Break Away

I haven’t traveled to a lot of foreign places. I can count the number of countries on my hands. Travel within the United States can only be so different, not quite enough for culture shock even if you’ve made it around a small amount. Coming to Armenia gave me quite a bit of culture shock, but it’s fizzled out over my now nine months in the country. To be expected. After seven months, I was able to take some time off of work and travel for the first time during my service here in Armenia. Brooke and I had a romantic trip to Georgia planned. We were going to stay in houses and lodges tucked away in mountains of the Greater Caucasus, in villas in the middle of wine country, and in the cutest of apartments in Tbilisi. That didn’t happen and instead we had about a week to plan a different trip. With the ease of access from Armenia, we decided to go to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Time to flip on that culture shock.

Brooke reading through the handy guide she brought, while we sit in a bougie hotel lobby waiting for everything to open.

Abu Dhabi

We started our adventure in Abu Dhabi. It’s a couple hour bus ride south of Dubai, situated along the Persian Gulf. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, and also the largest emirate. We hadn’t really had time before hand to plan our trip out, so we were planning as we went only knowing what major sites we wanted to see along the way. Our first day out and about was somewhat of a wash, spent wandering around and hitting some major logistical setbacks. The second day in Abu Dhabi, as in the picture seen above, we got to see the view from the Jumeirah Towers, the Emirates, Palace, bike along the Corniche, and hit the beach for a bit. Things started falling into place.

First is the Emirates Palace. This place is unreal, as in top three most expensive hotels in the world, serving gold sprinkled Arabic coffee, or gold face masks in their spa, unreal. We opted for a quick walk through, grasping the photo ops along the way; we had an epic brunch to get to anyway.

Emirates Palace complex on the right, and the President’s Palace on the left.
Emirates Palace.
Walking into the main hall and looking up. Everything is covered in gold.
Overlooking the beach from the hotel. Everything about this place was grand.

One of my favorite ways to explore a city is by being at the street level. Walking and biking makes me feel more apart of the cityscape than driving ever could. Acting as a buffer to Abu Dhabi’s skyline is a series of parks, beach access areas, and one continuous path along the beach. This path is called “The Corniche” and offers beautiful views of the Persian Gulf, the city’s skyline, and the more expensive hotels across the way.

The Corniche at sunset. Hundreds of people flock here as it cools down to bike, roller blade, or just take in the Arabian sunset.

Without a doubt, the best part of Abu Dhabi for me was visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and kayaking through the Eastern Mangrove National Park on our last day. The Grand Mosque is a must-do experience for those who visit the country, and the mangroves were a great escape from the bustle of the city.

The White Mosque is mostly that. The other colors you see around the exterior are simple compliments to a beautifully simple structure.
The main entrance to the building leads to a courtyard in the center of the building that’s roped off from the public. In that courtyard is a burst of color from the vine and flower design on the floor.
This is one of my favorite pictures from the entire trip. Apparently no one told the kids they weren’t supposed to run out into the center of the courtyard. Even if someone did, you can almost be certain they didn’t care. Kids are great at exposing how ridiculous adults can be with their endless rules and misplaced concern, and I was lucky enough to catch that mechanism is action.
You could spend hours here taking photos. We only spent 3.
View from the outside. The mosque has 82 domes in total.
Women are supposed to cover their heads down to their ankles and wrists. She was a trooper there, while I could just cruise around in my t-shirt. No shoes is the only universal dress-code.

Eastern Mangrove National Park is very much unlike the institution of national parks that I know in the United States. I saw this park on a map when I was exploring places to stay in Abu Dhabi, and a quick look on Trip Advisor said its a neat spot to check out. Access to the park is as easy as it could be. Brooke and I taxied from the Grand Mosque to the hotels directly overlooking this park. We grabbed some delicious Indian food at a restaurant along the water with only a narrow canal separating us from the afternoons adventure; we rented a pair of kayaks shortly thereafter. No map, return time, or suggestions were given, only a push off the dock when we had our paddles and life vests and were sitting in our kayaks. It was essentially free range in this unique ecosystem. The mangroves are a joy to explore.

Access depends on tide. Some ways close and others open as the tide fluctuates.
I was stoked to be in the park. Before the buckets of sweat from paddling in the 95 degree heat.
It basically a pick-your-own adventure once you get in the kayaks. Go where you may!
Just watch out for the toddler sized birds.

In all, I had a lot of fun in Abu Dhabi despite our misadventures. The must-dos of Abu Dhabi:

  • Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
  • Lourve Abu Dhabi Museum (the only extension on the world)
  • Eastern Mangrove National Park
  • Brunch – This is a true feast in the UAE on Fridays, the Southern Sun Hotel brunch blew us away.
  • Corniche – The Corniche isn’t only home to the beaches, but it has the Emirates Palace, the Jumeirah Towers and a number of cafes along the way.

Dubai

Abu Dhabi wasn’t exactly smooth sailing when we got there, but we managed to pull together some pretty amazing days. We saw a lot, ate some really good food, and still had plenty of time to relax(see Lush bath bombs, room service, and pool lounging).

We weren’t ready for Dubai. We stayed outside of city center, which made transportation an ordeal. At one point, we both got hurt by some food. The desert excursion was all together dumb. It was a lot of of flak from one city, and I think I can safely say neither of us have a strong desire to return here. But, we made the most of the time we had despite the seemingly endless setbacks.

The first place that I think was worth a visit, and really the only place I felt like held a sense of culture, was Old Dubai. This part of the city straddles the north end of the creek, and was what I was hoping more of the UAE would’ve been. A small area named “Al Fahidi Historical District” was even made to recreate the feel of the city when Dubai still mainly made their as a trading center for the region. This district is all narrow streets, art galleries, and cafes, and even has the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding(we didn’t have time to go, but it looked like a unique experience, especially for westerners). In the surrounding area are the many souks(markets) which are fun enough to walk around if you don’t mind strange men putting scarves on you and everyone yelling about saffron(Dubai’s largest export, unconfirmed).

The general look of the Al Fahidi Historic District in Old Dubai. This. Place. Is. Cute. Fun fact, those towers are called “wind towers” and are used in many countries with similar climates to help cool the streets. Also peek Dubai Creek.
I call it “Boats in Rows”. Traveling across the creek to get from one souk to another.
Old men chatting in the back alleys of the houseware section of the souk. I was so scared of saffron peddlers harassing me that I had to work with an overexposed center image.

Maybe my favorite part of Dubai came about because the Miracle Garden. The Miracle Garden is the the world’s largest flower garden, and was closed due to construction. Having taken a taxi so far off the main strip, we figured we could at least spend some time in the nearby butterfly garden that was suggested by our taxi driver. This butterfly garden consumed the first half of our day it was so cool, and that’s factoring in that both Brooke and I got pooped on. This garden is four geodesic dome greenhouses, three of which have smaller netted areas where you can try your hand at butterfly whispering before going after the guys in the big areas. No surprise, I’m a natural, gathering and placing a grand total of SIX butterflies on Booke at one time. Anyways, it was a great way to be fun and silly and act like an unapologetic child for a bit.

Of course there’s a patio covered with colorful umbrellas and ice cream chairs to sit in.
This garden contained some truly magnificent butterflies, but this fluorescent blue butterfly was the crown jewel, and stood out among the rest.
Three natural beauties. These butterflies, when they close their wings, have a grey and brown exterior that mimics a dying leaf. Excellent camouflage, and a lesson not to judge something by its initial appearance. Still unsure if Brooke coordinated this outfit for the days’ outing.

Dubai is certainly known best for the leaps and bounds its taken into modernity. It is currently home to the world’s tallest building, the world’s only seven star hotel, and number of other similar records. Traveling through Dubai exclusively to visit these sorts of sites is possible, and surely could make up an entire getaway to this city.

[Burj Al Arab, Aquarium, Marina, Burj Khalifa]

Off the canal of the Dubai Marina. This is a pricey but beautiful district that is filled with shopping, restaurants, ziplines, water taxis, and unique architecture.
A peek at the canal, and the cluster of the most iconic buildings from this area. Notice the new construction, Dubai isn’t showing any signs of slowing its growth.
Inside the tunnel of the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo. A fascinating attraction and worth the money. Although you can see the aquarium’s interior from three different levels inside the Dubai Mall(second largest in the world), buying a ticket gives you access to a whole other look at underwater life.
An octopus, kept in blue light. Watching an octopus move underwater, up close, was like seeing a lava lamp for the first time as a kid. Absolutely awe inspiring.
The Burj Al Arab at sunset. I was swimming in the Persian Gulf(in about 80 degree water), the call to prayer began from a mosque about three hundred meters in-shore. Truly a surreal experience.
The flagship building of Dubai. The Burj Khalifa holds a number of world records, including the world’s tallest building. In the lake surrounding the building is a large fountain that puts on spectacular light shows daily. The Burj Khalifa is a engineering wonder that is impressive to stand under, and even more impressive to look out from.

Here’s a list of must visits in Dubai:

  • Bur Dubai – This is the historic district in Dubai, and includes the many souks in that area.
  • Downtown Dubai – This includes the Dubai Mall, the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo.
  • Butterfly Garden/Miracle Garden – Although we didn’t get to visit the Miracle Garden, I’d still bet this is a must visit, and you could pair it with the Butterfly Garden to make a nice day out of it.
  • Dubai Marina – This is a great place to spend the evening walking next to the water, with plenty of restaurants to choose from when the sun goes down.
  • The Burj Al Arab – There are a number of beaches nearby this fancy hotel, and it’s a great place to catch the sunset while swimming in the warm waters of the gulf.

Dubai is a difficult city to visit on a whim, and there’s a couple more pieces of advice I’d like to leave for those looking to visit. First, stay where you want to be. Dubai is a very sprawled city, and staying near attractions will save you a lot of time and money from travel. Look at staying near the marina, or “downtown Dubai” near the Burj Khalifa. Second, plan your days by proximity. We didn’t realize how long it was going to take to get from one place to another. Well planned days can save you plenty of time. A final note, or maybe more of a word of caution. We did end up doing a desert excursion on our last day in Dubai, and it was horrendous. The experience was lacking in most ways for us, so just be sure to do your research beforehand, and don’t expect anything too authentic.

The United Arab Emirates was an amazing experience. The food was phenomenal, the introduction to Islamic culture was fascinating, and it was unreal to see a true modern melting pot of different people, identities, and cultures. Maybe the biggest culture shock to me, was seeing that the UAE didn’t have a strong overlying culture like you see in the homogeneity of Armenia. We would see glimpses into other lives, but never felt an all encompassing “way of life”, so to speak. That sits in stark contrast to Armenia. The UAE, and Dubai in particular, may be the way of the future, where culture is expressed and found in microcosms instead of broadcasted over radios and seen in the uniformity of dress.

As my travels are over, for now, I’ve slipped back into somewhat normal life here in Armenia. Winter is here and challenging me and my service in brand new ways. A topic for next time. Happy Holidays!

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Ups and Downs

Ups and Downs

I was told by a number of people that I’d eventually fall behind on my blog. I was told that I’d forget to keep everyone back home updated because I was either too busy, too boring, or that I’d just reach a point of apathy. Of course I denied that those would inhibit my ability to write a blog, and reaffirmed, mostly to myself, that the joy that I found in writing and sharing my Peace Corps experience with those back home would be great enough to at least ease out a few paragraphs every other month. I was at least right that I wouldn’t get to any of those points. I’m somewhat busy, mostly with secondary projects, but not so much that I haven’t had time to do the things I enjoy. These past few months haven’t been boring for me in the slightest. I think I’ve had some of the most exciting moments in my service happen to me since September. And I haven’t become apathetic in this process of resharing my experience. I’ve been calling family more, sharing more photos with my grandma that uses the internet in a very limited sense, and I’ve even started to reach out to universities to see how I can talk to aspiring Peace Corps Volunteers in their prep programs. What’s been happening since September has been a whirlwind. Regardless, here I am with a way overdue recap of my last three months in Armenia.  

Layers from back to front, Aragats(Armenia’s tallest mountain), the hills surrounding the Hrazdan River, and the skyline of Charentsavan.

Starting with the end of August, I made a trip to Charentsavan, a town just outside of Yerevan. The picture above is the view from the 2nd evening I spent there. I want to start here for this recap, because I think that weekend served as a good example for what the next few months would bring. Charentsavan is far enough away from me, that it’s tiring to travel there. Five and a half hours at a minimum from Amasia to Charentsavan. While there, a group of us, Americans and Armenias, went on a pretty spectacular hike where we visited Bjni Fortress(բերդ – berd), and ate lunch next to the river in an orchard. A surreal location tucked away in a gorge, and made better only by the taste of homemade zhingyalov hats(its life changing, Google it). A day and a half in the area and then I went back to site. And this has been the pace of the past three months. Just go, go, go, in between work. While it’d be way too long of a post to highlight everything(I’ll spare you the less savory happenings as well), I’ll at least share the big stuff. Pictures of Bjni Berd and the surrounding valley below.  

Looking out from Bjni Fortress, the harsh
light cast some wonderful shadows on this cliff face. Find cow for scale.
The Hrazdan River and part of the village of Bjni in morning light.
Part of Bjni village tucked away in a valley and unknown mountains.
Inside Bjni Berd. Similar to most archeological sites in Armenia, there’s no gate, no entrance fee, and no guards.  

September was busy for me. I applied and accepted a position to become one of this years Project Managers for an ongoing project that was created and is still run by Peace Corps Armenia volunteers, called Border to Border. It’s a project that I’m passionate about, as it uses hiking as a medium to introduce Armenians to backpacking and the outdoors, and bring non-formal education to underserved areas. It’s been rewarding and also keeping me busier than I thought it would. By the second week of September, I moved into my own apartment here in Amasia. It’s a step I think I needed to take to feel like I could call this village home, and during the summers, the sunsets are unreal. 

The view from my balcony. Available next spring, as I’ve already plastic-ed off my door and windows leading outside. Conserving heat is a necessity here. 

Shortly after getting my apartment, I drug a few PCVs on a hike to summit Aragats. We failed, by a long shot. The approach we took led through a number of unmarked boulder fields, slowing our pace to a crawl. We encountered rain, lightning, hail, snow, and freezing temperatures at night. The real tragedy for me, is that my memory card had broken on the way down to my hike. Three days in the mountains and not a single picture. I’ll be better prepared when we go back to summit, but you can imagine the heartache. I was able to explore my village and the surrounding area a little bit more during September too. One of the best English speakers in Amasia took me for a hike. We explored caves in the sides of the gorge that held the bones of rodents, birds, and what looked like a small mammal(fox or dog, maybe), and owl pellets. I was also shown the wall of the fortress in Amasia that the current village sits on; this, from across the gorge standing on another 3rd century fortress, Bandivan. The end of September brought around an all PCV training which was as hard as it was fun. October was ushered in with maybe the biggest adventure I’ve had here in Armenia.


The Gegham range is about 30 miles wide and 44 miles long. It’s a range of old cinder cones that separates Yerevan from Lake Sevan. It is a barren volcanic landscape, scaped roughly and often by the wind. It holds some strange and beautiful views, and some of the tallest mountains in the country. Myself and four others crossed the range in the beginning of October. It was cold and windy, and the air was thin throughout the trek, even more scarce during our ascents which something I wasn’t accustomed to. We started from the Sevan side of the range in Gavar(refer to cover photo), and taxied to the outskirts of a nearby village. We followed poorly updated maps into the hills, following a combination of tire tracks, aqueducts, easy contours, and the occasional trail. 

First rest stop with Lake Sevan in the background.

Our goal was to make it to the base of Spitakasar, the 5th highest mountain in Armenia, on the first day and then summit in the morning. We ended up marching much further into the range, camping near a small lake right under 10,000 feet and the mountain. 

For a while, we followed an aqueduct up to the base of the mountain. Then we followed a creek, and then it was shepard roads. 
Spitakasar, or White Mountain, from camp the first night.

After setting up camp, we summited Spitakasar, 11,680ft, that night right at sunset, giving us our first view of the range in the dramatic light. 

From the final push before the summit of Spitakasar. The wind was stealing the air out of my mouth, and it was bone-chilling cold. Two cinder cones in the distance, and my friend down below.

The following day wasn’t so grueling. We went past the front range and hiked the width of the dormant giants. From camp, we approached Azhdahak, our second goal and Armenia’s 3rd tallest mountain by mid-day. With 3ish hours of light left in the day, we were able to not only reach the summit of Azhdahak at 11,805ft, but we were able to achieve most of the descent that second day. Camp was much more comfortable that night as we were on the warmer side of the range, and much lower than the night before. On the third day, we made it out of the mountains and to the village of Geghard, going our separate ways home from there. 

Tiny people for scale with the Gegham in the background. On the descent to camp during sunset for the second night.

I’m going to sum up November in a few sentences. It flew by for me and there wasn’t a lot I did. I tried cow’s head and tongue as well as celebrated Thanksgiving, twice. I did a lot of work with Border to Border, and I got deathly ill for about a week. As for the rest of October and the first week of November, Brooke came to visit me. The highlight of my service, without the service. We had planned for an epic trip to Georgia(the country), with wine tasting in European style mountaintop villages, hiking in the Greater Caucasus and Kazbegi National Park(Google that too), and exploring the eclectic city of Tbilisi. Unfortunately, for reasons out of our control, we had to change plans last minute. Brooke still came to Armenia, and we explored this tiny country as quick and entirely as we could. Yerevan to Echmiadzin, Echmiadzin to Khor Virap, Khor Virap to Noravank, Noravank to Areni, Areni to Yerevan, Yerevan to Gyumri, Gyumri to Amasia, Amasia to Ayntap, and finally back to Yerevan. She met nearly as many people as I know in this country and travelled 2/3 of the length in about 4 days. 

Noravank Monastery
The mountains in the Areni gorge, across the way from the picturesque monastery above.

After all of that, we hopped on a plane with tickets we had bought not a week and a half earlier to sunny Dubai. As I’m still sifting through photos from the UAE, and I want to do the Emirates justice, I’ll have another blog post up this month. With a little conviction and down days around the holidays, it’ll read less like a flip book and more like a photojournalistic look into the unique, booming United Arab Emirates. 

Send Mac n’ Cheese

The sun has baked the hills around Amasia are gold, the wind carries a foreign chill, and the swallows have fully fledged out from my window sill and now sit on the adjacent wires, looking back at their origins and at me. Summer is drawn out here in Armenia, at least compared to what I’m used to back in Alaska, but it’s slowly coming to a close. Recognizing that passing is something special in itself, as there are only a few places I’ve stayed long enough to see change like this.

The passing of August and the beginning of September has marked month two and three at site. July and August proved to be much easier than the first month in most ways, and I expect as time progresses I’ll face more challenges, but less of the same. Speaking on the ways in which life has gotten easier, I’ve been able to connect with my host family more, and I’m getting to know more of the people in my community, and I’m actually making headway with my Armenian(maybe, probably not). I’ve also spent a significant amount of time away from site, traveling both for work and to suppress an itch. Still, month two and three have been hard in some unexpected ways. There’s a fresh revival of the craving for the comforts of America, something that hasn’t surfaced since PST. I’ve hunted down KFC and Burger King here in Armenia. You’ve never known someone to rave about a Whopper with cheese like I have lately. I started making sad versions of sandwiches, with tomato, hot mustard, and Armenian cheese. I also take every chance I get at drinking craft beer. I have even spent a little extra of my modest living allowance for a rare commodity here in Amasia, a Miller Lite(talk about things you’d never do back in the states). I look forward to speaking English probably more than I should, especially now that, thanks to their seemingly endless patience, I’m able to have fairly complex conversations with my host mom and sister. These attempts to find comfort represent small ground regained in the ongoing battle of homesickness. Ephemeral moments, giving satisfaction for only as long as I’m in them.

What Armenia really lacks are the people I call closest. My closest friends, supportive family, and loving fiance are almost as far away as you get. Still, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, as we all make plans to close that gap, if only for a few days. I’ve also been missing the opportunity to get out like I’m used to. The days I’ve spent camping under the stars is a single digit since I’ve left Alaska. Mountains hiked and miles walked is frivolous compared to what I usually do in a normal summer. But again, there’s light, as I slowly mold into someone who is at least able to simulate integration.

As I said in my last post, I wanted to make this one more focused on a specific topic. So I want to talk about what I’m doing not for work or for cultural integration, but for myself to stay grounded. Specific moments I’ve captured, for me.

Near the end of July, I went with my counterpart on a road trip with a group of youth from around the area. As a reward to them for all of their hard work and participation in my organizations clubs, we took them across the country to view some of the most beautiful churches Armenia has to offer. While these trips are wonderful for me, they can be exhausting. I was, with very loose guidelines, tasked to photograph our outing. After already being on the road for more than 7 hours, and taking at least a hundred photographs at each of our destinations, I decided to step away from the group and see what there was to see in the latent corners of the church grounds. What a refreshment for me, finding the right light.


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This photo, I had a hell of a time editing and I’m still not happy with it. I love it regardless. I felt like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft when I was taking it. Like the floor was going to open up to a pit of spikes, or I was going to have to speak with the Knights Templar. There’s a decent amount of Armenia that makes a person feel this way. Here, the sun was just right, the kids had lost interest in the mystery of the place, it was remote enough that I didn’t have to battle tourists for the scene. It’s a building that is quiet and dark enough, that bats had taken up residence.


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Outside of the building I was just as alone. Most everyone had taken to the shade on this particularly hot day. It was around three in the afternoon, and the sun was burning, as it does. The outside of the church had a few photos it was hiding from those that kept to the shade and the cool rooms of a stone-walled building. On one wall, the sun was nearly directly above it. Cracks and outcroppings of moss were the only refuges at this time of day. Luckily for me, that meant a few critters were soaking it all in just a few meters above me. Here is a lizard that was doing just that.


Another place I’ve found solace, is right outside my back door. The family I’ve been staying with in Amasia, my family, lives a little bit outside of town. The main road heads north up to Lake Arpi National Park and past our house. There’s an open field right across from us that is used as a place for grazing cows, sheep, geese, and the (surprisingly loud) frogs. Outside the back door of our house is the family farm, owned by my oldest host brother. Just beyond that are the green hills of Shirak I’ve talked about before, the ones that are now brown. Looking on and walking amongst these hills has been an a relieving routine.


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While I sometimes question if Amasia has been the right placement for my service, something I imagine most volunteers do, I do think that the clouds up here were made just for me. Amasia is nestled next to the Akhuryan river, 6, 233 feet above sea level, with hills sloping up to the north, and down to the south. Clouds tend to congeal up north where the wind pushes down to me, piling on top of each other during their journey south. This is a particularly beautiful spectacle as the sun is setting. Backlit is beautiful.


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Looking in the other direction, when the clouds come through a little bit further to the east, the view is breathtaking for a different reason. Instead of the beauty being in the light, the beauty here is in what the light gives definition to. Cotton candy clouds have been a joy to photograph.


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This photo, and this morning is dear to me, and I’m glad I was able to take away a few frames that morning. Amasia is beautiful, and it’s been a wonderful place for me to find comfort when I really needed it. This morning, I planned to get up for the sunrise. For most of summer I was up for the sunrise anyway. The sun would peak over the mountains to the east, and into my window. As I mentioned above, the swallows weren’t quiet enough to let me sleep either. But this morning I decided to beat morning’s first light and the hungry chicks outside my window. I started hiking at about 4:45 in the morning, arguing with myself if sleep would be time better spent considering the sparse cloud cover. Blue hour is a something I’ve never heard mentioned by anyone other than photographers, but it really is a special time to experience. For those of you that don’t know, blue hour is the time between when the sun rises and it becomes light, and between when the sun sets and it becomes dark. It’s coveted by photographers and has pulled me out of bed at terrible hours of the morning time and time again. The picture above wasn’t taken during blue hour. That time had already come and gone, but that’s exactly why I like the picture so much. I had some time to myself in my element, on the side of a mountain with my camera in my hand; and beyond that, this picture represents growth for me. I wasn’t shooting with the best light for this subject, but I was still able to capture what I envisioned. I was in my element, and I found room to grow.

It’s moments like that, purposeful moments of reconnecting with how I know myself, that has helped me when I feel a craving coming on, or when I need to a pause from life here to re-energize. There’s no burning questions or culture misunderstands in these moments, no self-doubt, or embarrassment. I’m all too aware of how lucky I am to have these methods for self-care, and that it takes place in such beautiful moments; usually photographable moments. I expect I’ll always make it back to the mountains, lakes, valleys and other far off places; and even more so behind a lens. I can only hope that they both continue to take me to such beautiful places.

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.

 

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.