’ve never stayed for more than a little over a year away from Alaska. Armenia is certainly a “far-away land”, not only in miles, but in culture, language and the like. I’m now a less than a month away from boarding a plane to Armenia, 25 days exactly from the time of this post. The lazy Sundays and Monday family dinners number 3. The butterflies are in full force, and I don’t imagine they’ll be quelled until after my plane touches down 5390 miles away from home. And with that, I would like to invite you all to join me and my “merry ghost of freedom” on  this adventure.