Tag Archives: close of service trip

Back Home – The End of 2.5 Years Overseas

“One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

The biggest adventure we ever planned for and one that we spent years saving for is now complete. We spent almost exactly 2.5 year overseas, 2 years volunteering with the Peace Corps and then 5 months traveling in 10 countries. I’m sad it’s over, but excited for adventures ahead.

Josh and I hope to blog more about our travels over the next few months as we settle back into American life. It was difficult to keep up with blogging while experiencing our new environments and we were on the go quite a bit.

While we were living and traveling overseas, I marveled, questioned and observed other cultures and ways of life. In doing this, I have been able notice many things that make me appreciate my own country and culture more than I did before. Here’s a short list:

Safe & clean drinkable water from the tap, dishwashers, high pressure faucets, vacuums, water fountains, steam mops, smoke free restaurants, hot showers, carpet, fixed prices, schistosomiasis-free bodies of water,free drinking water at restaurants,  super fast wifi, tissues, thick tissues, paper towels, ATMs everywhere, national parks, guardrails, clean(ish) air, ambulances, well-organized queues, metered taxis, school buses, public parks with swings, school buses, washers, dryers, garbage disposals, a hard work ethic, entrepreneurs, well ventilated sewage systems, free entertainment,  beautifully landscaped lawns, couches, public bathrooms, dog parks, garden stores, cash registers, concerts, sprinklers, sweater shavers, easy to find trash cans, western food, costumes, museums, bike lanes, cars with seatbelts, free water in restaurants, customer service, street cleaning, traffic laws and regulations, vans with passenger limits, coffee shops, hot showers, rooms with multiple power outlets, flush toilets, free trail hiking, pets with collars, water fountains, sidewalks, strollers, sewage systems, cashiers who can always make change, free bread at restaurants, paved roads with few potholes, street signs, street lights, appointments & reservations, toilet paper holders, street names, free toilet paper in public bathrooms, pens aplenty as if they grow on trees, well-marked hiking trails, “pack it in, pack it out”, public libraries, speed limits, servers who bring checks promptly, professional sports, credit card acceptance at all places, custom food orders, grass, baby car seats, pretty fences, drawers, garbage pick-up, hot showers, incredibly fast Internet, The Bill of Rights, free wifi everywhere, malaria and dengue fever-free mosquitoes, car pollution standards, theater plays, safe & efficient public transport, free soap in public bathrooms, recycling centers, tape dispensers, A/C, instant hot showers, freedom, free speech, our Declaration of Independence (when I taught a lesson on the 4th of July this always choked me up), choices, choices, choices, convenience and variety.

There were also many things that I remember that I DON’T like about American life. Our attachment to materialism, our rushed life, how we take things for granted. The USA has done things I’m proud of but many things I’m not proud of. Our country isn’t perfect. We are coming home at a time when mass shootings are at their height and we have presidential candidates who use hate as their platform to win.

When we were in a particular country and I’d marvel at the beautiful sites before us, I’d remark out loud “Oh! My! Gosh! So beautiful.” And locals would say in one way or another, “Yeah, but it’s just home.” I get it – we take for granted what’s always been right before our eyes.

My new resolve is try my best to see my home with new eyes for what it is – the privilege to live here, the beauty around us, the ease and abundance we have in our daily lives.

I know that from now on but especially this holiday season when I go to use the sink, open a cupboard or fridge toppling with food, sleep in my temperature controlled home, admire the aesthetics of mine and others homes, get in a safe car, throw my trash in a dustbin, throw my toilet paper in the toilet bowl, walk, bike or drive on a paved road, climb the safe stairs in a tall building, etc, etc., Etc,. I’ll be reminded that I’m one of the lucky ones. That’s not to say everyone wants to switch places with us. Our complicated, distracted world is not for everyone.

We live daily with an abundance of riches and celebrations. And as we reenter the USA, I’ve got a whole new appreciation of them.

Happy Holidays from us to you!

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Leaving Africa

We leave Africa today and probably won’t be back for a long time.  😦

So many great things happened here in the two years we lived in Namibia, and the 8 countries we visited. So many firsts:
In Zambia, we swam at the top of Vic falls.
In Namibia, we climbed the oldest dunes in the world.
In all countries, we saw countless animals in the wild.
In Malawi, we swam in the bluest, clearest fresh water lake and jumped into a natural swimming pool at the end of our Mulanje hike.
In Tanzania, we climbed our highest mountain ever and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.
In South Africa, we “swam” with sharks.

But most of all:
In Namibia, we learned about a new culture, way of life and tried our best to adapt to it.
In Namibia, I learned to cope and grieve for my Dad’s passing.
In Namibia I was challenged daily as an educator and got a real glimpse into life as a learner and teacher in Rundu.

But best of all, in Namibia, we made some of our best American and Namibian friends.

There was a lot of hard stuff too that I haven’t forgotten.

I think back to my 2013 self, the Lisa who was hesitant to click YES and officially join Peace Corps because her assignment was in Africa. I was afraid of all I’d read, seen and heard.

I’m glad I said Yes and saw things for myself. If I had said no, none of these great things would have happened, all the great people I now get to call friends and family would just be strangers.

So during our last few hours here, my reflection is serving as a reminder to push myself always, in small ways and big. The rewards have far outweighed my fears.

Goodbye Africa. Thanks for all the gifts you gave me. I’m really gonna miss you. Hope to see you soon.

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Top 10 (not so obvious) most-used gear items we brought for our five month COS (Close of Service) trip

We’ve been “on the road” for more than two months now! It’s hard to believe we finished our Peace Corps service way back in July.

There were many things we had to get done at the end of our service, and packing for our COS (close of service) trip was one of them. Packing has never been easy for me. I always pack too much!

While Josh prefers to travel as lightly as possible, I have a hard time letting go of some items. I started out with a big pack, and as we went along I realized there were many things I wasn’t using. I left those belongings in the backpacker lodge’s free boxes.

Here’s our list of the 10 best items we brought along for this five month trip, aside from the obvious items you pack right away like a good camera, backpack, sunglasses,  water bottle, clothes, scarf (bring a scarf! keeps you warm, makes me feel more dressed up), bug spray, and for us, camping items, etc. Many of the same items we packed for Peace Corps we also brought on our COS trip.

  1. Katadyn water filter – In Namibia we were very fortunate that we could drink water right from the tap (we did, however, use the filter Peace Corps gave us most of the time). For the rest of our travels the water hasn’t been safe to drink in most places, so we use this water filter to make the water clean. We have a steri-pen as well to purify water but left that with our Peace Corps daughter. Bottled water adds up in price. This has saved us a lot of money.
  2. Platypus water bladder (2.5L) – To go along with the water filter, it would be a pain to pump water multiple times a day if we only had our single water bottles. When camping we also may not be able to be near a water source for a day or two, so we fill these handy platypuses and we’re set. We found the water bladders came in handy on our many hikes during our trip, as we used them as our hydration system with attached hoses. If you’re only concerned with one bottle a day, there are products like the life straw that would work well.
  3. Waterproof stuff sack and stuff sacks – When you travel, you are often in wet places with your phone and other electronics. We’ve used this floatable waterproof stuff sack to keep our belongings safe, to soak our foot in when a sea urchin attacks and as a basin to wash clothes. Stuff sacks are a great way to keep your clothing and gear organized.
  4. Battery packThis awesome gadget was given to us by our friends Mike and Christine when they came to visit, and it’s proven extremely useful. When we are traveling places where there won’t be electricity, or if the power goes out, which happens often in Southern Africa, this is able to power up both of our iPhones and give us a few more days of use. On a whim we also brought one of these handy car chargers and have used that quite a few times on long rides to charge our phones.
  5. Plug for sink – This flat rubber stopper is great for washing clothes in the sink as well as for filtering water and it works with all size drains.stop2
  6. Chico bag – My in-laws bought me this for my birthday and it has been such a great item on the road. I use it as a stuff sack when it’s in my backpack and when we go places for the day I prefer to use it over a purse. It’s super lightweight and has two big pockets on the side for water bottles. It can easily hold a lot of items (blanket, jacket, book, food) for a day trip.

    Sportin’ my Chico bag in Deadvlei

  7. Electricity adaptor set – We’re traversing two continents and multiple countries, and each has their own plug for charging. This set is pretty small and has worked everywhere so far.
  8. Luggage locks – These little locks have given me piece of mind when we leave our stuff in a hostel locker as well as on the road. I feel like they are good deterrent for thieves. We even used them to lock the zippers of our tent a few times.
  9. Hiking boots – If you are an active traveler, good footwear is important! I wear my chacos every day and they were one of the best thing I brought to Africa, but we have also hiked a lot and my boots from home were best for this activity. Good footwear and selection can be hard to find in Africa. These were a gift from my mom before we left for Peace Corps service. Thanks, Mom!
  10. Toilet paper and antibacterial alcohol hand sanitizer – I have toilet paper stuffed in every pocket of my jackets, and I always have some in my purse. Most toilets here don’t provide tissue. You never know when you might want to wash your hands, and it’s not always easy to find running water and soap in the same place. It’s important to stay as clean as possible on the road so you don’t get sick and ruin travel days!

Best Luxury Items: How you travel is a personal decision, and many of the items we brought above might be considered very luxurious to some. But in addition to the above, I love and consider my travel yoga mat that I use many days to be a luxury item I’m glad I brought. Working out and doing yoga is important to me, and it’s nice to have a cushion to protect me from the sand or dirt. I also brought my Asus transformer laptop. It’s great for travel – small and light. It serves as my entertainment (Kindle) and I play all my workout videos on there. It also allows us to easily update the blog.

As a side note, I’d bring as much crisp, new U.S. dollars as you’re willing to travel with. I cannot believe how many places have taken U.S. dollars as payment and it has helped us quite a lot when we’ve run out of local currency (ATMs not working has unfortunately been common on our travels!!). Cash is king!

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Reflections on Service – My Peace Corps Elevator Speech

We are more than a month into our five month Close of Service trip, it’s hard to believe! As time always does, particularly on vacation, it is absolutely flying right now.

I haven’t still quite come to terms with the fact that our Peace Corps service is over. I think in part because we are still in Africa, it feels as if we will return to Namibia after this holiday is over. Things are different in all African countries, but some customs and mannerisms are common throughout the southern part of this continent that have made us still feel comfortable this last month.

We’ve met many travelers over the course of this month and they have many great stories to tell. Some are traveling for several months or indefinitely. It has been interesting to hear their observations of the different countries we have visited. However, it has driven home the fact for me that the Peace Corps experience, or living overseas is genuinely unique. Had I been just a traveler in Namibia, even for an extended period of time, my perception of the local people would have been different. It reminded me of just how much you get to know a place in two years, but also how much we still don’t know or understand about our host country once we leave.

It can be easy to make snap judgements when visiting a place for a short time. First impressions can be lasting ones. After living in Namibia for 2 years, I think about this now as we have only been traveling in Botswana and Malawi, not living here and part of the community. I realize my impressions on vacation here are probably very starry-eyed. It’s hard to get the full picture. 

Some travelers make the effort to get to know local people, but most are not invested in a community for an extended period of time like a Peace Corps volunteer. An afternoon hiking with a local person or a day at the beach playing soccer with village kids can give some perspective, but doesn’t give the same depth as working with the same people day in and day out for two years. While there is so much value in just traveling, you get a deeper experience staying somewhere for a long tome. I found great value in the deep connections that we made over a long period of time in Namibia. While Peace Corps service was at times difficult and frustrating, the other side is that some of the work was incredibly rewarding. Engaging with people and learning about a place like we did is something that I will carry with me forever.

At dinner the other night, a fellow traveler asked us to give our elevator speech about our Peace Corps experience. While questions like that are difficult to field (How DO you sum up two years of your life, in just 10 seconds?), it was a good one to be asked because I know once we get home, not everyone will want to listen to me talk about my Peace Corps experience for hours at a time. Most people want short sound bites and not lengthy explanations.

My gut reaction, the speak-to-think extrovert that I am, was to say, “It was really really hard but I’m really glad I did it.” But that doesn’t give much of an idea about my experience. Josh’s answer was more thoughtful on the fly, “You will be more impacted by the experience than the impact that you will make.” And I agree with that absolutely. As a Peace Corps volunteer you get the unique opportunity to really see what life is like instead of just a short glimpse. You don’t just hear about the loss of host country’s loved ones, you attend the funerals of those family members. You don’t just learn about how people observe holiday in their country, you go home with them and are a guest to see their customs up close. You don’t just hear about people’s love stories, you are in their weddings or attend them. You leave truly getting a rich experience, an idea of the bigger picture. The good and the bad.

It’s hard not to sound cliché, but right now I think my answer would be, “You’ll never see the world the same way again. It gives you a whole new perspective.” Gaining that perspective at times was a painful process, but during our travels this last month I have missed my Namibian friends, learners and colleagues very much. I think of them and their lives and all the challenges that they face on a daily basis. I’m so glad that their friendship has changed my world view, and that I get to call them friends and not just acquaintances.

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The ghost town of Kolmanskop

Just outside of the coastal town of Lüderitz in Namibia, one of the more interesting sights is the old German mining town of Kolmanskop which was abandoned in the 1950’s and is gradually being overtaken by the Namib Desert. It is a fun place to photograph with the sand, fading colors and colonial German architecture. We arrived at the time of a tour which was a great way to learn about the history of diamond mining in the region. Some images of our visit are below.

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kolmanskop houses

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Return to Sossusvlei

We have a previous blog post about the amazing beauty of Sossusvlei, a region in the Namib Desert of Namibia, but we returned as part of our Close of Service trip with a rental car and a wide-angle lens so that we could enjoy the remote scenery for a couple of more days before we departing Namibia. Sossusvlei is truly one of the must-see destinations of Namibia and even though it is popular with tourists, it is still like visiting a underused U.S. national park on a slow day. There are some tourists, but you can easily get away from the crowds, climb your own dune and relax.

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This zebra was posing for us on the six hour drive between Walvis Bay and Sossusvlei

big-daddy

The summit of Big Daddy, one of the largest dunes in the Sossusvlei area, was our goal for the hike during our second day at the dunes.

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The view from the summit of Big Daddy. Looking in the opposite direction displays views of Deadvlei, named for the blackened trees that dot the surface of the flat clay pan trapped in between the shifting dunes.

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After a long descent down the sheer side of Big Daddy, we arrived in the large pan of Deadvlei.

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The other end of Deadvlei has the famous trees that have been the scene for many photos promoting the scenery of Namibia.

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As part of our “flat daughter” series, our Peace Corps daughter, Mary Grace, joined us for our walk through Deadvlei.

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This oryx, missing one horn maybe as the result of a fight with another male, looked even more like a unicorn in the surreal desert landscape.

sunrise-dune-40

We hiked up the less popular Dune 40 on the day that we left to catch the sunrise, but we started a trend and many other people followed us to the top. The dunes look very red in the light of a sunrise or sunset.

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The sun starting to appear on the horizon as we ascended Dune 40.

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The dunes make for interesting angles and these small grasses seemed to tolerate the extreme conditions.

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Close of service trip preview

Well we did it! Two years of Peace Corps service in Namibia have been completed, and we are still healthy and happy. There is relief in knowing that we have made it through some tough times and to have finished the many bureaucratic hurdles and sad good byes of the last few weeks. It is finally sinking in a bit that this is not just a short vacation from our work and that we won’t be returning to our site of Rundu anytime soon.

We have just started the “close of service” trip that many Peace Corps Volunteers take after they finish their commitment but are still overseas and highly-vaccinated with a passport that needs more stamps.

Deadvlei

Josh and Lisa at Deadvlei in the dunes of the Nambib Desert during one of the first stops on their COS trip.

For our very extended COS trip we decided to split our time between Southern Africa and Southeast Asia with a goal to be back in the U.S. for Christmas. We may never have another opportunity like this in our lifetimes so we want to make the most of it! We plan to travel for the next five months on a budget but still allow ourselves to splurge for cool experiences (like Devil’s Pool at the top of Victoria Falls or the boat ride tomorrow to see penguins). We will try to post highlights of our trip here, and yes there will be plenty of birds! In preparation for this epic trip, Josh even treated himself to the Sasol Birds of Southern Africa app that should take his birding to the next level.

We don’t know what the next level in birding is really but we do know that we will see even more than the 98 different species of birds we have currently spotted in Namibia and Botswana. In fact one of our first stops will be the Nata Bird Sanctuary in Botswana.

Here is a rough guide to our upcoming travel:

  • Namibia – Swakopmund, Skeleton Coast, Sossusvlei, Luderitz, Quiver Tree Forest, Brukkaros
  • Botswana – Okavango Delta and Nata Bird Sanctuary
  • Malawi – Mount Mulanjie, Nkata Bay, Nyika Peninsula, various other places
  • Tanzania – Mount Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar
  • South Africa – Cape Town and Stellenbosch
  • Indonesia – Bali, Java, other islands?
  • Thailand – Bangkok, Chiang Mai, beaches
  • Cambodia – Siem Reap, beaches
  • Laos – Mekong River, still planning
  • Vietnam – still planning
  • Myanmar (possible)

As you can see, we don’t have a very set agenda for the Asia portion of our trip, but if there is one thing that our time in Namibia has taught us it is not to plan! Just kidding, we are planning as we go and the nice thing about a trip like this is that we don’t have any reason to be tightly scheduled, so if we want to take an extra day somewhere (as we are doing in Luderitz, Namibia right now at the very pleasant and quirky Element Riders Backpackers) we are able to do it.

We have booked flights to reduce the amount of overland travel in some stretches of our African itinerary but so far we are only firmly planned to Zanzibar which we should reach in mid-September. After that we want to make Cape Town our finale in Southern Africa before really shifting gears and flying to Indonesia to begin experiencing a totally new continent and set of cultures.

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