The last five weeks of Spanish since I’ve returned from Ecuador have been characterized by three things: the holidays, getting sick, and the pressure of my formal pre-end of training evaluation.
I recently wrapped up my 15 day language immersion trip in Ecuador with a graduation ceremony and a trip to some thermal springs before returning to a DC winter. Here I reflect on my last days in Ecuador and the value of a language immersion program.
During the first part of week 15 in Spanish (and the second week of my language immersion in Ecuador), I continued enjoying the great outdoors while generally getting my butt kicked by high altitude, thin air, humidity, inflammation and old injuries, and stairs. I had the last laugh though, because I practiced my Spanish, saw new and cool things, and made it through each challenge without quitting.
During the first week I was in Ecuador, I also had the opportunity to visit one of Quito’s most famous basilicas, explore a variety of local foods and markets, party on a fiesta bus (chiva), and hike a volcano. The latter was one of the most physically grueling activities I’ve ever done, not only because I ascended to an altitude of over 15,500 feet (4,800 meters) without being in great shape, but also because of the thin air.
[This is the second blog post in a series of four on my Spanish immersion experience in Ecuador. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]
I flew into Ecuador’s capital, Quito, from Panama City the Saturday before last and immediately could feel I’d arrived somewhere new. The misty mountains ringed the airport and the cool, rainy air felt precariously thin. Quito is a city of 1.9 million people, perched in the Andes on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano, at an incredible elevation of 9,350 feet (2,850 meters). It is the second highest capital city in the world, after La Paz, Bolivia. Previously I think the highest elevation I had ever reached outside an airplane was Denver (around 5,500 feet). Just standing at the baggage claim in Quito, my heart rate was over 120 beats per minute!
My prior travels in Latin America have been limited to Panama (in 2013) and Mexico (too many times to count since 1991), so I was really looking forward to this adventure.
[This is the first blog post in a series of four on my Spanish immersion experience in Ecuador. More posts coming soon!]
Sulphur-crested cockatoos are relatively large white parrots that live throughout northern and eastern mainland Australia and Tasmania, its island state. Colloquially called “cockies,” the novelty of these screechy natives can take visitors by surprise, but cockies are common in Australia, like squirrels in the United States! Since I lived in Australia in 2005-2006 as a grad student, I have loved sulphur-crested cockatoos. Although they have a reputation for being pesky and destructive, their intelligence, curiosity, and sheer brass make me love them anyway. Their brilliant white feathers, bold yellow crests that fan out in dramatic greeting or warning, and the way they strut around is just so… Aussie.
V and I have adored them in Canberra and are going to miss them when we leave. A lot. As my predecessor told me recently, “It’s hard to live somewhere with ‘normal’ birds after Australia.” I wanted to write a broader post about Australian backyard birds, but since time before our departure grows ever shorter, I will narrow it down to my long-time favorite. Here are some funny pictures and videos to remind us of cockies when we are gone and want to reminisce, and also to share with those who are unfamiliar with these entertaining rascals.
During the final three days of our 12-day Ghan trip, we hung around in Darwin and took a day trip to Kakadu National Park. It was our first trip together to Australia’s “top end,” and a chance to visit – albeit briefly – its largest terrestrial national park. Established in the late 1970s, Kakadu covers about 7,700 square miles and is home to 2,000 species of flora and fauna.
[This post is the final in a series of five posts about our Ghan train trip nearly 2,000 miles across Australia. If you missed the previous posts, you can find parts one through four in order at these links: Adelaide and Kangaroo Island, Marla and Alice Springs, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and Alice Springs and Katherine.]
We spent the eighth day of our Ghan train trip in Alice Springs, the geographic heart of Australia. “The centre of the centre.” We weren’t catching the Ghan north until dinnertime, so we had a full day to explore this spirited Outback town with a population of nearly 25,000. Even with our limited time, we managed to walk through the botanic gardens, see the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Telegraph Station Historical Reserve, take photos from the top of Anzac Hill, visit a pharmacy, and even eat a couple of sit-down meals.
Part of the reason I wanted to ride the Ghan train across Australia was to make a stop at Uluṟu (oo-luh-ROO) – the infamous red sandstone rock in the middle of the Australian Outback. Formerly known as Ayers Rock, to call it a “rock” is a bit of a misnomer; at just over half a billion years old and 348 meters or 1,142 feet tall, Uluṟu is visible from space. If you’ve ever seen a postcard or image of Australia, chances are it featured Uluṟu. I visited it previously in 2006 when my dad and stepmom came to visit, and it was one of the highlights of my euphoric grad school year in Australia.
Part of our touring package was a round-trip bus journey from Alice Springs for an overnight at Uluṟu, about 450 km (280 miles) each way, along with multiple activities and accommodation in the premier hotel on the resort grounds, Sails in the Desert. In retrospect, I wish I had questioned the distance a little more and arranged to stay at Uluṟu longer, but in order to reboard the Ghan in Alice Springs, we needed to either stay a night or wait until the following week to catch it north. And thus, a Hail Mary trip to Uluṟu it was.
On day four of our trip, we headed to the Adelaide railway terminal to catch the midday Ghan train north to the Australian Outback. We were greeted with champagne and juice, our luggage quickly checked, and then we were off with our overnight bags to snap some photos of the train before boarding the first leg of 2,979 km (1,851 miles).
[This post is part two in a five-part series about our Ghan voyage across Australia. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]
For more than a year, I have been dreaming about a train trip across Australia on the Ghan. Now in its 90th year of service, the Ghan is a passenger train that traverses the “red centre” of Australia from south to north. Operated by Great Southern Rail, the 54-hour ride starts in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, and ends in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. If you aren’t familiar with the geography of Australia, you could be forgiven for not realizing that covers an astonishing nearly 3,000 km (1,880 miles), plus whatever stopovers and forays into the Outback you do along the way.
This isn’t a trip you do on the fly. Most people who do it are retired – Australians call them “grey nomads” – and have been thinking about it for a lifetime. Several months ago I finally bought the tickets as a special gift to my husband, and in mid-June we took this inspiring 12-day journey. Now that we have safely returned home and entered our last month at Post, I cannot imagine a more profound way for us to have begun our goodbyes to Australia than riding the Ghan.
Earlier this month, we combined our last three-day weekend in Australia with our last road trip to Sydney for the 11th annual Vivid – a festival of “light, music and ideas.” Vivid didn’t exist when I lived there as a grad student, and last year we missed it, but I thought it would be fun to see to see the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge lit up, and to check out the light installations at the zoo and Royal Botanic Gardens. We also did a couple of coastal walks, ate delicious food, saw a grad school friend of mine, and visited the Anzac Memorial’s recently completed WWI centenary exhibition.
Although we were only in Sydney for two nights, the trip reminded me of how much I love Sydney and what a beautiful city it is. There is often debate among embassy colleagues about our favorite Australian cities. I cannot fault Melbourne, Brisbane, or anywhere else; I have never been anywhere in Australia that I did not like. But Sydney holds a special place in my heart as my former home. In the intervening years, it has been full of changes. But many delightful old ghosts come back to life for me with each visit, and sharing that with V is terrific for me. It was good to be there one more time, with less than eight weeks remaining at Post.
Over the years, I have received lots of questions about housing benefits in the Foreign Service (FS) – primarily what my houses have looked like, if I liked them, and whether I got to pick them. Foreign Service Officers are assigned government-owned (or leased) housing to live in during overseas tours as a benefit of our employment. There can be a misconception that diplomats overseas “live like kings,” but where we live is much more about what is available within the applicable regulations – and sometimes that isn’t great – unless you are an ambassador or deputy chief of mission with a representational residence. (For more on housing sacrifices made by FS families, please read this really terrific article by former FS spouse Donna Scaramastra Gorman, “The Reality of Being a Foreign Service Spouse.”)
Whether you feel like your FS housing is an odd temporary space to put up with, or adore it and cherish it as your own home, the topic of housing inspires a lot of discussion – worry and questions, complaints and gratitude, and plenty of laughs. One post in an FS-related Facebook group asking for submissions of the strangest FS housing quirks led to hundreds of comments and hilarious photos that had me in stitches. I had a submission or two of my own, but so far we have been very lucky. Here I share my perspectives, along with never-before seen photos of our official residences from our first two tours in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Canberra, Australia.
The original plan had been to see more of Tasmania’s capital, Hobart on the afternoon of day eight and then move on to Port Arthur on day nine. However, we as human beings had not been able to move at the speed of my paper itinerary, after all. So after a quick redrafting of the plan, the morning of our ninth day we headed to the infamous Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), about nine miles away.
After a wonderful but long day on Victoria state’s Great Ocean Road, we looked forward to a day of sightseeing in Melbourne, followed by an overnight ferry trip with the car to Tasmania. I hadn’t sailed on the Spirit of Tasmania since my grad school days in 2005, and I was excited about getting back to one of my favorite places in Oz. Only this time, I would sleep in a cabin with a bed rather than on the floor, and I wouldn’t have to drive on the left for the first time upon arrival!
[This is the second post in a series about the Australian road trip I took last month with my mom and V. If you missed the first post, you can find it here: Bush Capital to Great Ocean Road (Aussie Road Trip, Part I).]