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The final stop of my COS extravaganza, KOREA! I am extremely impressed with Korea, what an incredible place. Korea was almost completely destroyed by the war, and they have managed to build a fully functioning, successful society from the rubble and ashes. The country uses advanced technology, the water is safe to drink, and their unemployment rate is only 4%.
Moving around in Korea is like traveling on a cloud. The transit system is not only efficient and affordable but it is almost spotless. The streets are really clean too. Every other establishment on the street is a restaurant/karaoke venue, or a cafe. Another thing I have to mention is when anyone in Korea is walking somewhere or sitting on the metro or waiting for a light to turn green they are on their phones. Those people mean business with watching their soaps or confusing Korean commercials. The phones are also the size of a mini iPad so it looks absolutely absurd.
Stella and I arrived in the evening semi-disoriented having no idea what time zone we were in. We reunited with Rachel and met up with Stella’s adorable aunt. After taking care of a few nuances we hopped in the airport limousine for Stella’s aunts house (side note the limousine is actually a bus, albeit a very nice bus).
Day one we got right to it. Thank goodness Stella speaks Korean otherwise we would have gotten seriously lost and then probably human trafficked. I digress; Stella’s former work friend who is randomly studying in Korea helped us find our way around too, which helped infinitely. The first day was somewhat overcast, a WELCOMED weather change from India. We window shopped at a huge outdoor market and dipped into a restaurant when it started raining to get our first Korean meal. I had a cold noodle/salad bowl and it made me HOLY sick. Shit balls. I felt like I was going to die, but I was in Korea so I pressed on with the girls. I was significantly grumpier and would occasionally convulse and attempt to curl into a ball to assuage the pain. Anyway, we went to this beautiful indoor mall that was quite impressive. The entire bottom floor was food, and this wasn’t like American mall food-court food, it was like nice food. After walking around with wide eyes we looked at some clothes, Tiffany & CO, and then got our nails done.
The next day we went to several museums, an art gallery, the Gyeongbokgung Palace, and two Buddhist temples. The Buddhist temples were really special because there were millions of lanterns all over the city to celebrate Buddha’s upcoming birthday.
Over the next few days we relaxed and continued on with our sight seeing. We spent a decent amount of time shopping in a store called Art Box, which sells fabulous pens with really thin tips. Stella and Rachel are pen addicts! We went to a dog cafe, which is the most bizarre thing, and quite literally exactly what it sounds like. I enjoyed a milkshake while petting the most adorable pooch. One of the neatest things we did while in Korea was meet Stella’s family. It was a pretty big deal because she hadn’t visited Korea or seen her family in 7 years. It was an honor to meet them and they are super nice, just like Stella.
Traveling to Korea was pretty special since I was with Rach and Stella. If it weren’t for Stella I definitely wouldn’t have made it there for a long time. It will be awhile before I make another appearance, but it is definitely a country I’d like to explore more! Korea was my 31st country, so that’s pretty exciting.
Sitting in the LA airport earlier felt pretty surreal, I can’t believe I am officially an RPCV, how absolutely sublime. After my uncle picked me up in his new Porsche we headed downtown San Fran, hoooome. This evening we ate dinner on the Warf. I didn’t have to accost the waiter to make sure no meat or meat juice would come on my food, people kept filling up my water-glass before it emptied, I went to the bathroom and there was toilet paper. America is pretty wonderful. I think I will enjoy the next few months!
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Imagine a place where the air feels like fire; when the wind blows dry stale air at you instead of a delightful zephyr you can’t help but feel deceived. The streets are always bustling and crowded. The (superfluous) horns, engines, shouting, rumbling, chirping birds, blowing wind, and various street commotions never stop, there is a continual wall of sound around you. Women wear elaborate and vibrant saris ornately embroidered with mirrors or colorful shapes. Smells engulf you – spices, swage, vehicle exhaust, Indian food, flowers, body odor, and heat. What does heat smell like? Come to India and you will understand.
We only had 7 days in India, and if you have the slightest knowledge of general world geography you know that India is a pretty large country. So many places to go, so many things to see, so much culture to experience! Since this is our first trip to India we decided to go with the golden triangle, and see as many tourist attractions as possible.
After traveling for 48 hours I landed in New Delhi with ankles swollen beyond recognition, however, I couldn’t be more excited (or maybe just delirious) to be in India. The crew (Josh, Erik, Dylan, and Bethany) picked us (Stella and I) up at the airport at 5 a.m. and we set off on our road trip. Fortunately our car had air conditioning alas it only slightly mitigated the scorching India heat that was shaking its fist at us through the car windows.
The first full day in India started when we rolled into Jaipur at around 10:00 a.m. at a very playful 100 degrees. We went straight to an attraction, The Amber Fort and Narhargarh. Both structures are made of very pretty red sandstone. We walked through an endless maze of beautiful carved marble, tile and mirror mosaics, intricate paintings, and perpetual corridors. The structure kept going on and on and I was dazzled with its size. After a few hours and popping into the tunnel that leads to the Narhargarh wall we made our way out following the nifty “Exit” signs. Our driver, Raj, dropped us off at the hotel and the girls went out for an afternoon of shopping! We walked through hundreds of shops in Pink City meandering through the flower market, and the bangle bazaar. We ended up in a store basement, walls lined with scarves, tunics, wall hangings, dresses, saris, etc. I can definitely say we all dropped a lot of money in that store, but we bought some good stuff.
On the second day I woke up slightly sicker, with serious congestion, a sore throat and my stomach feeling a little… off. Before busting away from Jaipur we stopped at Jantar Mantar, an observatory with tons of astronomical instruments. I didn’t really understand most of them except the giant sundial, but I walked around in awe and respect for all the Jai Singh for building those impressive tools. Our next destination was City Palace, conveniently right next door to Jantar Mantar (at this point I am struggling to stand). City Palace is a fantastic red color, but the walls are very monotonous, and not intricately decorated, only simply with white paint. Actually we didn’t get to enter the Palace just the courtyards, gardens and a few buildings. Closer to the Palace the doorways were painted much more beautifully with elaborate peacocks, flowers, and other designs. We ate some delicious Indian food on the streets of Pink City and did some more window-shopping, this time with the boys. The heat got to be too much so we hopped in the car around 1 p.m. and headed to our next destination, Agra!
5 hours later we arrived and thank Allah because I IMMEDIATELY began to feel terrible. This is when the food poisoning hit. I don’t know what caused it because I was the only one at this point to get really sick. I can’t (and won’t) tell you how many times I had to run to the bathroom but my GI tract was on a schedule of reminding me I was sick about every 10 minutes. Man, it was terrible. I stopped vomiting at 1p.m. and was very pessimistic about being able to wake up early to see the Taj.
The universe was watching over me because that next morning when I woke up I didn’t feel the immediate urge to vom. I was still very sick, but I took a cipro to assuage the urge to explode. For those that aren’t familiar with cipro, it is a nuclear antibiotic that prevents anything embarrassing from happening in public. A few people wanted to sleep in longer (I was not the only person struggling at this point) so we decided to start sight seeing at 8 instead of 6. We kicked off our tour of Agra with Agra Fort. Agra Fort is another site built with red sandstone, decorated with tile mosaics and marble slabs. It is massive so we walked around for quite awhile until the sun started to taunt us and we headed off to the next site, Itimadud-daulah (the baby taj). We were stuck in traffic for entirely too long roasting like marshmallows stuffed in our tuk-tuks. Well, it was definitely worth the trek because Itimadud-daulah is beautiful. Some of the paintings on the walls are still in decent shape and stunning. We took our time walking around but slowly, one by one, sat down in a shady spot at one of the gates. When everyone had thrown in the towel we decided it would be best if we rested at the hotel for a few hours before taking on the Taj. We wanted to devote a lot of time to India’s main attraction. Stella, Josh and I were in a tuk-tuk back to the hotel and Josh was struggling, hard. Fortunately he made it back to his room before he got violently ill. India – 2, Us – 0.
At 4 p.m. when it was sizzling hot outside we headed to the Taj! I don’t even know how to describe it; it is phenomenal. You walk through the gate and see this massive, beautiful, white tomb, and only in that moment can you truly grasp how immense the structure really is. I took a ton of photos because I don’t think anyone can take a bad picture of it, it’s incredibly picturesque. I thought experiencing inside the Taj was a little anti-climatic, but that is probably because guards are whistling to keep tourists moving, people are smashing into you and pushing you, and you aren’t allowed to stop or take pictures. Lame! But the inside is beautiful, there is so much detail, and it’s just…. huge. When we finished inside the Taj we explored outside at the main mausoleum and one of the gates. We messed around at the pool and had a little photo shoot, killing time before the sunset. A lot of people asked to take pictures of me, which is weird, but I agreed a few times. I refuse to humor awkward pre-teens or old men though. Erik was asked a lot too, but he’s like 4 feet taller than everyone in this country so that is understandable. Sunset at the Taj was magnificent, one of those images that will stay ingrained in my memory forever. Thank you India!
The drive to Delhi the following morning was long and hot, but five hours later we arrived in the capital. We got in pretty late so we ended up just lounging in our fantastic hotel, Woodcastle, hanging out until Bethany, Dylan, Erik, and Josh headed off for Manali.
Yesterday Stella and I met our driver at 9 a.m. and headed out for a long day of sight seeing. We drove by Chandni Chowk (a bazaar) our driver politely informed us that we would be robbed if we got out and walked around, naturally we refrained. Driving through Old Delhi was pretty interesting; almost everything is under construction or falling apart. Our first real stop was Raj Ghat, which is incredible. Raj Ghat is a monument to honor Ghandi. It is very simple and powerful. It was really emotional watching people come up to the wall of his monument and kiss it or bow down to it. This was one of my favorite attractions because Ghandi is a huge role model of mine.
We zoomed past Red Fort because it is closed on Mondays, but our driver informed us it is “exactly” like Agra Fort – built by the same people with the same materials, and it is the same Persian style of architecture. On that note we headed to Humayun’s Tomb. The main tomb is pretty interesting with the sons, daughters, and wives tombs all in separate rooms. We ambled around Isa khan’s Tomb also, which is very similar to Humayun’s Tomb, only slightly smaller. The wall around Isa’s Tomb is very impressive, and is almost entirely intact still. We checked out the East Gate, which is in shambles, only revealing the basic floor plan. Over an hour later and a slight increase in the temperature we decided to move on. We hopped over to the Lodi Garden, an incredibly vast space with tombs of Lodi and Sayyid rulers, different gardens, and lots of benches where couples embrace for hours. The main motivation for our visit was to see roaming peacocks, which were non-existent, sad day. I sat on a bench and had a nice little moment of reflection in front of a mini mosque, it was peaceful and felt great in the shade. Our driver took us to this mall (of sorts) and we ended up spending like 3 hours there buying scarves, wall hangings, and shoes. Gah! At this point Stella and I were on a mission to get henna done. Our driver had a shop in mind so we headed out. Along the way we stopped outside the Jama Masjid, and the presidents house. Apparently women don’t start painting henna until 5 p.m. so we weren’t successful. We were pretty pooped so we headed to the hotel to relax for a while. Last night we walked around and had dinner close to the metro. I ate my fifth and last Indian meal of the trip, because I don’t want to feel like crap while traveling. It was good but as I was eating I knew it was a mistake, aaaah!
Today we went to the Indira Ghandi museum and it was beautiful. I didn’t know anything about her, but she was an incredible person who did everything she could to help and change her country for the better. She had a genuine heart and was a really reasonable person. She was the first female Prime Minister in India. The museum is the house she and her family lived in. After her upsetting assassination her son took over to become the youngest Prime Minister in the history of India. It was insightful to learn more about the Ghandi family, and it’s heartbreaking to discover how many of them were assassinated. After spending time at the museum Stella and I got our henna done in some ghetto market downtown. Then we were stuck in traffic for almost an hour to get out of Old Delhi. Traffic in Delhi is pretty terrible, not the worst I’ve seen in the world though, Bangkok still holds that record. I think people in India truly believe that honking their horns makes cars move. NOT TRUE. Your honking is as effective as me yelling at my computer, all it does is give me a headache.
Currently Stella and I are sitting in our hostel since they have WiFi. I can’t believe my week in India went so fast. I enjoyed ever moment of it, except when I was ill, and I can’t wait to come back! We still have several hours to kill before we head to the airport for our next and my final destination, South Korea! In exactly 1 week I will land in San Fran (with a bag full of totoro souvenirs!).
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I honestly have no idea how to even start this blog, so much has happened in the past week that the days have melted together and the fact that my memories have been partially compromised thanks to vodka, summarizing this week may be a struggle for me. I apologize in advance!
Ukraine is a beautiful country with various landscapes to offer, roaming farms, rolling hills, stunning beaches, and preeminent mountains. Winter lasts for 9 brutal months and then the sun comes out to play. Luckily I came during the beginning of spring when the weather is absolutely fantastic; cool, soft breezes, partially cloudy, and light rainfall. The leaves just started to poke out so the country is colored with life.
The most interesting thing I’ve learned while in Ukraine is about the superstitions the people have… women who sit on the ground will freeze their ovaries and will not be able to bear children, women who sit at the corner of the table will not get married, if you leave a window open on transport you will catch a deathly illness, etc. Public transport in Ukraine seriously has blown my mind, it is so efficient and clean compared to what I am used to. There is a metro in Kiev that obviously is very popular; there are buses, mashrutkas (mini buses), taxi vans, trains, planes, etc. The odd thing about the transport (in this country) is the people that ride on it don’t talk – at all. Apparently people got used to not talking while on transport back in the day because they were afraid spies would turn them into the police and they would be sent off to Siberia. YIKES, can you imagine? So while Diana and I were being our loud American selves people were looking at us with angry eyes.
Rumor has it Ukrainians are super superficial, and fortunately I was able to observe this a little bit while I was here. Ukrainians are completely into looking good out in public, every woman you pass on the street is a fashionista. Mothers push their newborn babies in strollers while wearing five-inch stripper heals, skinny jeans, a see-through lace shirt and a full-on gaudy face of make-up. Yeah, picture that. People get judged so hard for looking haggard (as Ukraine PCVs word put it). Thank goodness I went shopping in Turkey so I didn’t look like an ABSOLUTE hobo. Whatever, I can’t even lie, I totally looked like a hobo. Moving on! Vodka is an enormous part of Ukraine culture, not exactly sure how that originated, I guess life was rough so people turned to their trusty national drink. Vodka problems exist in every business, in every city, etc. etc. People of all ages drink throughout the day, everyday, regardless of if they are at work teaching small children, operating heavy machinery, dealing with food, yada yada. Volunteers have a really difficult time because it is expected that they drink vodka at every meal, and not like a sip of vodka I mean like full on shot after shot after shot. I’ll use my get out of jail free card on that one please!
Okay, obviously Ukrainian culture is fascinating to me and I kick myself everyday for not studying Russian in college (yes, I know they are different and I’m not even going to say they are similar because someone will arrange to have me bagged), BUT let me move on because I would like to share some of my adventures! My good friend/sorority sister/college partner-in-crime, Diana, whom I hadn’t seen in three years picked me up from the Kiev airport and after a heartfelt embrace our ridiculous and weird adventures immediately began.
Let me begin by saying Kiev is a sweet city! After taking a few types of public transport we went to the Peace Corps office so Di could take care of a few things. The PC Ukraine office is really nice and the staff members are incredible. Everyone that I met treated me as if I was family and was intrigued with the fact that I had just finished my service in Africa, the LFO in the office even gave me a Lenin pin! That night we went out with a group of PCVs and drank in the park. When the sun went down and the air got brisk we moved into a bar. There was a Ukrainian initiation of sorts and we bought a bottle of vodka. We finished it after (too) short an amount of time and were frantic when we discovered it was 11:45 p.m., only 15 minutes before Dominos Pizza closed. AAAAH! Don’t judge, I haven’t had real pizza in a long time. There is a Dominos Pizza in Kiev, don’t think I’m above that. Diana and I ran around on the streets trying to catch a cab but the streets were barren. Our time was running out. Eventually we accepted defeat and went back to the bar to ask the bartender to call a taxi for us (not sure why we didn’t think of that in the first place). The only thing that matters at this point is we ordered our Dominos and we annihilated it when we got back to the hostile. I woke up in the morning absolutely disheveled, disoriented, and discombobulated – I was on a sofa in the lounge with my computer on my stomach. What? Apparently I drank too much and after seeing Diana Skype with her beau that night I wanted to do the same but fell asleep in the process.
The second day we struggled to figure out our transport plans for the next day, and when that was dobri (good) we went to the Bazaar. The bazaar was really clean, fairly small, and pretty random. There were tons of vibrant fake flowers, lots of street food, and shop after shop of clothing. I didn’t end up buying anything but I did try some street food. Ukrainians are carnivores to the max so me finding food is pretty difficult. And when I say “me” finding food obviously I mean Diana because everything is communicated in Russian and Ukrainian. That night we went out again but I only had a glass of wine (note: I am a responsible adult). After dinner Chris (an RPCV) gave Di and I a midnight tour of Kiev and it was spectacular. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera but we saw several phenomenal buildings, statues, monuments, and the like. Back in the day a government official wanted to buy that plot of land to build an ostentatious house, and in response the people built a park for children. This park was my favorite part of the tour. Check it out here: http://englishrussia.com/2011/04/11/another-cool-park-in-kiev/
We woke up at the ass crack of dawn (it was bright out at 5) to catch a bus, to catch a train, to catch a trolley to reach our destination, Lviv. Lviv is known as “Little Paris” and rightfully so. The streets are lined with cafes, bars, and outdoor restaurants. There are beautiful towering buildings that line the cobblestone streets, which stretch along the entire city. There are churches, McDonalds, and an impressive opera house.
The plan for the day was to de-grossify (no, that is not a word) ourselves after transport, drop our stuff off and meet up with a group of PCVs (Diana’s peeps to be more specific). It was McKenzie’s birthday and there was a rough plan of events for the night – there was an anticipatory air of weird ready to wreck havoc on our lives. We drank at the apartment for a little while, karate chopped some birthday cake, had a dance party, and hit the town. We went to a soviet bar that was deserted and I had to say a password to enter, ****** *******, it’s a secret I can’t tell. But…. NAILED IT. I got in and we drank a tower of beer and drank the infamous honey vodka. When we needed a change of scenery we went to another bar and did pretty much the same thing. I started to fall asleep so it was my turn for a spanking. Yes, you read that right. It just so happens that we were at an S&M bar. If you don’t know what that is, look it up, I’m not going to explain it here! At around 5 a.m. Diana and I walked (and then shamefully taxied after we got lost) to McDonalds. Of course McDonalds is prejudice against vegetarians and the only thing I can eat there is fries, or a plain bun if I’m ever that desperate. I’m giving you the finger Mickey D’s. Moving on. The night was great and we woke up in the morning with some fun stories. Diana’s friends are pretty dang fantastic, and I couldn’t be happier that she has such a wonderful support network while she is abroad.
I digress, on the second day we saw some sites: the tower of Lviv, opera house, high tower, and a Harry Potter bar. The second night was probably the most ridiculous of the entire trip. After climbing the tower of Lviv we ate some Mexican food (side note, there is great food in Lviv!) and met up with some friends of another PCV. We drank some beer and vodka as she explained to us what was going on that evening. We basically had been invited (like +2 invite) to an exclusive Lviv Technical Institute party held by the International Culture Club. They rented out a bar and when we arrived it was empty… no problem! We walked to the hostel where they were having the pre-party. Diana and I awkwardly stood in the room where some award ceremony was going on with speeches and gifts, all the while being video taped. Fast forward, everyone leaves for the bar and of course we go straight to order a drink. Fast forward a few drinks later, all I need to say now is that this night was crazy. There was dancing, crying, hysterical laughing, embracing, belligerence, kissing, sleeping, loss & discovery, star fishing, etc. We got kicked out of the bar several times. We aren’t like particularly stealth individuals (esp. after a drink or two) so how we made it back in so many times will forever remain a mystery to me. Needless to say, we were THOSE Americans. Sorry International Culture Club members, I hope your view of Americans isn’t totally adulterated now. If it is, it was totally worth it, neechoho (whatever).
Lviv is an amazing city and I will indeed make it back there again! The last day in the city we saw a few more sights and hit the road for Diana’s town, Zolochiv… cue depressing soviet music.
Diana’s site is beautiful; there is a good mix of agriculture and development in Zolochiv so she has a little bit of both the rural and urban vibe. Her apartment is a serious sweet dig with a normal toilet, heating, fully furnished kitchen (stove, oven, microwave, refrigerator), hot running water, shower, Wi-Fi, and a patio. Let me go off on a tangent right now: I am currently laying on my bed on the night train to Kiev and I am DYING of heat, it is like Uganda in here, can someone please crack a window? I digress, Zolochiv has several nice restaurants, well-stocked super markets, bars, blah blah blah. It also has a pink castle, which we climbed my second day in town!
The day we arrived in Zolochiv we were exhausted from transport as well as lack of sleep in Lviv so after making a short appearance with some of Diana’s Ukrainian college friends we retreated to her house and chilled. My first and only full day in Zolochiv was exactly what I had been waiting for, a day in the life of Diana’s PC service!
We headed to her school at 8:30 after begrudgingly peeling ourselves out of bed. Her apartment is about a 20-minute walk from her school. Diana’s school is beautiful; I was in awe walking around. It is multiple stories, has plumbing and heating, tiled floors, painted walls, legitimate tables and chairs for the students, a dining area, multiple bathrooms, obviously electricity, visual aids are all over the walls, I am probably leaving out a ton of other stuff. Diana made a point to tell me that she does work at a nice school, and there are schools in Ukraine without running water. This obviously is an extremely different work environment from what I’m used to; the windows have glass in them, people don’t pee in a hole in the ground, students aren’t beat when they say a wrong answer, teachers wear absolutely inappropriate clothing for a teaching job (for most jobs actually), only one male teacher works at the school, and so on.
So the school is beautiful on the outside and inside, but what about what really matters: the staff, administration, and overall work environment? I am so glad I was able to observe how things really are in a Ukrainian school (which undoubtedly is reflective of most institutions). Formalities don’t really exist here; you don’t have to greet everyone you walk by. Teachers are held to a different standard in that they actually go to class on time, give assignments, assess their students; they take attendance, and give positive feedback. The class size is really small at Diana’s workplace so teachers can give students copies of workbook assignments, or notes. We ate lunch at school IN THE CAFETERIA (!!!) and there was such a diverse variety of food it blew my mind. The students don’t eat the same thing everyday, and the meal always reflects balanced nutrition. Seems pretty amazing compared to the African village school I’m used to teaching at, but Ukraine obviously has problems otherwise Peace Corps wouldn’t be here. I didn’t see this issue in Diana’s school but drinking during the workday is a huge problem, even with teachers. In a word I would describe Diana’s work environment as unhealthy. When I think about the people she works with I think: dramatic, uncooperative, and superficial. It might seem like I’m over exaggerating since I went to her school for two days, but I saw some incredible things – teachers rolling their eyes at one another during serious conversations, yelling, bickering, and trash-talking. If you remember I said there is only one male teacher at this school and tons of women, most of which are particularly catty. One teacher was telling me about the first year she worked at the school and how she would go home and cry every night because everyone was so mean to her. She is a beautiful person with a good heart, so hearing her say that was very surprising. That clearly is a toxic environment for teaching children. Those people are supposed to be role models for their pupils and emphasize the importance of friendship (along with other things), NOT that “he-said-she-said” is a positive way to live life. Also there is a pretty big problem with communication between teachers, observing that transported me back to my former staff room. Misconstrued messages and miscommunication is very common, which can be very frustrating. Diana doesn’t teach at her school but she is clubs director and I was fortunate enough to sit in on her Drama club meeting; the members are preparing for a shortened version of The Wizard Of Oz.
The departure from Zolochiv was sad and ever so interesting. I will try to keep it short since this is the longest blog post of my life; I should have included an intermission. After leaving school and cramming all necessary things in our backpacks we caught a bus to Lviv. It was pretty packed when we first got on, and there was this saucy Russian baba sitting next to where we were standing. She was shouting at the driver and everyone was like, “who is this b****”. Eventually she gets up (because the driver is kicking her off) and according to Diana she put a curse on me. What a bitch, I mean b****. Whatever I totally snatched her seat. Eventually Diana and I were sitting next to each other and this HUGE beetle flies in the window and lands on our curtain. I freak out because I just KNOW it is going to fly into my face so I throw the curtain out the window and we are trying to get it off so we can open the window again before we suffocate. At this point the driver notices the curtain is outside the window and starts yelling. We are like totally engrossed in trying to get this nasty bug away from us, then some huge Ukrainian dude sitting behind us violently opens the window and the curtain billows in, meanwhile Diana and I begin to scream. This Kozac of a man grabs this (HUGE) beetle in his hands and throws it out the window, ain’t no thang. One more thing about this ride, I somehow managed to fall asleep even though the roads are awful and was awoken by Diana shouting “WE NEED TO GO”. We were the last people on the bus, and probably had been for a considerable amount of time. Hilarious in the moment.
I am very proud of Diana – she has integrated into this culture and has found outlets for some of the more stressful cultural differences that she faces every day. She speaks the language well, and without her I would not have been able to make my way around Ukraine, she even managed to successfully teach me 10 phrases in a week. She works hard despite the challenges most PCVs face regardless of the country they serve in, and she is creative with her work. I can tell the students that she works with respect her and view her as a role model. Sometimes it is difficult for PCVs to see the impact they are making on a community, or feel they aren’t making a difference, but when I saw those kids looking at Di with complete reverence I saw it. Diana still has a year left of her service, and I don’t doubt she will do great things. My final statement (maybe) is that Diana has integrated SO well she even uses Ukrainian toothpaste and deodorant, nie claus (not cool?), I could not do that!
In sum, it was wonderful to reunite with my friend again after so long. We have changed over the past three years, but are the same people. Time may have passed, but we didn’t notice, we started right where we left off. That is magical. She showed me a fantastic time in Ukraine and I will treasure these memories forever!
Clearly, from the length of this blog, I am in serious like with Ukraine. Alas after being cursed and all kinds of other weird stuff unfolding I should probably call it a win until my next visit.
Dasvi Danya Ukraine, on to India!
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Okay, Istanbul is a really hip city, definitely a place one needs to devote more time than three days. We only had three days so we made the most of them!
Liz, Stella and myself were picked up from the airport by friend/baby-sitter/travel guide/Istanbul & Ford enthusiast, Onur. He drove us along the coast from the Europe side of Istanbul to the Asia side, to the apartment of some Demko family friends (where this incredible breakfast was prepared, thank you Chris and Jen!).
After trying to clean ourselves of all remaining crumbs and dirt clumps of the African continent and attempting to look like real people we jumped in the car with Onur for day 1 of gallivanting around Istanbul. We walked around Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque taking photos of the sites and all the beautiful tulips. There are tulips everywhere in Istanbul it’s really delightful! We walked a lot, which was great because the air was nice and cool (not like the equatorial heat we are so familiar with). The archaeological museum was our only legitimate attraction of the day, because it’s the only site we went into. I took my time ambling from floor to floor, reading about sarcophagi, appreciating the detail on tons of ornate gravestones, and soaking up a plethora of Turkish history that I shamefully didn’t know about.
First comes love (with Istanbul, of course), then comes TURKISH DELIGHT! Onur took us to an authentic candy/nut/<insert other awesome Turkish treats here> shop inside the spice market, and the guy working there was AMAZING – he let us try anything we wanted. Dried apricot – delicious. Chocolate covered walnut – delicious. Honestly, I don’t know half of the things we tried but all of them were super tasty! Shortly after finishing dinner we wrapped up the night with an oh-so-cultural Starbucks cup of coffee (don’t judge, we haven’t been to a Starbucks in two years).
Day 2 was quite a bit different from our first day because we were completely on our own (cue daunting music). We made our way to the Europe side via taxi because we couldn’t figure out public transport and taxi drivers seem to speak very little English (wah wah). We got out at Taksim Square and took the funicular down to some obscure stop and we walked the rest of the way down the hill. Eventually we made it to the Blue Mosque! Although I know very little about it, I definitely appreciate beautiful architecture. Inside I got little flashbacks of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali in Cairo… but, maybe that’s just because I haven’t visited many mosques. After soaking up as much as we could we started walking towards the Grand Bazaar and made some friends along the way (not: drank first cup of apple tea). One of our new friends took us to his shop, which had a various array of Turkish rugs, jewelry, plates, bowls, etc. The guy is a pretty excellent salesman and persuaded me to buying a gorgeous turquoise ring (I think my grandmas would be proud of my realization that jewelry is a good investment). He tried to get me to buy a rug, which is ridiculous since I am currently a nomad, I have no house to live in, I am traveling with my backpack, and spending $2,000 on a rug at this moment in my life would seem a tad absurd. As I said before he “TRIED” to get me to buy a rug, meaning I didn’t do it. After drinking two more cups of apple tea we pressed on to the Grand Bazaar. The bazaar is made up of several thousands of shops and it is very organized with directories (of sorts), and maps! I wasn’t particularly surprised with the cleanliness of the bazaar since Turkey has it’s s*** together, but was interesting walking around and realizing how popular a travel destination Istanbul is, I guarantee most sales people here are polylingual. After buying an array of touristy trinkets we ate lunch, drank another cup of apple tea and went back to our friends shop to pick up our purchases. This is where I drank my fifth, and final cup of apple tea. So.Much.Tea! We closed the day by walking around Taksim Square with a massive group of people, shopping for real clothes, sipping coffee, and socializing about nothingness. After 13 consecutive hours of out-and-aboutness we retreated.
Last day in Turkey. Last night in my dream I was walking around Istanbul and I was speaking Turkish. Stella said that is a sign that I’m supposed to live here. Who knows! We took it nice and slow this morning. Slowly but surely we made our way to Aya Sophia and enjoyed its beauty for several hours. After losing Liz and stumbling into her again we hit the streets. I bought more stuff I don’t need. We ventured into the spice market again to buy some more Turkish delight and other trinkets. After we were all shopped out we hopped on the tram; took the tram to the ferry, the ferry to a taxi and were dropped off in Kadiköy. We walked around some more (I bought more stuff I don’t need, i.e. a bow) and found a little café to smoke. We ate dinner at the most amazing Turkish restaurant in the back alleys where no one speaks English, one can buy Reebok sweats for $7, everyone has a cigarette in their mouth, and the lingering smells made me want to set up a tent and live there forever. I ate way too much, but I am definitely a fan of Turkish food (even though the Turkish don’t seen to be fans of vegetarians). At 9 p.m. we realized we have a long night of packing and organizing ahead of us so we made our way back and I have yet to touch my backpack. I guess I should do that since tomorrow morning at the ass crack of dawn I fly out to Ukraine!
Ukraine, I hope you are ready for this.
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- …In Hell’s Gate National Park, that is! On the evening of the 18th Stella, Liz and I boarded the bus for Kenya. We reached the Busia boarder just before midnight and after the (expected) tedious procedure of getting our visas we continued on our way. I have no idea what time we rolled into Naivasha because my phone and iPod were dead. After getting on and off various taxis we made it to our campsite, Fisherman’s Camp, at Lake Naivasha. We picked our campsite and were off to Hell’s Gate National Park, to begin our bike excursion.
The campsite is 5 Km from the park entrance along a paved road. The only annoying thing we encountered on the way to the gate was hundreds of kids shouting “muzungu, muzungu, muzungu!” I.hate.that.word. Anyway, we paid our fees and entered the park. Our plan was to follow the road to the gorge, stop wherever we wanted along the way, hike the gorge, and make it out of the park before it started to rain.
The park was pretty incredible and it felt amazing to be on a bike again, I totally slipped into my own little world. Our first stop was Fischer’s Tower, a little rock formation only 1 Km from the park gate. I hiked up it and spotted some hyrax! After a few minutes we continued on, and would stop sporadically to take pictures of various antelope, warthogs, zebra, giraffe, tons of birds, etc. The gorge is 7 Km from the gate, and the trail/road is pretty level with only a few slight inclines; needless to say it was an easy track.
We arrived at the top of the gorge at some unknown time, paid another fee and acquired a guide who looked about 12 years old. We climbed into the gorge and hiked inside it – this was AWESOME – we had to climb up rock piles, down waterfalls, scale rock formations, I was seriously stoked. Even though our guide looked suspiciously young and was about half of my weight he helped the girls and myself climb up/down in a few sketchy areas.
On the way out of the gorge our guide instructed us to touch some of the water seeping out of the rocks, and when we did we were surprised because it was EXTREMELY hot. This is because of the lava under the rocks – neat! The bike ride out was scorching, and we were pretty desperate for water, but we made it out alive and totally uninjured from any animals ravaging our sweaty bodies! Hurray! Overall an incredible experience, something I would absolutely recommend to anyone that is traveling to Kenya.
After returning to our camp Liz crashed out and Stella and I moseyed around and planned some logistics for the rest of our trip. We stayed up until 9:30 and were pretty proud of that. I think I can safely say we all slept exceptionally soundly last night (even Liz after a 5 hour nap!).
We woke this morning from the dull sunshine penetrating our tent, and after packing our bags we hit the road again. I have no clue what time we made it to Nairobi but we just ended up ambling around for several hours before taking a taxi to Carnivore. Now we can say we have eaten at both the Carnivore restaurants in the world – RAD! People usually seem curious when I tell them about this, since I am a vegetarian, but they have an herbivore menu.
Kisses from Kenya, off to Turkey! (NBO wireless is being ghetto, I will update more photos later!)
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When I applied to be a Peace Corps volunteer, I had an open mind. I received my invitation October 2010 and was absolutely ecstatic – it didn’t even matter which country I had been invited to, I was planning to accept. Uganda! … ? …! After I mulled it over for a few minutes I realized I knew pretty much nothing about Uganda. Sure, the PC website features stories about PCVs lives, you can read PCVs blogs, Google anything and everything, but it doesn’t really matter, the truth is I still didn’t know. I had no idea what to expect for my upcoming adventure.
Most PCVs live a certain lifestyle… humble accommodation, simple facilities, inconsistent or nonexistent power and water, and bare minimum / absolute essentials kind of deal. PCVs have a big responsibility – complete the three goals of Peace Corps: 1. Help the people of your country in meeting their need for trained men and women, 2. Help promote a better understanding of America, and 3. Help promote a better understanding of other peoples for America. OH and to be like peaceful and friendly, you know. Every PCVs service is different. There are endless factors that play a part in what a volunteers’ service may be like, what country do they live in, what resources do they have, do the live in a rural/urban area, how cooperative are the people that live at their site, how safe is their site, is their house infested with bats, etc. etc. Another very important factor that (may) heavily impact a volunteers lifestyle is Peace Corps rules. Personally, I am a fan of rules, they are necessary to keep people safe and mitigate potentially disastrous situations. However, when you live in a developing country in the middle of nowhere, under zero supervision and have the integrity of a 24-year-old teen, you’re bound to break some rules. Breaking rules isn’t necessarily good or bad; sometimes it is just absolutely necessary. I could ramble on about that endlessly, but let me spare you and get to the more interesting content.
In this post I reveal some of the best experiences/accomplishments/relationships I had during my service, as well as some of the most traumatizing.
Climbing Mt. Elgon – I was in excellent company and everyone learned something or was challenged in some way; use caution when photographing flowers, camping at 10,000 Ft (even on the equator) is REALLY cold, and yes high altitude sunburns are indeed a real thing.
Game drive at Murchison – Seeing baby giraffes is an incredible experience, more so when you are in the company of your uncle and sister, who flew over 8,000 miles to spend time with you.
Game drive at Queen Elizabeth – Getting charged by an elephant while in a SWEET Jurassic Park jeep while enjoying the company of my uncle and sister.
Staying at Chobe Lodge – I’d enjoy a blueberry mojito anywhere in the world, but there is something much more enchanting about drinking one whilst overlooking hippos relaxing in the Nile while the African sunset lights your soul on fire.
Lake Mburo – Watched zebra and warthog families do their daily business while on a casual evening walk with no guards (a big no-no) with my uncle and sister.
Ssesse Islands – Enjoyed stunning sunsets and avoided swimming in the ever-enticing Lake Victoria with my uncle and sister.
Gorilla trekking in the Impenetrable Forest –A once in a lifetime opportunity to see endangered mountain gorilla families, which was in a word, remarkable.
Booze cruise in Jinja – Pure ridiculous, forever young fun on the Nile with good friends.
Watching my students win the district football tournament.
Being a part of Camp GLOW (Northern and 2012 National) and Peace Camp.
2011 & 2012 WAD Health Fair and 5Km Run
The sisters in the convent
Thanksgiving at Liz’s house two years in a row – Over eating seemed to be a common theme.
Visiting the West Nile – We (Lira girls) traveled for an unreasonable amount of time in various modes of transport, saw elephants, hiked to the top of a random rock and got insanely sunburned.
Traveling to Jordan, South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Rwanda
Discovering how absolutely delicious Indian and Ethiopian food are. Pure magic.
Hiking Sipi Falls – Experienced a piece of Uganda’s most beautiful landscape during the wet (mud slide) season, and made it out without injury.
Hiking Mt. Sabinyo – I have never been so filthy before in my life, or so terrified to climb up/down a ladder.
Rooftop rainstorms in Jinja.
The Lira Girls (aka “the coven”) – Some of the best friends I’ve ever made.
Impromptu trip to Murchison Falls – On a whim I suggested a trip to Murchison since Stella and Liz had never been. We stayed at a nice resort, ate delicious food, hiked the beautiful falls, and gazed at some game animals.
(It is against the rules for UG PCVs to travel at night, or to ride bodas)
Taking the night bus, hearing two explosions, panicking after each, and then learning no they weren’t bombs, they were tires. Thinking for the majority of the ride, “either we are going to die or get stranded in the bush…and then die”.
Getting food poisoning twice.
Moving into a house INFESTED with spiders.
Chasing a rat out of my house in the middle of the night after spraying it with almost an entire can of doom. (I still feel absolutely retched about this)
Trying to convince the teachers at my school that caning is an ineffective method of discipline, and being unsuccessful.
Almost getting in a boda accident in Lira.
Countless people touching me walking on the street or through a taxi park (this will always irritate me).
Getting lost in a super sketchy area downtown Kampala at night on a boda.
Bus driver hit a man on the way to Kampala, and having no idea what happened to him.
Tripping over a dead body in the road on my morning run.
Someone broke into my house in the middle of the night while I was asleep; the ineffable terror of waking up and seeing him crawling towards me.
Watching mob justice in the taxi park and people laugh as a man is about to be murdered.
Seeing the result of mob justice in my community – man floating facedown, naked in the swamp.
Okay. Deep breath… exhale. I just revealed my Peace Corps secrets, some I kept from PC (traveling to certain countries, riding bodas) and some I kept from my family so they wouldn’t worry about me. Being a PCV can be as easy as dancing in the rain one day, and seem like the worst, most dreadful and daunting job imaginable the next. You have to wake up each day with an open mind, because you never know what is going to happen, who you’re going to meet, what you will see.
Living in Uganda challenged and changed me in many ways; it made me look at the world differently, and for that I will always be grateful. Now I don’t wish for something as ambitious as World Peace, however, I truly believe that all people have the capacity to be tolerant and accept others. People can be understanding and respectful of different cultures. What it comes down to is they realize this and they do it because they genuinely think it is right.
Uganda will always have a place in my heart, as well as the people I developed relationships with while on my Peace Corps journey. I certainly learned more from my students, the staff at the school, other community members and the sisters, about life, and hopes and dreams, than I could ever have taught them. I pack up and leave with a heavy heart, knowing that I will never feel the slightest desire to come back here.
Now, for everyone that supported me while I was abroad – everyone that read my blog, commented on my blog, sent me a package, wrote me a letter, wrote me an email, chatted with me on the phone, entertained me on Ichat/Skype, listened to me complain, gave me advice, asked me to tell you a story, visited me, thought about me even for a fleeting moment – it is because of you that I succeeded. I cannot emphasize how much this has meant to me over the past two years, and there truly are no words for me to fervidly express my gratitude and appreciation. I may hardly know you, never have met you, consider you a best friend, or call you family; what I have to say is, you will probably never understand what you have done for me and I genuinely thank you. It is in rare moments like this that I fully recognize how many incredible people are an integral part of my life.
With this I bid Uganda ‘farewell’ and board the bus for Kenya. I am filled with excitement and curiosity as I embark on the next adventure with my ever-faithful travel companions, Liz and Stella. I’ve been craving this trip since January. Updates will undoubtedly be sporadic on my trip, but I will try to write (at least) one post for each country.
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing” – Helen Keller
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Soon enough I will be able to announce my independence from Peace Corps! I’ve lived in Uganda for 785 days, pretty cool (will be 794 on the day of my departure). Since I was in the education sector I had a decent amount of free time – of course how much free time I had varied considerably depending on how much I was teaching and other projects I was working on. What did I do with my free time? I planned trips, zoned out, ran, played football with my students, zoned out, cleaned (a lot) wrote in my journal, zoned out, and read!
I read 120 books in my 785 days of service.
This is the list of books I read.
* – I recommend this book
** – Drop the remote/bagel/toothbrush, grab your keys/get on your bike, go to the nearest bookstore, BUY this book, and start reading it immediately (or if you are up-to-date with technology, I guess just download it)
+ – I read before moving to Uganda
# – I didn’t exactly finish reading it
1 Time Travelers Wife
+Origin of Species
**Shadow of the Wind
Wizard of the Nile
Cry, the Beloved Country
10 Out of Africa
A Lion Called Christian
Wesley the Owl
Women of Courage
+**To Kill A Mockingbird
*The 19th Wife
*Cutting for Stone
The Prodigal Summer
20 The War of Copper Kings
Gorillas in the Mist
My Life in Letters
*Reason for Hope
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
*The Hunger Games
30 In the Garden of Good and Evil
**The Lost City of Z
Ten Thousand Islands
The Best of Friends
*The 13th Tale
*Water for Elephants
*The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Angles Game
**The Girl Who Played With Fire
40** The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
*Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang
The World According to Garp
51/50: Magical Adventures of a Single Life
Map of the World
The 13th Unicorn
50 Learn Me Good
Life of Pi
*Harry Potter and the Sorcer’s Stone
*Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
*Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
*Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
*Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
*Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
*Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows
60** Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
**The Sun Also Rises
*One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest
Things Fall Apart
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
Dead Until Dark
Living Dead in Dallas
Dead to the World
70 Dead as a Doornail
All Together Dead
**The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest
From Dead to Worse
From the Steel Mills to the Ivy League and Back
Dead and Gone
Dead in the Family
*Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The English Patient
80 *Breakfast at Tiffany’s
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Shit My Dad Says
*I’m America, and So Can You
Never Let Me Go
Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
**Scribbling the Cat
90 The Red Tent
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains
The Case for Christ
# King James Bible
*The Glass Palace
The Sound of Water
100 *Bodies Under Siege
The Places in Between
**When You Are Engulfed in Flames
Someone Else’s House
Tao of Travel
+*Heart of Darkness
*A Clockwork Orange
**Born to Run
*The Brothers Karamazov
Dark Star Safari
The Joy Luck Club
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Still Life with Woodpecker
**The God Delusion
120 The Selfish Gene
I think my initial goal was 200 books, but I guess I got too lazy or that goal is just not very realistic considering I did stuff other than read. The book I’m starting my next travel adventure with is…. The Jungle. Happy reading to you!