How to spend a layover in Istanbul

Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia

Our flights from Osh to Belgrade, Serbia included a 10 hour layover in Istanbul.  I wasn’t sure if we wanted to deal with getting a visa and planning a trip into the city but then I found out about Turkish Airlines free tours of Istanbul (or a free hotel) if you have a layover of 8 hours or more – awesome! They take you around the city, feed you and Ataturk airport is terrible anyways so it’s best to minimize your time there (scroll down for some notes on how to do the tour.)  We saw the Blue Mosque (underwhelming to me), Hagia Sophia (which I thought was awesoe) and a few other small sites.  Here’s some photos from our brief trip:

The free tour times are listed on Turkish Airlines tour site: http://www.istanbulinhours.com/. The site says you need to arrive 30 minutes before the tour starts but that doesn’t seem to be the case, they were taking on people 10 minutes before our tour starts.  There is no need to pre-register for the tour, just make sure you have your e-visa ready (most visitors can now apply for the visa online,) bring a printed copy of the visa with you.  Go through passport control and walk to the end of the hall to the right.  The hotel desk near the Starbucks at the end is where you can register.

Checking out Arslanbob (and Osh)

Arslanbob Waterfall

There are a handful of destinations in Kyrgystan that you hear of often while living here.  We’re fortunate to live at the number one destination, Issyk Kul, so instead of asking if we’ve seen it we just get asked how many times we’ve swam in it.  One of the other spots we’d heard about but not yet a chance to visit is Arslanbob.  It requires either a plane flight plus a long drive or just a REALLY long drive from Bishkek so with the family in town it was a great excuse to finally make the trip.  After the brief flight to Osh, our pre-arranged driver met us at the airport for a painfully slow but interesting drive to Arslanbob.  Even late at night where we couldn’t see much, the South of the country was clearly much different than the regions we were used to and I was pretty excited to get a sense of the Uzbek culture we’d find in Arslanbob.  We arrived to Arslanbob and spent twenty minutes knocking on a gate (don’t know who’s or why) before heading on to our CBT homestay (see below for some notes on CBT if you’re visiting Kyrgyzstan.)

Our homestay family was fantastic. The Eje (I don’t know if they call them that in Arslanbob, but I mean the grandma, the matriarch of the household) welcomed us warmly despite our 1am arrival and we immediately settled in to our very nice rooms.  The next morning we ate breakfast on the topchan (a raised platform) overlooking the Arslanbob Valley, definitely the coolest part of this homestay was the amazing view we enjoyed for every meal!  During the breakfast we tried speaking to the family with some success.  I haven’t fully explained yet but Arslanbob is a village in Kyrgyzstan but the population is nearly 100% of Uzbek ethnicity. Uzbek is a language very close to Kyrgyz so we were able to communicate a bit.

Continue reading “Checking out Arslanbob (and Osh)”

Welcome to Kyrgyzstan George & Cindy!

The hardest part of Peace Corps is without a doubt being away from close friends and family.  Skype helps but it’s not the same.  We’ve been counting down the days until Taylor’s parents visited (Taylor literally made a countdown calendar out of rings) and the day finally arrived!  Our previous host father drove us to the airport after midnight to pick them up but Kyrgyzstan seems to have an unusual way of welcoming visitors.  All international flights seem to arrive early and usually after very long trips. Their flight was no different, it was supposed to arrive at 2:40am but it was an hour late as is so often the case.  Everyone was quite tired and not in the mood for the next surprise, 2 of their bags were missing, another Kyrgyzstan airport traditional welcome.

Nurlan drove us home and everyone rested for a bit before we gave them a trial version of the Balykchy Walking Tour (TM.)  I was excited to show family our city, everything from the beautiful beach with massive mountains in the background to the abandoned factories left over from the Soviet days.  I was reminded of our initial weeks in the country and how strange at that time it was to have herds of cows cross your path in the middle of the city or decaying ruins next to brand new construction – these all feel so normal now.

The following day we took Taylor’s parents to Bishkek via marshrutka (of course none of the crazy things happened we often see, it was a perfectly normal ride.)  We toured the city a bit and showed them the Peace Corps office in between calls to Turkish Air to try and locate our missing bags.  The best part about stopping by Bishkek was seeing a lot of the K-21s one last time before they head home.  We had a lot of great friends in this group and it will be sad to not have them around when we return to Kyrgyzstan.  Good luck K-21s!

On our second evening, we headed to the airport.  The trip on to the plane was frustrating but rather than type out a long, frustrating story, I’ll just say two things I will NOT miss from Kyrgyzstan are taxis and standing in lines (lines, ya right.)

The Halfway Point of my Peace Corps Service (in photos)

I’ve been accused of keeping my blog too positive. This may seem odd but it’s more than fair.  The things I like to write and show photos about are the highlights.  Writing a post about the many times someone just never shows up for a meeting or sitting and waiting hours for vehicles to leave (which seems to take up the bulk of my life) just doesn’t seem that interesting.  A big part of Peace Corps life (at least mine) is boredom and being aggravated by little things that just add up over time.  I haven’t had a single terrible experience but arguing with taxi drivers, convincing drunks I’m not a spy and trying to figure out how to keep my photo students motivated takes a toll (and makes the vacation I’m starting now the thing I really need.

Here, halfway through my service, I thought I’d write a post going through month by month with a few photos and thoughts on what my life was like.

May

Our first full month in country.  The days were spent learning the language, going through many Peace Corps trainings and getting to know the other new volunteers.

June

The second month of training gets very tiresome as the weather heats up.  I get tired of seeing the same faces every day, tired of learning Kyrgyz and I just want to get to my permanent site.  At the end of the month we met a couple people from our new host family.  It was awkward but it was exciting to meet them.  Finally at the end of the month we were sworn in.  It was exciting but also nerve-wracking because we were headed to our sites with colleagues we couldn’t really talk with and felt the pressure to be able to communicate and do work.

 

July

Our first month at site was packed with activities and a lot of time trying to figure out how to learn to live with a family.  We went on hikes, explored Balykchy, tried to get to know our new family and helped at a couple summer camps.  July was both good and bad.  There were some fun times with the family but also a lot of difficult times were we felt like we were doing the wrong thing but had no idea what it was or how to make it better.  The camps were fun but I got really sick and was stuck in one spot way too long.  Work was also difficult because I couldn’t say anything of substance to my main counterpart and we mostly ended up struggling to get to know each other and drinking beer.

August

August was a little more fun than July because I felt like I was getting in a bit of a routine.  We did a couple more hikes and had to go back to our training village for the last part of training.  This was miserable since it was so hot and I think all anyone wanted to do was get settled in at their permanent sites.

 

September

September was a rush of trying to fit in as many outdoor activities as we could before the weather was going to turn.  Work was going ok but a lot of the time was just spent trying to figure out what kind of work we could do together.  Things were a bit awkward with our host family and we struggled to figure out if interactions were just always going to strange or if we were doing something wrong.

 

October

Bike rides, trips to new regions of Kyrgyzstan and a trip to Bishkek to attend a party for our Kyrgyz teacher’s baby.  At AVEP work was going well but it could be a little boring at times when the only thing I could help with was correcting their reports (they’re written in English.)  At Danko work was pretty frustrating because I had no idea how we could work together.  Trying to discuss stuff in Kyrgyz was very difficult and my counterpart didn’t have the patience to sit with me and use Google Translate to figure out things I couldn’t say in Kyrgyz.  We decided to start a photo club which was exciting because it seemed manageable and would be fun.

November

My photo club started and sputtered in November.  Teaching in Kyrgyz was extremely difficult and we had a really hard getting kids to attend.  Also, kids had to bring their own cameras which were usually very bad and limited who could come.  At AVEP I went to several greenhouse openings, these were fun to see but I really didn’t have that much to do with the work.  Things with the host family were deteriorating and we couldn’t find a way to make things work even with my program manager coming to help.  At the end of the month we decided to move after Peace Corps said we could move to an apartment.

 

December

My photo club at Danko was basically dead but after a PC training, my counterpart and I decided to write a grant to buy cameras and give the photo club another go with the experience of one failure under our belts.  We moved into our new apartment and it was exciting but came with its own challenges, electrical fires, water outages and crazy neighbors who thought we were spies.

 

January

The New Year!  The New Year celebrations were fun.  We visited our host family for the first time since moving out.  It went better than expected but the grandma made more of the condescending comments that were part of why we moved out.  We had a really fun day at my counterpart’s house with his family.  We also took a trip to Naryn, the coldest oblast, during the coldest month.  It was beautiful and fun to meet more volunteers’ families.

February

We finally took our first trip out of the country to Dubai, a much-needed break.  We received the great news our photo club grant was approved so we began preparations for that.  I did another hike.  At AVEP we began writing a couple more proposals so the work there was a bit more interesting.  The challenge at AVEP is I feel more like an employee, I can’t really offer much in terms of ‘skills-transfer’ as the organization is already pretty advanced.

 

March

The weather was warming up which was nice but March was a pretty uneventful month.  I think the single biggest problem I’ve had in Peace Corps is boredom and this was one of those months.  Both work sites were status-quo and we were just continuing what we were doing.

April

After one of the slowest months came the busiest.  We received grant money to buy our photo club equipment and the first classes started.  It took a ton of time to translate lessons into Kyrgyz so I could teach.  At AVEP we took a trip around the oblast speaking to local farmers and politicians as part of the KARAGAT project, AVEP’s largest project.  Between all the work, we managed to go on a hike and ride our bikes to a neighboring village to visit another volunteer and her family.

 

May

Another crazy month.  My photo club was going pretty well and we did our first field trip.  We did hikes in Ala-Archa National Park and Tash Rabat.  I tried to start quite a few projects at AVEP that kept me very busy.  Best of all, Taylor’s parents came and we started our vacation.

Half of my Peace Corps service is done.  Looking back through all the photos and my notes from the first year I realize how much has happened even though it seems to be flying by and too unproductive.  Most of the volunteers who are leaving felt like their second year was much better than their first which I hope is true.