Over this past holiday season, we have been lucky to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends, reconnect with people we haven’t seen in a while, travel out of town, and enjoy a quiet Christmas at home. All of that has meant a lot, since our Christmas ornaments are at a port warehouse in Long Beach along with the rest of our worldly goods, and coming home to Virginia has felt at times more like a way station than anything else. Before our NYE celebrations planned for later tonight, I wanted to send some good end-of-decade vibes out into the world.
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!]
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.
This weekend, we took a small road trip 50 miles south into New South Wales’ Snowy Monaro Region to experience a black truffle hunt. The greater Canberra region is known for its fresh black winter truffles. This year, the tenth annual Canberra Truffle Festival runs from June through August (the southern hemisphere equivalent of December-February). What better way to experience the festival and support local farmers than enjoying a black perigord truffle-infused brunch and tagging along with dogs trained to hunt the savory black gold?
Between November 2002 and August 2004, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia doing environmental education and management. At that stage of my life, I was in my mid-20s, single, and a recent San Diego State University graduate who hadn’t seen much of the world outside of California, Nevada, and northern Mexico. Every few years, I take a look back at some of the emails and letters I sent to friends and family during that time. Even though some of the writing is spectacularly convoluted and would have benefited from thorough editing, I do see glimpses within of the person I would become. Some of the letters, while not a complete perspective on my service, are also a heartwarming reminder for me of my young resiliency, hope, and the struggles I had in adapting to my new home. Although some days I succeeded better than others, the prevailing legacy of that time was an openness to seeing life through others’ eyes. I’m sharing a few excerpts of those letters home here.
High atop Canberra’s Black Mountain within the treeline sits Telstra Tower, a futuristic-looking spire that looks like it was dropped straight from outer space. Opened in 1980 after almost a decade of bureaucratic wrangling, the tower serves as a national television and radio transmission hub, and also supports area telecom and interstate relay services. Attracting nearly half a million visitors per year, my husband and I have wanted to visit “the spaceship” since we arrived here nearly a year ago. Finally this month, on one of the coldest days of the year, we had a hearty brunch and then made the trek.
Today marks the one month point since our arrival in Australia. I’m grateful for so many of the advantages of being here, which are already obvious. If I’m honest though, I can’t help but notice that my settling in time has been marked by a number of inconveniences ranging from annoying, to painful, to downright comical (in the “what-else-could-go-wrong” sense). Every officer knows that the period of adjustment and settling in at a new post can be this way, even in a lucky first world posting and with lots of helpful colleagues. My time in Sydney in 2005 and 2006 was so charmed that I really wasn’t expecting to struggle so much at the beginning here. Is it bad luck? Karma from some offense committed in a prior incarnation? Being overly impatient with myself and others? No matter the genesis, I’ve tried persistently to see the glass as half full.
As I mentioned in my previous post, last week we hit a countdown milestone: 100 days remaining at post in Uzbekistan. But there’s another countdown happening at our house too: we’re waiting for our two desert tortoises to emerge from their second winter hibernation under our front lawn.
A few months ago, my husband and I looked ahead to the last for-sure three day weekend of our Tashkent tour. We wanted to take advantage of the time for a trip that wouldn’t require taking a day off. As the President’s Day weekend fell between Valentine’s Day and my husband’s birthday, I suggested visiting either Dubai in the United Arab Emirates or Almaty, Kazakhstan for a romantic getaway. Since we already have Kazakh visas, Almaty is closer and the flights are cheaper, and the main reason to go to Dubai is shopping – which holds less and less allure as we near our packout in May – we chose Almaty.