We started the day with a set of push ups and sit ups. If there’s one thing missing in our first few days, it’s definitely not food. Ever since our plane rides began we’ve been eating every 2.5 hours. It’s starting to take its toll. Both of us weighed in about 5% over our normal weight during our first medical check-in. We’re rationalizing it all by saying that we won’t eat this well once we get to our permanent sites.
Orientation presentations continued today. Topics included:
Medical and security tips – for example, we must boil our milk, should not smile while walking down the street, and must beware of the dogs as they are vicious rabid guard dogs, not the well trained pets we are used to…the important things.
Table manners – all the normal stuff, with the addition of treating bread as a sacred item, allowing the daughter in law to serve the tea, making sure the oldest person at the table eats first, and participating in the blessing at the end of the meal.
“Guesting,” i.e. how to act appropriately at a (sometimes impromptu) party – apparently this happens all the time. Women must not sit cross-legged (they must sit with their legs to the side), singing at the table is encouraged, and guests take left overs in plastic bags.
Ooyat, or shameful acts – no whistling inside (it’s bad luck), women shouldn’t smoke (some women sneak it in bushes or the outhouse) and we need to avoid a set of random hand gestures that aren’t totally uncommon for us to do but are apparently promiscuous. You get a tear gesture (tear running down the face) if do any of these things, and you should feel shame.
All the things we cannot do if we don’t want to get kicked out of Peace Corps – for example, when riding a horse we must wear a helmet and we can’t ride in a sidecar.
Coming into the Peace Corps, we expected some great challenges to go along with amazing experiences. It’s our first day in country and we’ve already had both. You may have seen the photo earlier of our packed luggage:
Here’s what ended up making it:
After 35 hours of travel we’re a little beat and missing all four of our checked bags (at least 15 bags total were lost in transit from our group) was more than a little frustrating however we’ve heard word that they were located and should be returned tomorrow to our hotel. It’ll be nice to have a change of clothes!
Our staging was in Washington D.C., which was exciting for us as it had been years since we had seen it and Taylor has family that lives there (thanks a ton Chris & Molly for hosting us!) We spent a little bit of time touring the city, we’d forgotten how beautiful it is. We met with Betsy & Alison, high school friends of Taylor’s mom, and had lunch near the White House (thanks for lunch and the stories Betsy & Alison!)
On the morning of the 24th it was time to head to the hotel and our first official Peace Corps event. Staging went by quickly, a blur of meeting new people and digesting a lot of info. Staging was more fun and there was much less paperwork than we expected – plus our Peace Corps adventure was finally starting to feel real. Tomorrow we depart!
There’s nothing that makes this feel more real than finally laying out everything and trying to stuff it in our luggage. A month ago I did a test pack and it all seemed to go in so easily and only weighed 80 lbs. Now that mound of clothing somehow grew when I wasn’t looking and I was up to 115, yikes! 100 lbs is our limit so we spent hours getting rid of items, debating what could be sent later and trying to make it fit into a reasonable load. Well, it’s all in there but I’m not sure how actually carrying it around is going to go. One way to find out…
Congaree National Park was our last major destination for the trip. One of the newest National Parks, it’s basically just one big swamp best explored by canoe or kayak. We didn’t have time to rent one so we were going to be limited to the few hiking trails but it was supposed to be a unique and interesting park so we were excited. After arriving to the park we discovered that there was just one campground open however it was not only free but completely unoccupied. We walked through the sites and found a pretty great site with plenty of space and in the middle of pretty trees. We really wanted s’mores and a fire so we drove into the nearest ‘town’ to get some food, s’more supplies and firewood. This turned out to be a difficult task but after some effort we found s’more supplies and decided we’d forge for firewood. Back at camp we made awesome caprese sandwiches, built a campfire, made s’mores, listened to music and relaxed. At some point in the evening we heard someone setting up camp nearby and they built a fire. After we went to bed we woke up, it sounded like the forest was on fire. Eric went to check it out and saw their campfire was just a tree they chopped down and lit on fire. Of course it went on longer than they wanted to stay up so they went to bed with it completely ablaze. Crossing our fingers they didn’t really start a forest fire we went back to sleep.
In the morning we chatted with a ranger and made our plan for the day (really only one actual hike in the park so it didn’t take long.) We drove to the visitor center, checked the mosquito meter (all clear thank goodness) and started the walk. The walk wasn’t long but very pretty and interesting. The trees and plants have developed very unique methods for surviving in the swamp and there were many types of flowers we didn’t have in the PNW to look at it. After a few hours we had seen what we could in the park so we headed back to the car. Congaree is worth a visit but you should definitely rent a canoe and camp on the river (in spring before the mosquitos come.) We packed up and drove to Atlanta.
Atlanta was a city we had been wanting to visit so we chose it as our city to fly home from. We had found a hotel in Midtown to stay at and checked in with Taylor’s cousins to find spots to eat and things to do. After checking in we relaxed for a bit and Eric discovered the hotel (part of the Georgia Tech Campus) had the fastest internet he’d seen so we started downloaded dozens of movies and TV series to stock up on things to watch during our 2 years in the Peace Corps. For dinner we had enormous burgers at a place called Vortex and then walked around for a bit. Unfortunately we learned that most of Atlanta is not great for walking around and without a great plan of things to see we were a little bored. We went back to the hotel to use the pool before crashing for the night.
The next morning we had a huge Southern breakfast at Mary Mac’s Tea Room. It was awesome. Not knowing what else to do we went back to our Miami plan and looked up the best coffee shop in Atlanta. It worked again. Not only was it an awesome place but in a really neighborhood where MLK Jr. used to live. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore the area but we took note of the spot and will definitely explore it more if we make it back to Atlanta.
That’s it, our 6 weeks of exploring America was over. We said goodbye to Daniel (who promises to visit us in Kyrgyzstan) and sat in the airport. The trip was amazing. Between the two trips, we had been driving nearly 40 days and seen some of the best America has to offer. We visited 12 National Parks and 14 states. Had amazing food and drinks. Saw some beautiful places and some odd things. We were able to say goodbye to a lot of family. I don’t think we could have planned things out any better. America has been seen, Kyrgyzstan, here we come.
We headed to St Augustine mainly because it lay between Cape Canaveral and Congaree National Park. One of Daniel’s friends suggested it was the only place worth exploring and without alternate plans, that’s where we decided to go. We arrived pretty late and elected to head into town to see what it looked like at night. It was quiet. And a little boring. We decided to head back the next day and see if things were better. The next day we drove back into the Old Town area and walked around. We decided first to go see the National Monument, Castillo de San Marcos, an old fort. It was pretty interesting because its history dates back far. St Augustine is actually the oldest continually-occupied city in the US. The ranger who led a tour was great and we learned many interesting facts.
After the fort we went to get some lunch from a New Orleans restaurant which was delicious (one last po’ boy for Eric.) From there everything went downhill. We went to a pirate museum that was really cheesy and we suspected had fake artifacts. We drove to another museum about the Fountain of Youth but it looked like a total tourist trap. Nothing left to do in the town we drove towards Congaree National Park. If you go to St Augustine, see the old fort and leave.
Leaving Miami we drove North on the coast towards Cape Canaveral. We checked into yet another crummy Florida hotel in the lovely sounding but disappointing, Cocoa Beach. In the evening we walked down to the beach for a bit and saw a sunset. In true Florida style we used our campstove to boil some corn outside of our motel room door. We went to bed a little early to rest up for our big day tomorrow, visiting Kennedy Space Center and seeing a rocket launch.
Eric was really excited in the morning, he’d been wanting to go to Kennedy Space Center for 25 years. The museum is amazing and whether or not you have an interest in space or aircraft it’s definitely worth visiting. The amount of incredible historical pieces, fascinating videos and mind-blowing information would keep anyone entertained. From the moment you walk onto the grounds, you spot the ‘Rocket Garden’, a collection of old rockets from the many programs NASA has had. From there you can visit the new Space Shuttle Pavilion and see the actual Space Shuttle Atlantis alongside the entire space shuttle program history. A bus will take you to our favorite part, the Apollo program/Saturn V rocket center. As you exit the bus you enter the actual Apollo Mission Control Center. Not a replica but the real Center which has been extended to allow for an audience to watch the screens come to life and recreate an Apollo launch – very cool.
We learned on our bus ride out to the Apollo Center we had the rare chance to watch the Space X rocket launch from the Apollo Center lawn. This spot was usually reserved for VIPs but they were opening it to the public. After exploring the area we bought some food and beer and took a front row spot along the fence. We felt like we were right back in the 60s. Drinking beer, eating a cheeseburger and waiting for a rocket launch surrounded by all these buildings we had seen in old movies. After about an hour we were jolted back to the modern day when a tweet alerted us that the launch was cancelled to do a helium leak. Disappointing but it was still a great day. We sucked down our beers and tried to beat the line to get back to the buses to take us to our car.
Our next destination was St Augustine Florida but first we wanted to drive through the Cape Canaveral National Seashore. As we entered the protected area we saw a large gator and pulled over so Daniel could see one for the first time. Tempting fate he tried to pet the alligator, luckily the gator decided to hiss and walk away instead of eating him. That could have been a bummer. We kept driving through keeping an eye on the sky, it looked like the sunset was going to be great. While searching Google Maps for a spot to park and watching the sunset, we spotted a place called ‘manatee dock’ right in front of us. We’d missed manatees in all the places we were told they often were spotted but we thought we’d give it one more spot. It was a good choice because pulling up to the dock we saw at least 5 manatees rolling around in the water. Pretty cool way to end the day. We took some photos of the sunset and drove to our hotel in St Augustine.
In the morning we left the Keys and headed towards Miami and Biscayne National Park. We weren’t sure what to expect of the park, it’s almost entirely underwater, unique because it’s a beautiful reef to dive but when you surface you see downtown Miami. However we didn’t have time to dive and the boat operators working with the park had gone out of business so we didn’t have a way to get out on the water. We stopped by the visitor center which was mildly interesting and walked on the dock. Unfortunately there was little to do. I guess it’s not a fair comparison given the issues with the concessionaires but it was the most disappointing park we’ve been to.
We drove from Biscayne into Miami while trying to find a hotel for cheap. We had given up on Florida campgrounds, spending an extra $5 for a real bed and shower was much better than dealing with the mosquitos, drunk rednecks and the terrible facilities we’d surely find. Heading into Miami we had zero plans so before going to the motel we went to check out a coffee shop that Daniel had heard was great. It was in the Wynwood/Design District of Miami which we hadn’t heard about before but it turned out to be very cool, nearly every building was covered in large, beautiful murals. The coffee shop was packed but fun once we were able to find a place to sit. Daniel, in his never-ending quest to talk to every stranger he met struck up a conversation with the girl next to him. She suggested we stick around for the art show in the neighborhood that evening so our plans were made.
After the coffee shop we dropped checked into the hotel and head back to the Design District. We got there early so we could easily find parking and saw where the food trucks were arriving. Once it got darker things livened up and we had a blast. Amazing street food, tons of galleries with unique and cool art plus perfect weather. We stayed and walked around for a couple hours before making the mistake of heading to South Beach. South Beach is terrible. We finally chose a place to eat dinner because the food prices looked reasonable and they were offering 2 for 1 drinks. Well, the food was mediocre and 2 for 1 drinks is not a good deal when they are $26 DOLLARS EACH! Yuck. Went back to the art show and saw some more cool stuff.
On the way out of Miami we stopped at Versailles, the most famous Cuban restaurant in the world they claim. It was delicious, highly recommended. We finished and got in the car, heading towards Cape Canaveral. If you go to Miami, avoid South Beach, go to Wynwood.
Although we saw a lot of cool things in the Everglades we were excited to get to Key West where an air-conditioned hotel awaited. We soon reached the famed ‘Overwaters Highway,’ 127.5 miles of bridges and islands eventually reaching Key West. It was a nice drive, our timing was fortunate to avoid major traffic jams. A combination of only being 1 lane in each direct, many things to look at and terrible Florida driving often leads to a 4 hour drive from start to finish. We reached our hotel and upon check-in learned our room was not yet ready. However, we were quickly informed that it was happy hour and wine was complimentary so we didn’t mind the wait. Seriously, every hotel should just offer free wine if your room isn’t yet ready. After unpacking we drove to the airport to pick up our friend Daniel, who was joining us for the rest of our trip. We picked him up and headed to a nearby place for dinner as a thunderstorm was passing through. We had fun catching up, enjoyed another delicious meal (our food selection has been excellent so far this trip) and headed back to the hotel. We walked around Key West for a bit and found some disappointing Key Lime Pie before retiring for the evening.
After attempting to quickly drive down to the Everglades (the horrendous Florida drivers making every effort to stop us) we managed to arrive on time to Everglades City for an airboat ride. Everglades City is not only the best place in the world for airboat rides but has had a fascinating (but painful) last few decades, some of which is documented in the documentary ‘Square Grouper.’ We were on our way to Everglades National Park but stopping here for the aforementioned airboat ride. It was really fun, the driver had a lot of interesting pieces of history about the city to tell us and made the ride very exciting. We also saw our first wild alligators on the trip so far (they seem to subsist on a guide-provided diet of marshmallows.) After the boat trip we walked through the ‘zoo’ which was a disappointing exhibit of awesome animals in tiny cages. Supposedly the new owners (same company as the airboat rides) are making plans to build new enclosures.