One Year in Hayastan

Snowy season has turned to thunderstorm season. On my walks to Vorotnavank, I walk carefully for fear of slipping in mud and not snow. Most days are around 60 degrees, but each passing week has gotten hotter. There’s still snow on the mountains guarding my village and they will stay capped until at least July. The last vararans and plitas have been packed away. Sheep, cattle and their owners wander the landscape searching for new grass. Life has been changing over the last few months for all of us living here.

And now, in so many ways, it will repeat itself. This June marks a full year of my service as a Peace Corps volunteer. This time, last year, I had completed my training and was officially sworn in. The very next day I landed on my new host family’s doorstep with about three months of Armenian language lessons and not much else. It’s so strange to think that was all that long ago. It’s hard to say it’s gone by quickly, though. Some days feel as though they stretch on forever.

Looking back at my life in Hayastan, I wonder if I am any different. I know my Armenian is better even though it’s still far from fluent (the other day when someone asked if I had any coins I told them I don’t have any monkeys). I can hold the attention of a 3rd grade class (mostly due to thumb wrestling). I am a way less picky eater (soup made of cow hoof is what did me in). I can function in weather that is well below 0°F (I still prefer +110°F over this).

I think I’ve changed in more important and subtle ways though. Patience has been something that’s been tested and stretched so much here. Cab drivers will try to rip me off, kids won’t show up to my clubs after promising to come, projects fall through at the last minute, the list goes on and on. While these things will still bug me, they certainly won’t ruin my day like they used to. Instead of being disappointed, I try to focus on ways I can make improvements so these things don’t happen again (I’m still not sure how to get cabbies to quit charging me 2000 dram to go a few blocks in Yerevan).

This goes hand in hand with persistence. I could simply show up to school for the required minimum of 15 hours every week and spend the rest of my time locked away from the outside world. I would still be on track to completing my service but I would have the lamest service ever. Instead my fellow PCVs and I will ourselves out of bed and face the inevitable challenges of the day. One example has involved inviting my students to English club, after they’ve pelted me with snowball/ice hybrids the day before. We were told that this is “the toughest job you’ll ever love” but that doesn’t sink in until you’re mired in cultural and language barriers.

I still have plenty of improvements I want to make to myself and my community before I leave but so far I’ve been relatively successful. I’ve made an “English Corner” in my school’s computer room which has over 100 donated books now. I worked with Armenian School Foundation to get new desks, chairs and blackboards for each classroom (I think the old ones came in around the same time Brezhnev was in charge). I started a few English clubs and a sports club (it’s basically a frisbee throwing clinic). As nice as all this is, there’s still a great deal of work if I really want to improve my school and my students’ English.

I, too, hope that I’ve given the people in my village a positive impression of me. I remember being especially wary of my older male students who seemed more like experienced ranchers than average kids. If they weren’t herding cattle and sheep they were drinking and smoking. Initially, I thought they didn’t care about their futures or school at all. Eventually, I got over myself and when I got to know them I found out that most of them had plans for success (they just didn’t involve my English classes or clubs). Now, a year later, they certainly seem more like goofy high school kids trying to figure themselves out. They also just also happen to be good at shooting, smoking and horseback riding.

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My school’s class of 2017 consisted of three boys (pictured above with some 1st grade students)

The best part of my service, however, are my smaller students. They’re all so enthused about anything and everything, especially games that break from the monotony that is school. Granted they still have to learn English whether or not I’m around, but at least I can provide a silly presence in the classroom that also brings context to the language they’re learning. These days most of my students will visibly shake from excitement if I just mention the idea of playing Hangman or Simon Says! Every time I have English club, I end up staying for at least an extra thirty minutes after the kids beg me to play more Uno. The greater aspect that touches me here is that they genuinely enjoy learning.

I know plenty of them might become apathetic about their education as they grow older. I am certain that many of them will forget almost all of the English they’ve learned by the time they are my age. However, I am also sure that many of them will go on to be good people who might be more curious about the world outside of Armenia. I guess in the end that’s been the whole point of my service here.

I hope I can survive another sub zero winter. I hope I can live another year far from friends and family back home. I hope I can become a better teacher and more understanding person. I hope I leave a positive impression of Americans (one where they don’t only think of spies or rappers). I hope my students understand the beauty and freedom education can give.

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Running to Spring

I purposefully set my weather app on my phone to read Vaghatin’s weather in Celsius. This not because I want to further integrate by becoming used to the same units of measurement. I simply do not want to be able to understand just how cold it is outside. While seeing -10 degrees Celsius is certainly frightening to someone from the Sonoran Desert, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that that it is warmer than the same reading in Fahrenheit. I am a firm believer in the unyielding power of ignorance.

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What a nice day for a stroll :)))))))))

Since I last wrote, it has only gotten colder here. Cold enough to keep shepherds in, cold enough to keep khanuts (general stores) closed, and cold enough to stop my male students from sneaking into the abandoned kindergarten to smoke. Wifi comes and goes as randomly as the wind. This is especially rough since I still don’t know how Count Olaf killed Dr. Montgomery. In the meantime, I figure it is best to keep busy in any way I can. This has mostly included reading and watching the hit Indian soap opera sweeping Armenia, Uttaran. I can go into detail telling you why I think Vir should marry neither of the women who seek his hand but something tells me most of the people reading this won’t care.

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Mfw the marshutni is late and it’s freezing out

The good news is that Spring is just around the corner… supposedly. What a calendar says doesn’t do much in terms of dictating the weather in these mountains. The other day, while I waited on the side of the road for the marshutni to take me to Sisian it was about -5 degrees (this time Fahrenheit, I made the mistake of checking). I could see heat radiating from the inside of the small van when I opened its door. I never knew this before winter but apparently there is such a thing as it being too cold for snow to precipitate. While it makes for terrible journeys outside, at least we don’t have to deal with feet upon feet of snow.

Before leaving for Armenia, I read many blogs written by PCVs serving here and in countries around the world. I’ve learned that some RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps volunteers, volunteers who have finished their service) who served elsewhere consider Armenia to be a “Posh Corps” posting. They see that we have somewhat regular access to internet, reliable electricity and many of us have regular and clean water, thus making the assumption that our service is a walk in the park and should not be held with the same esteem as service in other countries. I refute this notion with, among all the other challenges we are given, the long harsh winter we face each year. The lack of insulation gives us no respite from constant shivering, leaving us in at least three layers for the entirety of the day. I have friends who must wait for their pipes to thaw in spring in order to have running water. Roads are impassable for long stretches of time, isolating PCVs from the outside world. Class days are cut short during the winter so children won’t fall ill from spending too much time in drafty schools. Winter itself is insurmountable, it is impossible to escape.

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While Christmas (Sorp Tsnunde) is observed here, it doesn’t have nearly the sheer emphasis that we Americans save for it. Christmas commercials are still prevalent on Armenian TV, however. Also Dzmir Papik (literally “winter grandfather”) or Santa Claus brings toys to little girls and boys too. The only difference is that he is always summoned by children chanting his name. When he appears, he inevitably brings Mrs. Claus and is armed with a very sparkly scepter.

 

On Christmas Eve, the day after all classes were finished, my school hosted something of a Christmas pageant.  While some aspects of life here aren’t highly planned, the Christmas show certainly was. Vaghatin Secondary School’s own biology teacher headed this variety show that included most of my students. There were multiple songs, dance routines, sketches, speeches, poems and even some stand up comedy! I was lucky enough to take part in the production by playing Jingle Bells on the guitar while my 5th form students sang both the Armenian and English versions. During the multiple intermissions between acts, dance music was played through the PA system signaling all attendees to leave their plates and dance in the aisles. Eventually, I was coerced into cutting the rug by my school’s headmaster. In all the whole show lasted close to five hours and included plenty of food for everyone in attendance. The night was finished with some of the biggest roman candles I have ever seen being set off over our village. While I was surely feeling homesick during the holiday season, that whole night helped abate it for a while.

About a week later I finally got to experience the famous Armenian Nor Tari (New Year) festivities that I had heard so much about. I’m not sure where to even begin with such an important tradition. Rather than taking place over the course of one evening, Armenians spread this celebration out over the course of a period of days, if not weeks! All business comes to a complete halt. When I say halt I mean that everything is at an absolute stand still. Grocery stores are closed, gas stations are empty, marshutnis stop running, etc.  In observation of the New Year, Armenians visit each other’s homes, dining and drinking with one another.

Since I still live with my host family, I was lucky enough to tag along to all of these different parties. In one day alone I visited at least five houses, all of whom lovingly smothered me with homemade food and vodka.  I had been told that Nor Tari could be exhausting but I had no idea that it was a test of social and dietary endurance. After a few shots of cognac, it can be difficult to explain in a foreign language why Americans don’t celebrate in the same why or why I’m not married yet.

 

While this experience was completely exhausting, it was clear that this proud Haykakan tradition presented one of the best qualities of the Armenian people. The stern imposition of making sure to spend time with every person in your circle of friends and family illustrated just how importantly the people here take their loved ones. Staying too long in a neighbor’s home was a literal impossibility as a short visit for tea quickly turned into dinner  and eventually  I had spent  as many as six hours in one home! It is clear that everyone in Vaghatin’s love language is “quality time.”  Sons, daughters and grandchildren came home from Yerevan and outside the country just to see their tatiks, catch up with friends from school and meet new additions to the family. There’s a strong appreciation people here have for those they are close to that I hope to one day take with me back to the States.

Since then school has been back in session for a few months (sorry it’s taken me so long to write!). Once Nor Tari was finished (after close to two weeks), people got back to the daily grind. My 26th birthday came and went, which everyone here remembered despite me only telling a handful of people in my village once. I was the subject of many shnorhavors (“congratulations”) and toasts of cognac that we drank between classes at schools. My 9th form students even made me this lovely poster that hangs in my room!

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My students are adamant that winter ends on exactly March 1st and although objective science doesn’t agree with them, the weather is visibly turning around. The air is far less unbearably cold than it was a month ago, I don’t wear my gloves and wool hat for the entirety of the day and wood burning stoves aren’t perpetually in use. It may still be a while before I can even look at my flip flops and shorts but there is a certain comfort in knowing that I survived the infamous Armenian winter.

In the meantime, all PCVs serving here are getting ready for a wide array of projects for this spring and summer. Right now, I am helping girls from my seventh and ninth forms study for the National Poetry Recitation Contest, in which they memorize and recite English poems they selected. If they do well enough in the Sisian contest this month, they’ll go on to compete against students from all over Armenia in Yerevan!

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The nearby village of Darbas had a poetry contest of its own.It even had a panel of the most literary minded judges this side of the Vorotan!

Also my some of my friends are putting together this great summer camp called TOBE (Teaching Our Boys Excellence). This camp provides young Armenian men, from around the country, the opportunity to develop leadership skills, the knowledge to lead healthy, responsible lives and the tools needed to bring all this information back to their communities. TOBE has been planned and executed by a coalition of PCVs and Armenians for a few years now, with the hope of one day having it managed entirely by Armenians

Lastly, I’m involved on this year’s Border to Border committee in that I am helping plan its curriculum. B2B (Border to Border), itself, is a yearly program where PCVs and Armenians teach children about leading healthy lives. The big draw of this is that all of the instructors backpack through the country, stopping to teach in villages and cities along the way. By reaching each classroom on foot we try to illustrate the positive power of following healthy habits! Our walkers will be split into three groups with each one going on a different route, one in the northwest, one in the northeast, one in the south. While the routes themselves have yet to be fully planned they will all end on the same day in Yeghegnadzor. We should be on the road for around 20 days this June. You’ll definitely be reading more about B2B as summer approaches!

If you want to know more about these projects, here are links with more information about them!

National Poetry Recitation Contest

TOBE (Teaching Our Boys Excellence)

Border to Border

Everything came to such a standstill as a result of the snow. I felt trapped in my village with not much to do. To many of us it felt like an eternity looking forward to the next season and the freedom it would bring. Soon I can actually spend my free time away from the close proximity of my space heater. I’ll be able to continue my search for a trail to the Vorotan river. I’ll be able to show my kids how to throw a frisbee without it ending up in a neighbor’s eggplant field. I’ll finally be freed from the endless games of Uno. I’ll be able to get started on all the clubs I have planned.  I’ll be able to start on my second year of living in Armenia!

 

The Things Sammers Carried

Originally, I wanted to write a post about what I was packing before I left for Armenia. Once everything was finally stowed away I realized I still wasn’t sure what I would be glad to have, what I wouldn’t need and what I wished I had brought. Therefore, I put off writing this until nearly a year in and during the dead of winter when I had a stronger sense of what is and is not important to bring.

Honestly, this post was written mainly to help future Peace Corps volunteers traveling to Armenia or other parts of Eastern Europe. If you aren’t planning to move here then this might be boring to you.

 

All the items below are sorted into categories. After each category, I discuss my reasoning behind some of the items and what I would change from the list.

Luggage:

2 Large Rolling Luggage Pieces (Swiss Army)

1 Backpacking Pack, 65L (MHM)

1 Normal Sized Backpack

1 Duffel Bag

1 Crossbody Satchel

The Peace Corps allows for all Trainees (people who have not yet gone through PST and haven’t been sworn in as Volunteers) to bring two pieces of checked luggage whose total weight does not exceed 100 lbs. You may also bring a carry-on item (overhead luggage) and a personal item (like a purse or backpack). If you notice, I brought three large pieces of luggage (a backpacking pack and two normal suitcases). Originally, I wanted to only bring one of the rolling suitcases and the other checked item was going to be my backpacking pack. However, the day before I left, I got nervous about if I’d be able to check my backpacking pack due to all the hanging straps on it so I packed it (along with the duffel bag and satchel) into another large rolling suitcase. While this ended up being convenient for traveling internationally, I now have three big pieces of luggage that I have no idea what to do with once I finish my service! I wish I had simply saran-wrapped my backpacking pack or put it in a very large duffel bag to keep all the hanging pieces contained.

My backpacking pack is versatile because it acts as a very mobile piece of large luggage. Specifically, it’s a 65L bag from a small Colorado based company called MHM. Originally, I bought it thinking that I would only use it for backpacking this summer, but so far I’ve used it whenever I leave site for overnight trips. I got mine at a discount from mhmgear.com just for being a Peace Corps Volunteer! Many companies will give discounts to PCVs (Peace Corps volunteers) if you email them or reach out over Facebook. Here is a list of some places that offer discounts.

My smaller, normal sized backpack is a Swiss Army product that I have been using since I was a freshman at U of A. I used it all through college and afterward when I lived in Florida and New York. While it looks pretty beat up now, it still does the job. A solid backpack is definitely something worth using extra cash on just to make sure you have something durable.

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Old Reliable

I use my duffel bag occasionally but not as much as my either of my backpacks. I guess it’s good for longer trips.

My satchel is something that has already been super useful for me since I moved to NYC. While plenty of guys back home and in Armenia have jokingly asked if it is a purse, its utility use is great. In Armenia, just like in the U.S., kids bring backpacks to school and teachers usually don’t. This satchel (from Target) is durable and isn’t overly cumbersome to carry or pack (like a briefcase would be). I don’t need to worry about looking like a student and I still have something that’s both convenient and sturdy.

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I only wear Mossimo

Shirts:

2 Tank Tops

4 Flannel Shirts

9 Button-down Dress shirts

5 T-shirts

3 Long-sleeved T-shirts

2 Short-sleeved Polos

I wear my regular T-shirts when I hike, do touristy things, or lounge around. I wish I brought maybe a few more but I’m doing good enough with the ones I have. However, I have never worn any of my tank tops and I wish I hadn’t brought them. I doubt I will ever wear either of them here. On the flip side, I’ve worn my long-sleeved t-shirts everyday since it started getting cold, I should have brought more.

I wear flannels, button-downs and polos when I am teaching at my school. People in this country pay a fair amount of attention to appearance and clothing. As someone from outside the village trying to integrate, it’s important not to look as granola as most Americans imagine PCVs to be. This means non-collared shirts aren’t really appropriate for any professional environment here.

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A good shirt can only help an ugly face so much

In winter, however, it is extremely cold and most buildings aren’t insulated, so layers upon layers are worn in the classroom. Due to this, I can get away with wearing t-shirts since no one will see it under my many layers. So far this has been the only benefit of the frigid winter.

Pants/Shorts:

2 Pairs of Khaki Slacks

2 Pairs of Black Slacks

3 Pairs of Jeans

4 Pairs of Shorts

I wear slacks at school and at any official Peace Corps business when I’m told to dress appropriately. Two of my four slacks I brought with me are made by a company called Bluffworks. While they’re a bit pricey it’s hard to get them dirty and super easy to clean them. Plus they also give discounts to Peace Corps volunteers!

I’ve probably worn jeans the most through my service so far. While I could get away with wearing them to class (like some of the male teachers sometimes do), I’m not going to risk it. Three pairs of jeans are fine for me so far but I’d probably be better off with another pair.

I wear shorts during the summer only when I know I’ll be outside for awhile, visiting Yerevan or staying home. Shorts simply aren’t an article of clothing you’ll see often in Armenia, aside from people playing soccer.

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My response when someone asks, “Who thinks cargo shorts aren’t cool?”

 

Outerwear:

1 Hoodie

1 Denim Jacket

1 Large Down Jacket

1 Light Rain Slicker

1 Scarf

2 Wool Caps

2 Baseball Hats

1 Pair of Gloves

2 Blazers

I have used all of the above items except the slicker and one of my blazers. I figure I’ll probably use the slicker when spring showers come starting next month. The extra blazer was completely unnecessary. The only time I needed to wear a suit was when we were sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers last summer. I don’t know why I thought I would need two different suits. I doubt I will wear anything this formal during the remainder of my service.

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The last time I got to wear a bolo tie :”'(

 

I bought a leather jacket here not out of necessity, but to look more like an “ahkbear” (the Armenian equivalent of “bro”). I wear it nearly every day now and I plan on being buried in it.

 

Outdoorsy/Utility Stuff:

1 Marmot Sleeping Bag

1 Multi-Tool

1 Compass

1 Water Purifier

1 Naglene Water Bottle

1 Roll of Duct Tape

1 Headlamp

I got the sleeping bag (with a subzero temperature rating) at a discount from Marmot in the same way I got a discount for my backpacking pack. I’ve used it when I’ve slept at other PCVs houses and in my own bed as an extra blanket. As I mentioned before, most buildings here aren’t insulated. Sleeping is a chilly affair during winter but since I have such a warm sleeping bag, I usually get a full night’s sleep. Also, I plan on using this when I backpack this summer.

My multi-tool has been great for everything from changing guitar strings to fixing wobbly desks at school. I didn’t get a super high-end one and it works fine, but I wouldn’t recommend going too cheap on one either. My compass and purifier haven’t been used since I got here but I figure they’ll be helpful this summer.

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I use my water bottle all the time. It’s gotten pretty beaten up, but it’s as durable as one expects nalgene bottles to be. I wish I hadn’t bought one that has a small mouth since it’s pretty hard to reach a cloth or brush into it for cleaning. I hear there are tablets that take care of this issue but I would just get one you can wash easily.

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Heck

Duct tape is useful everywhere. So are flashlights. What a surprise, they’re handy here too.

 

Footwear:

Hiking boots

Cowboy boots

Dressy-looking boots

Average Vans with laces

Flip flops

Black Dress Shoes

I use my hiking boots all the time. I recommend breaking them in before leaving the States. Waterproof ones make for easier days when you need to face rain, snow, or a surprisingly deep stream.

I’ve worn my cowboy boots a few times during PST. I brought them mostly because they have sentimental value. I might wear them to class for the sake of cultural exchange but that’s a big maybe. I’m not sure it was worth the weight to bring them.

My brown boots that look somewhat dressy are what I wear when I go to school on non-snowy days. As I said earlier, Armenians pay close attention to appearance and I can’t get away with wearing anything short of these shoes to school. Right now these boots are a bit dusty and beaten up, so I might need to think about shining them before the snow melts next month.

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I mostly wore my vans this summer and now they’re pretty worn out. They’ve been nice for easier trails, soccer and walking around Yerevan. These are too casual to wear in the classroom.

I wear my flip flops around the house and if I venture into my host family’s yard. Sandals aren’t worn much outside of very casual settings. I could probably do without them but they’re convenient in the summer. Plus they’re the same pair of Rainbows I wore for most of my illustrious lifeguard career. Right now they’re gathering dust in my closet.

Black dress shoes are what most Armenian men wear on a regular basis. You’ll have no trouble finding a pair in any Armenian city, unless you wear anything above a size 12.

I did not pack any snow boots. I figured since I was getting to Armenia just as the snow was melting, I would have plenty of time to get snow boots either in country or via post. Fortunately, my parents sent me a durable pair of Columbia boots that I have been wearing almost every day this winter (both in and out of the classroom). I’ve only slipped a few times with them on and that’s probably due more to my coordination than the terrain or boots.

 

Socks/Underwear:

6 Pairs of Wool Socks

3 Pairs of Long Thermal Underwear

3 Thermal Undershirts

Lots of normal underwear and socks

You can never have enough of the above things. Warm socks, undies and undershirts are a must have in this part of the word. While summers can be somewhat hot (the highest temp is around 90 degrees Fahrenheit in my village), the winters can be brutally cold. The trick to surviving is layering. I’ve found I am usually in four or five layers of clothing and it all starts with my thermals and wool socks.

 

Electronics:

1 Huawei Honor 5X (Smart Phone)

1 iPod Touch

1 Kindle E-Reader

1 Laptop

1 Kindle Fire Tablet

2 Pairs of Earbuds

2 European Power Converters

1 Portable Battery Charger

1 External Hard Drive

Before I came here, Peace Corps Staff recommended we bring a decent smart phone that will take any type of SIM card. I settled on this phone because it was cheap, highly rated and I could still run Instagram, Snapchat, Fantasy Football, etc. on it. If you don’t bring a phone or don’t get one here, PC staff provides PCVs with a brick phone you might remember from a decade ago. While these phones can’t do as much they’re definitely more durable and they won’t draw the attention of kids who want to play games on it. Sorry, Gagik, I don’t want you changing my fantasy lineup in your quest to find Angry Birds on my phone!

I use my super old iPod Touch exclusively for music and podcasts. It helps on long marshutni rides and hikes. In the event my smart phone dies, I can still run those apps on it without missing a beat.

I use my e-reader during family soap opera time. This occurs just after dinner when my host brother, father and mother watch TV with rapt attention. While I tried to get as immersed in the lives of Vir, Ichacha and Tapasya (characters from a popular Indian soap that’s somehow really popuar here), I just couldn’t do it. Rather than hiding in my room and binging on Netflix, I figure it’s better to spend this time with the family. It’s nice that I now have a designated time where I can only read and I won’t be tempted to waste time on the internet. Anyway, e-readers are a must-have for any PCV here.

I use my laptop for most of my work and leisure. If you are a PCV coming here, you will need one regardless of what PC staff says.

My Kindle Fire was a gift I received just before I left. I mostly use it for Netflix and occasionally for blog writing. Lately I’ve been using my Fire for an app called Songsterr. It saves chord charts and allows me to scroll through them automatically, which makes guitar playing easier in the classroom. Instead of squinting at my phone’s small screen trying to read the tiny charts, I can bring in this tablet and have the same songs displayed in a bigger font. I’ll be busting it out to play “Oh Sussana” for my fifth graders next week.

Earbuds break as often in Armenia as they do back home. Luckily, you can buy new ones in any city here.

It took me more research than I expected to figure out that Armenia uses standard European outlets. One of my converters broke, so now I only have one between my phone and laptop. Again, you can buy converters in many cities here.

My portable battery charger is something I haven’t gotten the chance to use yet but in the event of a long power outage, I’m sure it’ll be useful. I plan on bringing it with me when I go backpacking this summer.

I have used my external hard drive regularly since I got here. PCVs share music and movies through these glorious things. In regions where internet service is intermittent, these drives can save you from being bored out of your mind while snowed in. However, with internet service gradually becoming more reliable and Netflix now legally available here, I think future PCVs will use external hard drives less. Another positive aspect about having one of these is the fact you can back up all of your important documents in the event your computer is damaged, stolen or lost.

 

Guitar Items:

2 Harmonicas

1 Harmonica Holder

3 Packs of Guitar Strings

2 Bags of Picks

1 Capo

1 Guitar Strap

I played guitar on a regular basis back in Arizona and I knew it was something I would miss when I moved out here. I did a lot of research on travel guitars, how best to travel with guitars and where to buy guitars in Yerevan. When I left, I decided I would buy a guitar once I got here rather than go through the hassle of bringing one with me. Other PCVs I know actually didn’t face much hassle when they brought their own instruments from home. Luckily, towards the end of PST one of my Armenian teachers lent me a solid guitar for my time here and I have been using it since. While I was very fortunate in this instance, I would recommend just bringing a travel guitar in a good case. I always miss playing electric guitar, but I knew with all the equipment and wattage required that it would be impossible.

While the notion of a PCV with a guitar is very cliché, it has been super useful since I got to my village. In class, I use music as a way to get kids to memorize vocabulary. It’s also great for destressing and I’ve shown a few kids how to (sort of) play. I am sure my service would be so much harder for me without it. Also, while playing harmonica and guitar at the same time seems gimmicky, the kids love it and it has only helped with integration.

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Toiletries:

2 Boxes of Contact Lenses

2 Bottles of Salene Solution (for contacts)

2 Tooth Brushes

2 Big Tubes of Tooth Paste

1 Quick Dry Towel

5 Rolls of Floss

1 Electric Razor with Charger

I wore contacts often back home and I kept that habit during PST. However, now that I’m at site it’s so much easier to roll out of bed and just put on my glasses. You never need contacts during service. I’ll still probably wear mine occasionally but that’ll most likely end up being once every few months.

You can find toothbrushes and toothpaste anywhere in Armenia. This is something you don’t need to worry about at all. Floss, however, has been a bit harder to find. If you‘re tenacious, though, you can track some down in Yerevan and probably in most cities.

My quick dry towel has been great this winter. I never have to worry about it freezing or taking forever to dry.

It’s no hassle trying to find shaving equipment here. Most Armenian men are clean shaven but it’s not too uncommon to see someone with a beard or mustache here. If you have a beard, just make sure it’s maintained and not scruffy, otherwise you’ll get some looks.

 

Miscellaneous:

2 Belts (Brown and Black)

2 Pairs of Prescription Glasses

2 Digital Watches

4 Ties

2 Bolo Ties

1 Pair of Sunglasses

1 Tape Measurer

4 Sticker Books

4 Packs of Index Cards

1 Deck of Playing Cards

1 Deck of Uno Cards

2 Decks of American Playing Cards

4 Arizona Key Chains

4 Arizona Refrigerator Magnets

I have broken both of these leather belts since I got here. It’s probably due to the weight loss many PCVs experience and how I’ve had to cinch up my belts pretty tight. It’s easy to find new ones here since all pairs of pants generally require the same supplementary equipment.

The Peace Corps requires all PCVs who need them to bring two pairs of prescription glasses when they start service. I’ve only had to use one pair, but there’s always the chance that they’ll break in the next two years. In the event that I lose both, the Peace Corps will pay for a new pair.

The digital watch I brought with me finally broke. It was as helpful as a watch normally is. I have a nicer Fossil watch with me but I never wear it since I’m afraid of breaking it.

The sticker books, index cards, playing cards, and Uno cards have all been great in the classroom. Uno is especially a hit here. I can’t imagine my life without Uno. Uno has saved a dead class or club on so many occasions. If I leave my Uno cards in Vaghatin at the end of my service, it might be the most sustainable thing I leave behind. One of these days I might write a post about the miracle invention that is Uno.

The key chains, magnets and other decks of cards were gifts for my host families (the one I had during PST in Artashat and the one I live with now). They were great in that they’re unique in Armenia and they aren’t super big or expensive. My sunglasses and tape measurer have also been as useful as expected.

 

I hope this helps any future Peace Corps volunteers moving to Armenia or Eastern Europe. I encourage you to read other blogs besides my own before finalizing what you need to pack. If there is a way I could sum up this very long post, it would be in the following three points:

  1. Most things you can buy here or live without.
  2. Winter is coming. Bring layers.
  3. Uno will protect you from all things terrible.

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Որոտնավանք

I first found out about Vorotnavank (Որոտնավանք) when I googled my village during our site placement announcement. The sparse Wikipedia page didn’t have much information but it did mention this nearby monastery. Further research into the structure didn’t reveal much else.

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I finally got the opportunity to visit it months later when I moved down here. I climbed to the top of a small hill where the WWII monument overlooks the cemetery and the rest of Vaghatin. From there I saw a path through the brush, likely made by grazing cattle, that ran steeply down the hill. At the end of it was the main stretch of road (the only one with asphalt south of Sisian) and Vorotnavank.

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Vaghatin’s World War II Memorial

Coming down was more precarious than I thought, especially since I was wearing Vans and not hiking boots. Once I made it to the road, the rest of the walk was far easier. Since cattle and sheep use this road more than cars, it’s still in great condition.

 

I finally rounded the hill blocking the monastery from view and was met with a strong breeze. Perched at the top of a gorge, winds never cease. From here I can see the Vorotan River, a small power plant, a fish hatchery and a few residences sprinkled through the gorge. It’s incredibly beautiful to be able to take in such a vast landscape. Each season will doubtless paint this place in such a picturesque way. While autumn is reputed to be the most charming season in Syunik province, I’m excited to see how a blanket of snow will dress this view.

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Vorotan Gorge

I rounded the campus of the monastery before entering. Along the west side is a small cemetery with about 20 khachkars (“cross stones” in Armenian). These intricate pieces of stone masonry are one of the more notable things about Armenian culture and religion. While these thoroughly embellished pieces are mostly arrayed with crosses, they also include images of pomegranates, horses, and men dressed for battle. The khachkars that display dates were placed here in the 1920s and 1930s. Others, however, seem much older judging by the way they are worn down from the constant exposure to the elements. The area which hosts most of the khachkars is overgrown now but still watching over the Vorotan River below.

Eventually, I stepped inside the first of two churches which make up the monastery. Despite the constant howling winds beating against the walls, inside silence was all encompassing. I entered a long dark hall adorned with even more khackars on the northern and southern walls. Light and occasionally magpies came in through the two small entrances. On one end of the hall I found a perfectly circular pit carved into the foundation that was about four feet in diameter. The dirt floor, eight feet below me, was littered with trash and led deeper beneath Vorotnavank. This might have been the secret tunnel used by the residents in the event of a siege. According to some people in my village, it leads to a fortress called Vorotnabred. I decided not to start my spelunking career right then since a large amount of snakes are rumored to live nearby and I might have been unable to climb out once I was inside.

 

As I was leaving the hallway, I could hear the movement in the next room. I was already apprehensive entering this place, it was dark and abandoned after all. Hearing these small noises, I thought someone else was here. Part of me entertained the idea that it was some sort of ancient spirit whose duty was to drive all visitors away. I asked “Barev?” in the most masculine voice I could muster, only to be met with quiet. I crept slowly through the doorway only to be met with a massive but empty chapel. I turned right and found a table with small yellow candles that seemed to have been recently placed there. While many were blown out, some were still crackling. The church was so silent that this small noise traveled throughout the chamber and into the hallway. Votive candles are lit and prayed over in Armenian Apostolic churches all over. This church was not as abandoned as I initially thought.

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This church is better known as the Surb Stepanos Nakhavka Church. It was commissioned to be built in 1000 AD by Queen Shahandukht of the Syunik Kingdom. When it was still operating, members of the congregation believed this place had the power to heal the most venomous snake bites. Rather than attempt to describe it, I’ll just post some pictures. Near the alter, Armenian visitors have left flowers, crucifixes, drawings and even miniature handmade models of Vorotnavank.

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After spending some time in Surb Stepanos I left and walked through the adjacent archway leading to Surb Karapet. This second church was commissioned by Prince Sevada, Shahandukt’s son, about seven years after Surb Stepanos was completed. While it’s walls were once covered with frescos, the only one that remains is this one just above one of the sacristies.

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Surb Karapet was mostly destroyed due to an earthquake that took place in the 1930’s. Thankfully over the course of decades, money and time has been donated to the restoration of the church. Unfortunately, many khackars were heavily damaged and to this day lay broken next to the cemetery.

As I left Surb Karapet through a different doorway, I came across a large pillar with more broken khackars stacked against it. It reminded me of a larger pillar I saw at Tatev earlier this summer (Armenia’s most famous monastery). Upon further research, I found that these pillars signify the fact that Armenian royalty was coronated here.

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I left the monastery, after spending some more time looking down at the Vorotan gorge, climbing back up to Vaghatin’s cemetery and passing some grazing cattle on the way. I still make the small hike to the monastery about every week. It’s so serene inside both churches, it shelters me from the winds outside and offers a calm place to reflect. Occasionally, I run into Armenian (and sometimes foreign) tourists taking in the sites and lighting some candles inside. More often than not, I have Vorotnavank to myself.

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Integration: Selfies, Snapchat & You

Most nights, when I venture outside, I can see my breath condense while I listen to the jackals and dogs howl at one another. I see so many more stars here than I ever did back in Phoenix, thanks to the utter absence of light pollution in my area. I can’t get over how beautiful this place is. While I am far from the modern conveniences of big cities, I get to live in an untouched mountainous landscape. Depending on the time of day, I’ll see flocks of sheep perched on a mountainside grazing across the gorge from my village. I always wonder how one guy gets all those sheep way up there without any help.

 

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RIP Vaghatin Fall 2016, it was a fun three weeks.

It’s finally November. I say finally because it feels like I’ve been waiting for fall forever. We came to our sites at the beginning of summer about a week after the last school year ended. As an English teacher this meant that I was coming to a place where I knew next to no one, with a job that wouldn’t start for about three months. When I asked my superiors what I should do for what felt like an infinite amount of time, they told me to “integrate.”

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Integration Rule 1: Try not to look like a goober

Integration, in the Peace Corps sense, is defined as simply becoming a member of one’s community. This process, however, varies so widely from one place to the next. Some volunteers live in small villages where nearly every family has known one another for generations. Others live in cities where they aren’t the only expat. Some communities have had a long list of volunteers come before the current PCV living there now, while others have their first American living among them. Even the seemingly slight differences between our permanent sites will color each of our experiences in such unique ways. Due to this, each volunteer’s integration story is filled with divergences from the norm.

So I came to this rural village with a vague, single word objective with a million ways to succeed and fail. I dragged my luggage into my room, unpacked what I had and fell onto the bed, wondering what I was supposed to do next. Should I introduce myself to the neighbors? Should I plan an English lesson for students I haven’t met? Should I wander into the mayor’s office and make an appointment to meet with him? Would I need to wear a suit for that? Keep in mind, that on top of not knowing anyone, I am still struggling with communicating in Armenian. This makes the space outside of my bedroom seem daunting.

Eventually, I left my room and house, forcing myself to interact with my community. I walked aimlessly around my small village, at least greeting every person I passed if not trying to have a basic conversation with them. After about two weeks I noticed I still hadn’t met hardly any of my future students. After asking around, I finally found that what I thought was the abandoned Soviet-era building across from the post office was actually the community center. A snooker table, some offices, a shabby piano, and a ping pong table had helped hide many of Vaghatin’s youth from the summer heat and boredom.

Here, I spent a fair number of my days mostly playing incredibly long games of ping pong and politely refusing to drink homemade vodka with boys from my school. It wasn’t much and it certainly didn’t feel like work but then again this isn’t a typical job. I’m here to make a positive impression of Americans to the people in my village. To do this, I need to do things like lose countless chess games to literally every person here (chess classes are part of the nationwide curriculum), play Taylor Swift’s greatest hits to teach English, attend spontaneous khorovats (Armenian barbecues) and have regular tea dates with the village tatiks (grandmothers).

 

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խորոված

In writing this, I realize that this doesn’t seem like work. It seems easy to professionally “socialize.” Isn’t that what Paris Hilton did for a living?  But here’s the thing. We are dropped off in remote, unfamiliar places with limited resources. Many of us are the only English-speaking people in our communities. We are effectively alone in trying to carry on in these places. With cultural and language barriers ever present, easy days are hard to come by. In spite of these challenges, we are expected to change from a weird foreigner who has the language comprehension of a toddler to a respected member of the community on our own. Socialization might be the hardest and most important part of the next two years.

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Ask any PCV about the key to integration and they’ll tell you it’s Snapchat.

The English clubs I organized went unattended, lesson plans got swiftly derailed, organized sports turned into rock-hurling warfare. There are plenty of small victories paired with these failures though. Tatiks here say I am a good boy who’s extra smiley. My students are always appreciative of me letting them use my guitar as a prop for their latest Facebook profile picture. I introduced the kids to the addicting, cut-throat world of Uno. I’m learning this is just part of the process. After living in Vaghatin for about five months, I feel like I’ve only made the smallest progress. It’s still progress, though.

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These kids mean business.

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You’re insta game better be good if you come around here.

Moving Southward

A year ago this month, I applied and was accepted to the Peace Corps. Months of preparation followed while I jumped through hoops in the shape of countless legal and medical forms, each demanding to be filled out swiftly and perfectly. Once I arrived in Armenia I still had three months of training (PST) to get though before I could start my actual service. March, April and May were a blur of adjusting to a brand new culture, studying a very foreign language and figuring out how to survive on the other side of the world. Finally, in June, I was sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer and I’ve been living at my permanent site for about two months.

The transition from training to serving was swift. Due to the colossal amount of information we had to absorb, every hour of every day was thoroughly planned during our PST. Free time was mostly reserved for homework and occasional leisure time. The day after our swearing in ceremony nearly 40 of us were plucked from our training villages and scattered across the country. We now live in communities which all differ strongly from one another.

Vaghatin or Վաղատին is a small rural village located in Syunik Marz, the southernmost region in Armenia. When I was first told my site, I frantically searched for more information about it. The only thing I could find online was a Wikipedia page that’s two sentences long. Asking people in the village I was training in (Mrgavan) didn’t yield much information. Some Armenians I asked described Syunik as remote and freezing, especially during the winter. Often snow and ice will make roads dangerous, if not impossible to travel on. I was given the impression that my site was the Armenian equivalent to The Wall from Game of Thrones or more simply Antarctica, come November. I’m sure you can imagine how a person from Arizona would feel about this.

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The same day I was told where I was to teach for two years, I also was given a brief four page file describing my site. It said that the town is small and rural, and the closest city was called Sisian. It listed the names of three other Americans that lived here previously. Each of them were environmental volunteers (the last one had left in 2012), making me Vaghatin’s first American English teacher. My village is situated next to an ancient monastery overlooking the Vorotan River and is famous for its fruit and vegetables. This sparse information only piqued my interest.

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My place of employment!

I came into my village last month with very mixed feelings, however. Vaghatin lacks many comforts that I’m used to such as non-squat toilets, ATMs, restaurants and regular internet access. My counterpart (the person who I will teach English with this fall) does not live in my village making me the only English speaker here. The road from here to Sisian is difficult and sometimes dangerous to travel on which makes my friends farther away than I initially thought.

I’ve had to figure out the ins and outs of my village on my own. For instance when I wanted to catch the bus from Vaghatin to Sisian, I needed to ask in Armenian when and where this bus is and how much the fare is. I definitely took for granted how easy life was when I could speak the same language as everyone else around me. Or better yet, I could just look on google to get basically any information I need. After missing the bus on a few occasions, I finally found that this monstrosity we affectionately call “The Muppet Bus” runs once a day near my village at 10 AM and costs 350 dram to ride (about $0.25).

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While problems like this are incredibly frustrating at the time, I know that these are problems I need to have. Being faced with the classic mysteries like “When is the Post Office Open?” or its former title, “Is the Post Office Ever Open?” teaches me to be more patient with myself and others.  Also, being forced to converse with the residents of my village can only help my ability to speak Armenian.

I know the next two years won’t be easy. This will be more trying than when I was a campaign staffer for a congresswoman and more strenuous than when I was a gentil organisateur with Club Med. But I know it will also be far more rewarding than any of those jobs. I won’t be helping a politician advance their career; I won’t be ensuring the comfort of the top 1%. Here, I simply get to help people. I’m sure I sound overly optimistic and naive, but believe me when I tell you this is where I’m supposed to be.

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Reflecting on Mrgavan

Good evening, everyone! I’m sorry it took so long for me to write. Needless to say, the last few months have been an incredibly busy time of all of us trainees (now volunteers). I’m not sure where to even start.

Since March, myself and a group of roughly 40 other Americans have been training in Artashat (a city near the capital, Yerevan) and smaller, nearby villages. We lived in these villages with host families for about three months. Nearly every day we attended hours of Armenian and teaching classes. After having our heads hastily crammed with vocabulary, grammar and teaching tips, we then went home to our host families where we got to put into practice our newfound language abilities.  At the end of this Pre-Service Training, our Armenian was tested in an interview and if we passed we were deemed fit to serve as official Peace Corps Volunteers.

I wish I had the time to keep up with my writing while I was in Mrgavan. There are so many people and anecdotes I want to recount but even now, I’m not sure I can do them justice.  When we arrived in Armenia, our group of A-24’s (the 24th group of Peace Corps volunteers to serve here) were moved to a secluded resort removed from Armenian society. For those brief four days, it felt like we weren’t even in a foreign country because we really only saw other Americans with the occasional Armenian here and there. On Easter Sunday, we were moved to our PST (Pre-Service Training) sites. I was incredibly fortunate to not only be moved to Mrgavan but to have, without a doubt, the best host family I could wish for.

When I stepped off the Marshutni (bus) and took in this dusty village, I was anxious and apprehensive. I was moments from my first meeting with the culture and language I had been preparing for months to interact with.  Today, I still have only very rudimentary Armenian down and this is after months of intensive language classes and integration. On that cloudy day in March, I had no confidence in what little Armenian I knew.  I was tense while waiting for someone from my host family to arrive in front of the mayor’s office and take me to their home. Soon a group of small children dressed in traditional Armenian clothing, accompanied by my host mother, greeted us eight Americans. We were given bread and salt, a symbolic gesture welcoming guests into one’s home (or in this case village).After we gathered our numerous bags, we walked to our new homes. Here was the true beginning of our adventure in Armenia.

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My host family, especially my host mom, was one of the best. They had two volunteers before me and were knowledgeable on the differences between American and Armenian cultures. They knew that I knew next to no Armenian and were so incredibly patient when I attempted to speak this new language.  Some of my favorite memories revolve around my host mom (Varduhi) and sister (Mary) helping me write small presentations in Armenian. These “speeches” could be about anything and rather than focus topics every other student spoke about, my family and I wrote stories about a dog named Maroseek.

This dog lived in Yerevan in lavish apartment and was a columnist for Yerevan Fashion Weekly. She was wealthy, ambitious and young, ready to take on the world. However, she had an unhealthy obsession with Kim Kardashian and desperately wanted to be one of her closest friends. So Maroseek bought an expensive dress and crashed Kim’s party. Sadly, Kim is not a fan of dogs even if they are wearing expensive clothing. So Kim had security remove the dog from the building into the snowy winter night. Maroseek, sad and alone, went to the nearest bar where she consumed a fair amount of alcohol and made a fool of herself. Her friends and coworkers soon found out about this turn of events and swiftly distanced themselves from her. At this point Maroseek had lost her precious social status, her impressive job, her apartment (since she could no longer afford it) and her boyfriend (who was only mentioned in passing). In a depressed state, she went back to the same bar she went to after the Kim Kardashian incident and began drinking once more. In a haze she spotted an attractive Rottweiler with whom she immediately fell in love with. After a romantic night of dancing and socializing between the two dogs, the Rottweiler left the bar with Maroseek never having learned his name.

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Unfortunately, this is where Mary, Vardhui and I last left our story. I hope we can one day continue the story I describe to my friends as a combination of Beverly Hills Chihuahua and The Devil Wears Prada. I write about this ridiculous story with the hope that I convey the humor I was lucky enough to share with my Mrgavan family.

As time went on, my Armenian slowly (emphasis on slowly) improved. I could eventually communicate the most basic things such as whether or not I liked a specific food or asking where the bathroom was. Due to this I was later able to truly meet the people who were so kind to me. Sharing meals with them, watching cheesy Armenian soap operas and traveling with them to Khor Virap and Echmiadzin (yes they took me to both places!) really allowed me to develop a bond with them.

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I already miss so many little things from living in Mrgavan. I wish I still had my numerous games of ninja with David and Gohar, my guitar lessons with Noro and my Armenian dance lessons at the mayor’s office.  While I’m sure I’ll develop great friendships here in Vaghatin, I think it will never be quite the same as what I had there. It’s comforting to know I’ll always have a family in Mrgavan.

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Arrival!

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The view I get each day of Mt. Ararat

Բարի առավոտ from beautiful Armenia! I’ve finally arrived to the Caucasus after months of waiting and preparing! After a brief orientation in Washington D.C. (where I finally met the great people I would be serving with), we left home and took a red eye to Paris. Even though I couldn’t sleep on the flight, it was still an ok experience (mostly because I got to watch the new Star Wars movie for a third time). Unfortunately, our layover in Paris only lasted a few hours so we didn’t have time to leave the airport and see any sights. The only real definitive thing I can say about Paris at this time is that they have some great airport cuisine! After another lengthy international flight, we finally landed in Yerevan at roughly 10:00PM local time on March 23. Despite our exhausted state we were beyond excited to be in the country we spent months dreaming about!

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Our group of A24's, moments after we landed!

We collected our small mountain of luggage from baggage claim (imagine 39 people with four completely full bags), we breezed through customs and met some of the friendly Peace Corps staff who support the volunteers here. At this point in my post, I wish I could give you the most vivid description of Armenia as we drove through Yerevan and the country side in the dead of night. I wish I could properly convey to you how the ancient churches seemed to exist outside of time and rule over the surrounding landscape. I wish I could make you understand how the countryside is sheer proof of God’s love for humanity. Instead, I passed out for most of the trip and I only remember seeing the outside of a building labeled “Crazy Nightclub” in English. 

Next we spent the next four days at a beautiful resort in Arzakan, a small town tucked in mountains north of Yerevan. Being surrounded by snowcapped mountains was a fantastic way for the Peace Corps to introduce us to the country. Since I’m terrible at describing things related to nature, I’ll include a few pictures of Arzakan instead.  Needless to say, seeing snow on the ground was incredibly surreal to me (an Arizonan who four days before was wearing flip flops and cutoffs). Hearing such a wide variety of birds singing each morning coupled with the sun rising over the mountains made me feel like a Disney princess. 

While these were our first few days in country, it felt like we were still back in the United States simply because we were sequestered in this remote area interacting with mostly other Americans. Of course there were Armenian staff members at our orientation too but they all spoke good enough English that I often forgot I was on the other side of the world. 

After our brief orientation in Arzakan, our group of 39 volunteers was divided and moved to the small villages we would be living in for the next ten weeks. I was selected to live in Mrgavan (in Armenian it literally means fruit town) along with seven other American volunteers. The village is one of five which surround the larger town of Artashat (other volunteer clusters are living in those other towns.) Mrgavan has a population of about 2,000 people, all of whom are incredibly kind and welcoming. I’m told it’s pretty dry and hot here but so far the weather has been a bit chilly and it’s rained twice. 

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The A24's visited a small museum in Shahumyan on our afternoon off.

The greatest thing about this village is, obviously,  the view we get of Mt. Ararat each day. For those who don’t know, Mt. Ararat is one of Armenia’s most treasured landmarks. This perpetually snowcapped 16,000+ ft volcano dominates the surrounding landscape with ease. Supposedly, this mountain is the same one that Noah’s Ark landed on after the flood in the Bible (Genesis 8:4).  If you’re facebook friends with any of my fellow A24’s or you follow them on Instagram, you’ll notice each of us has posted a picture of this mountain at some point in the last few days.

We all live with different host families in our respective villages. I live with the Hakobyans, a family which coincidentally mirrors my own in that there are three children who are the same respective ages and genders as my siblings and I. They’re incredibly welcoming and kind, especially since they put up with my very broken Armenian and my enthusiasm with using the words eharkeh (“of course”) and absus (“what a pity”).

Those of us living in the same village are to take more than 40 hours of classes a week together. Each class attempts to teach us Armenian, Armenian culture and how to teach English. So far learning Armenian is easily the most difficult aspect. Each day is filled with new words and grammar rules that need to be memorized if you want to be understood here. While it’s certainly overwhelming, there has been improvement in our language abilities since we got here. Hopefully, 36 hours of language classes per week over the course of about two months will allow us to develop our Armenian quickly. 

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The view from our classroom features both Mrgavan's elementary school and 100 year old church.

As some of you know, there has been some fighting taking place in Nagoro-Karabakh (a contested region between Azerbaijan and Armenia). Luckily, Mrgavan is far away from this area and I’m not in any danger. If any sort of violence were to come near us, we would be quickly withdrawn from the area (if not the country). Please keep the Armenians and myself in your prayers but don’t stress about me. 

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Day 1 of Preservice Service Training!

ԲարևՁեզ (Hello)

If you told me a few years ago that I was going to one day leave the great state of Arizona for Eastern Europe I would’ve said, “դու խելագար ես!” Actually, that wouldn’t happen because I didn’t know Armenian then (although I don’t know much now). That jumble of words means “you’re crazy” in Armenian, by the way.

I’ve always had a desire to travel and work internationally, especially after my time interning at the United Nations. I was never really sure how to go about it though. For a while, I thought about teaching English in East Asia or South America, but I disliked how I wouldn’t be involved in any sort of development or politics. I felt as though I would live in an academic bubble far removed from what was going on in my country of residence. So I took part in some other professions hoping something would stick. Between working on a congressional campaign and later at a high-end resort, I never found anything fulfilling.

However, I had an inkling as to what my next step should be. While I was at a festival for my campaign job a friend of mine, Emily, spotted a booth with Peace Corps recruiters and encouraged me to go talk to them. At that point I assumed the Peace Corps consisted of hippies with unrealistic expectations of themselves and the world. Man, was I wrong.

The Peace Corps definitely consists of people from all walks of life working in so many different ways. The work volunteers do ranges from urban planning to health education with so much in between. Also the places they live and work span the world from Samoa to Colombia to Mongolia. These dedicated people live in settings, so different from home, for over two years. The fact that they are able to navigate through an unfamiliar culture in a language so unlike our own is an incredibly feat. Needless to say, I learned quite a bit that day.

After that late summer day in Phoenix, I always had the idea of joining the Peace Corps in the back of my head. After the campaign, I worked and lived at a resort in Florida where I had room and board paid for and lived a simple life. Still thoughts of doing something more fulfilling persisted. I moved back to Phoenix and resolved to finally get around to applying for the Peace Corps.

I put teaching English in Armenia as my first position preference on my application. Friends have asked me why I’d ever want to live in a place so very different from the Sonoran desert. Why would I trade my saguaros and micro breweries for snowy mountains and cognac? There are so many different reasons. Armenia seems so picturesque in a way that can only be slightly conveyed in the photos I found online. Its culture comes across as both sincere and warmhearted. Its language and script is so mysterious that I can’t help but want to know more. The more personal reason is the challenge, however. I wanted an unfamiliar setting to see if I had mettle to be successful. I wanted to know if I had as much resolve as other volunteers who came before me.

After a few weeks, I heard back from the Peace Corps and got just the position I wanted! I was going to be teaching English in Armenia from March 2016 to June 2018! I found this out August of 2015, so needless to say my departure seemed incredibly far away. I slowly started getting ready for the big move by buying up things here and there, such as snow cleats (as someone who lives in Arizona I had no idea what they were). I filled out a whole bunch of paperwork, took online classes on teaching and the Armenian language. I’ve traveled all around country spending as much time as possible with loved ones before I leave the hemisphere.

I’m still in the process of packing and clearing out my room at my parents’ place. I still need to buy a few more gifts for my host family. I still need to walk my dogs a few more times. I still need to watch a few University of Arizona basketball games with my family. I still need to play music with my friends. I still need to hit up Old Chi. I still need to say goodbye to a so many more people. I know I’ll never be fully prepared for this adventure but with these last few days, I’m trying my best.