Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Löki's Irrefutable Best Practices on Traveling to Foreign Countries

Peace Corps service offers all sorts of advantages to a potential candidate (see my How To [link] page on tips to making your application POP!), least of which is getting out. Getting out of the continental U.S., getting out of the standard spring break foreign country experience, getting out of the developed world.

With 48 days of annual leave (over a 2 year service), PCVs like to travel. For many, traveling home is too expensive and often not advised (blog on that later), so a week-long jaunt to another country is often the ticket.

Me? I have spent my 71 days (that is 3 years of service, baby) in Thailand, Georgia, Ukraine, and Germany. Prior to these last 3 years, I had hit up just as many countries in my 24 years of living.

Kind of lame, really.

I mean seriously. Backpacking is fantastic. You get to meet all sorts of awesome (and crazy) people, try great food, see interesting things, and really grow. If I can recommend any one thing it is to get out and experience the world (and not just the beach); however, traveling should not be taken too lightly. It can be scary, weird, unexpected. So, for those of you who are Virgos like me, I have made a list to to help you plan for those worst case scenarios. Good luck!
  1. Pre-plan at least your first few nights...if you got a place to stay for the first couple days, you can start your on-the-spot planning with a local present and give yourself time to adjust to the food, time, weather, etc.
  2. Hostel it up (and bring a combination lock). Couchsurfing [link] is also fun and fantastic, but definitely spend a couple of nights in a dorm room. 
  3. Be friendly. That old adage, you attract more flies with honey...if very true. Being aggressive never gets you anywhere. 
  4. Talk to strangers, but don't accept their candy (unless you see the bartender open it up). The whole point is to meet great people and see cool things. Be proactive in the introducing.
  5. Have an emergency debit account and cash back at the ranch. I made the mistake of keeping all my money things together and well, I spent a majority of my first few days in Ukraine canceling stolen cards and crying about my camera. 
  6. Don't make plans while you are imbibing, but when you inevitably do, have a contingency plan on hand. And plan on a hang-over day. 
  7. Budget liberally. You will break any conservative budget you make. 
  8. Bring clothes that repel absorbing spills (and smells). Handwashing clothes suck. Handwashing in a hostel sink is worse.
  9. Carry a copy of your passport and stash your actual passport deep in your bag. You will thank me later.
  10. Don't drink the water. And bring Imodium, Pepto, and Tums. You will need them.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Have you people seen this?

If you have not heard, Azerbaijan won Eurovision [insert - what the heck is Eurovision? - question here] this year! That means, next year, Baku will be hosting the 2012 Eurovision contest and what an event that will be.

I am kind of considering returning just to be here for that awesomeness, but that is a whole other story...

At any rate, check out this music video aimed at educating ya'all about the coolness of Baku, Azerbaijan (and increasing tourism) for Eurovision. Of course, the two singing are PCVs here...wicked sweet huh?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Seriously...I am too cool.

I am super duper famous now. Check out this link: http://multimedia.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/returned/hotline/current.pdf

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Social Networking

So, I am gonna get to my Ukraine trip, but before I do, I have a story to tell.

A few weeks ago, I was enjoying a leisurely Azerbaijani-style hiking trip (the kind that involves several cars, picnic blankets, and shish kebab sticks) and I suddenly remembered I had a Skype meeting with the National Peace Corps Association scheduled for 6 p.m. that evening.

Of course, there was no way I was going to convince everyone to descend the mountain so I could get near a wifi source (case in point, when we did leave, they stopped to pick berries halfway down the hill), so I booted up my handy new-used iPhone and turned on its data plan. A few seconds later, I was typing away with other PCVs halfway across the world.

Yup. We went "hiking" with a samovar too.

Monday, September 12, 2011

It's Not Easy Being Green

One thing most, if not all, PCVs agree on is plastic bottles.

Huh? What? How can you agree on plastic bottles? Don't worry. I am gonna tell you.

Living overseas, you go through a lot of plastic bottles. Be it a quick (read: safe) drink of water or a shot of caffeine, a PCV's day is drowned in plastic bottles. Of course, we all cart around our handy-dandy Nalgenes and Sigs, but when push comes to shove, a plastic bottle comes out.

For me, this summer has been no different. I start each day out with four glass liter bottles full of chilled H20, only to have guests and others bring in a half dozen Coke, Fanta, and qazsiz water bottles each day. I try to reuse the bottles, save them, plan activities with them, etc, but eventually they all end up in the trash. For a while, I was planning on making a window sill garden and using the remaining bottles to store preserved grape leaves, but after the 40th bottle showed up, I had to stop collecting.

Plastic bottles are the bane of my existence. I try really hard to just drink recovery formula from my Nalgene, but I get that hankering for Qax Su and I cannot help myself...

So, here is my question I pose to you all - help me out! What should I do with all these plastic bottles?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Happy Birthdays

Happy Birthday to:

ME!!! (and Mathais)

(Well, first Liana Rose and Jessica)

And then to Meghan, Regina, Mom, and Erik!

Some of you may know, or since you have received that automated message, that I am traveling around the Ukraine until September 16th. I have several blog posts scheduled, so do not worry about getting some fun material between now and then and of course, after I return to Azerbaijan.

Until then, happy birthday to all you virgos out there!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Close of Service: A Conference

The final conference a PCV experiences (as an attendee) is aptly named Close of Service. AS a PCV prepares to complete their two years of service, this conference, held 4 months before the PCV's official end date, provides information and closure for the soon to be RPCV (returned Peace Corps Volunteer).

Now, just the mention of Close of Service or COS, around a soon-to-be-departing group of PCVs can [almost] insight a riot. We are talking
  • Hot showers
  • Good food
  • Nighly Settlers of Catan marathons
  • COS travel planning
After almost two years of feeling like a fish-out-of-water, a PCV gets to spend hours talking about how much they have integrated and how that integration is going to affect them as they work to re-assimilate into American culture. It is a pretty heavy conference, although, everyone seems to come away from it feeling lighter...

Anyway, I just went to this conference. Mostly I saw PCVs making lists of all the restaurants they plan to hit up once they touch down on US soil...

For me, the entire conference was...hard. As a 3rd year PCV, I was not allowed to attend my own COS conference, so...that was difficult. As much as I enjoy the Az7s and have had a bang-up time getting to know them this last year, I deeply felt the absence of my own PC group. Stories and inside jokes made little sense to me and several times I felt like bursting into tears. Of course, I always was rocking a horrible head cold and my stomach had just decided to boycott food.

The only thing that really kept me from becoming a big baby was the other Az6 extendee who seemed to take it all in stride. His fortitude did quite a bit to keep me together and he often reminded me I was just  being silly. The whole idea behind COS is for the PCV to get some information and say good-bye - not only to the other PCVs, but also to begin the process of saying good-bye to their host community.

My blubbering was not helping that.

At any rate, I came away with more of a drive to figure out what I plan to do after COS and a deeper respect for that Az6 PCV. That's a good of a start as any :)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Places to Go: Gusar

Have I mentioned CBT yet?

CBT [link] or Community Based Tourism is a project-baby of two very talent Peace Corps Volunteers - one who happens to be the only other Az6 extendee.

The idea is that tourists traveling to Azerbaijan can engage in a unique and culturally fantastic tour of the country, staying in local's homes and enjoying experiences off the beaten path. Even better, a sizable chunk of the money goes to the local family/community with very little overhead paying for administrative costs. It is so totally worth it...

So, why am I talking about this? Well, because last week, I got to see the birthplace of CBT up close and personal while visiting this other Az6. Unfortunately, I was battling a head cold, so I did not get to do all the cool stuff other CBTers get to do, but I still had a fantastic time. Although a lot of people tell me Gusar looks a lot like Zaqatala, I have to tell you, it is uniquely different. The low rolling hills, cool temperatures, and the streets full of people speaking in Lezgi sure make the community stand out on its own.

Definitely worth a visit if you ever make it to Azerbaijan, check out the warm and friendly accommodations offered by CBT Gusar [link].