Planning Our Post Peace Corps Trip – 5 Months in Asia

It’s a bit of a tradition for many Peace Corps Volunteers – the Close of Service trip.  Peace Corps service is always a little exhausting.  Eating strange food, missing good pizza (and NW beer); making new friends but missing friends and family from home.  Most volunteers eagerly await a trip to close out their service – a bit of a reward for making it to the end and for many a time to reflect and decide what’s next.

Our plan took on many variations throughout our time in Peace Corps. Knowing we may not be able to do a 2 or 3-month trip again until we retired, we wanted to make the most of it.

Our first plan was to travel overland through other parts of Central Asia.  We’d see Tajikistan, and make a mad dash through Turkmenistan on a transit visa en-route to Uzbekistan.  It would be epic, adventurous, slightly dangerous.

About a year into Peace Corps this sounded far less enticing than delicious food in the Balkans or lounging on a beach in Southeast Asia. We were in the middle of planning a 4-month trip that would take us across Turkey, hit all the Central Europe/Balkan nations we’d missed before, and end up on some beaches in Asia when our hasty departure from Peace Corps and Kyrgyzstan changed our plans once again.

The early exit turned out to be work out well for us.  We were able to be home with our families for the holidays, lighten our bags a bit for the trip and really plan out our route (which is to say, research a lot of places that look fun and we’ll figure it out as we go).

LA sunset
LA sunset

The trip became longer.  Right now we’re expecting to be gone at least 5 months although our return ticket is flexible (sorry Mom!).

We’re flying into Tokyo, spending some time in Taiwan and then a brief layover in Hong Kong.  We have a little over 2 weeks in Myanmar before we head to Cambodia & Vietnam for the only planned section of the trip as Taylor’s parents join us.  Beyond that, nothing is planned.  We’re definitely going to trek in Nepal and experience as much of Southeast Asia as we have time for.

We’ve (actually mostly me but Taylor is my sounding board) done a lot of work on places to visit.  Some everyone has heard of, some so remote they may take 3 days of travel to get to.  We’ve packed as well as we can and we’ll share what we find works for a photography loving techie and remotely working couple travelling everywhere from the plushest Tokyo hotels to high-altitude teahouses in Nepal and remote Indonesian islands. We’ll share what works, what doesn’t, photos, stories and if I can push through the learning curve maybe even some decent videos.

Last sunset in America
Sitting on the beach for our last sunset in America for awhile

If you want to see what we’re up to, you can follow us by:
-Subscribing to this blog (which will be undergoing some changes when I get away from this Myanmar internet)
-Following us on Instagram.  I post at least one photo from each day on the trip on @EricPaulPhotos and we’ll post plenty of selfies @Eric.And.Taylor
-Subscribing to our YouTube channel here: Link. This will be new to us, so watch as our video skills improve as we go (we hope).

PS – The timing of all this is a bit of a lie.  As I write this, I’m sitting on a wooden bench seat on a very slow and bumpy train in the heart of Myanmar.  But can we all just pretend?

Here’s Video 1!

Kotor – the Not-So-Secret Gem on the Adriatic

Top of Kotor Town Walls

Ah, Kotor.  Somehow this tiny little town in a country I couldn’t place on a map a year ago has popped up again and again as travel bloggers I follow visit.  Based on little more than a photograph I saw last summer, I googled ‘How to get to from Belgrade to Kotor,’ learned about the Belgrade to Bar train and planned the rest of this trip around it.  Did Kotor live up to it all?  Yep! Cheap (and delicious) food, friendly people and spectacular views.  There’s not a lot of secrets left to tell in Kotor, everyone seems to write about Kotor now.  Avoid the cruise crowds midday, bring water when you hike up the town walls and eat a lot.  Maybe it was just because I’ve been living in the most land-locked country in the world for the past year but man, the food here was excellent.  I don’t have anything else to say but I took a lot of photos, here ya go!

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)”

First vacation… Dubai!

Abu Dhabi mosque

I’m mostly enjoying Kyrgyzstan but it’s not always the easiest country to live in for an American used to certain things (burgers, guacamole and decent wine mostly.)  It’s been 9 months since we’ve been on a plane and we needed to get out to somewhere warm with good food.  Since I’ve recently been convinced to make some time for India, the usual warm vacation spot for KG PCVs, we wanted to pick someplace else.  We found out there are direct flights to Dubai and the weather was forecasted to be near 80… perfect.

Burj Khalifa
It’s hard to get a sense of scale of the Burj Khalifa, it’s just insanely huge.

Another volunteer near the airport was kind enough to host us and after chatting for a bit we settled in for a restful 90 minutes of sleeping before getting up at 2am for our super early flight to Dubai.  The upside was landing early enough to have a full day in Dubai once we arrived and so we grabbed some breakfast at the airport before taking a taxi to meet our couch surfing host.  If on a budget, I recommend checking out couchsurfing.com.  I was amazed how many hosts there were in Dubai and staying for free in Dubai saved us at least $1k over four days.  We met up with him at Starbucks near his apartment, David turned out to be a really interesting guy.  A Malaysian-born, ethnically Chinese doctor now working in Dubai.  One awesome advantage of couch surfing are the people you meet.  Over the four days we had great conversations with David and took some notes on future vacation ideas (we’re now adding Malaysia to our trip home, sorry mom, that’s another week!)  David took us to his apartment which was in the perfect spot with a great view of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

Sushi
Sushi. This is not Kyrgyzstan.
Dinner
First night’s dinner, Lebanese meze

We were a little tired but we had only four days to see this city so we went for a walk.  Craving sushi we headed to a Japanese restaurant that Google says was about 30 minutes away on foot.  Reminiscent of Las Vegas (and this wouldn’t be the first thing that reminded us of Vegas,) 30 minutes turned into over an hour while we tried to navigate the maze of the Dubai Mall, they definitely avoid any straight routes anywhere.  It was worth the walk, fresh, authentic sushi does not exist in Central Asia.  We walked around a bit more, took a nap, enjoyed the sunshine and ate Lebanese food while watching the fountain at dinner.  Day 1, a success.

 

Burj Khalifa fountain
The fountain outside the Burj Khalifa

Continue reading “First vacation… Dubai!”

Almaty, Kazakhstan has a Burger King

When Taylor and I applied to Peace Corps, our number one goal was to visit a part of the world we’d likely otherwise never get a chance to see and Kyrgyzstan absolutely fits that bill.  Stuck right in the middle of the ‘stans, an unlikely vacation destination for most Americans, we’re determined to visit as many of them as we can.  The most convenient to visit is Kazakhstan – not only is it only an hour from Bishkek but Peace Corps supplies us with visas making it an easy trip.

I knew little of Kazakhstan before arriving.  Aside from being the setting for ‘Borat’, I knew it had a space program and those two pieces of info didn’t seem to go together.  After arriving here I heard tales from the previous volunteers of the wonders of Almaty.  Modern, clean, it even had a Burger King, everyone who had been said we needed to visit.  Our site-mate Jake picked a weekend and 6 of us made the trip to Bishkek to get ready for an early morning departure to Almaty.

Our first food stop was for Vietnamese food
Our first food stop was for Vietnamese food

In the morning we met at the bus station and found an Almaty-bound taxi driver who lured us in with promises of non-stop Shakira music videos during the ride (he delivered.)  It doesn’t take long to make it to the border and we were prepared for the hectic experience we read about while researching on wikitravel.com.  What we found was a smooth, friendly border crossing and we had no problems crossing.  In less than 30 minutes we were in Kazakhstan and soon enough our driver came and we took off.  It turned out we found the slowest taxi driver in Kazakhstan but eventually we made it to the city.  Almaty was not Bishkek.  Modern buildings, clean streets, trams and even a subway.  Our first task was to make it to the other edge of town and meet up with the owner of an apartment we found to rent for a couple nights.  After dropping off our bags we walked out to find some food.  Avoiding the temptation to find a traditional Kazakh café (it’s more or less identical to Kyrgyz food) we found a Vietnamese restaurant which was great.  It was hardly authentic Vietnamese but these were flavors I haven’t had for 7 months, it was perfect.  In the evening we went to a Chinese restaurant (it was a mistake) and then the grocery store where we became overwhelmed by the 100s of beers to choose from (the store by our house has about 4.)

 

The beer selection in Almaty is slightly better than Kyrgyzstan
The beer selection in Almaty is slightly better than Kyrgyzstan

The next day we wanted to walk around and see the city.  First, we took the subway to the other side of town.  The subway is the newest in the world and it felt strange to be in something so modern and clean.  Walking through the city it felt strange.  Kind of like Vancouver, BC but still Central Asian.  After a bit we realized besides the cleanliness, the absence of marshrutkas pulling over everywhere and clogging up roads made the city so much calmer and more pleasant.  We stopped for a lunch at Burger King (so good) and then back to the apartment to get warmer clothes to head out of the city. Continue reading “Almaty, Kazakhstan has a Burger King”

SE Road Trip – Congaree & Atlanta

The tangle of the Congaree Swamp
The tangle of the Congaree Swamp

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.

A nice campground all to ourselves.
A nice campground all to ourselves.
That's what I like to see in a mosquito meter.  In the Everglades it was a 5.  Yuck.
That’s what I like to see in a mosquito meter. In the Everglades it was a 5. Yuck.

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.

Free camping in Congaree was nice.  Daniel sporting the headlamp for the photo.
Free camping in Congaree was nice. Daniel sporting the headlamp for the photo.

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.

SE Road Trip – St Augustine

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.

These hills were built around the fort to prevent anyone from getting a good shot at it and to allow fort guns to have more time to mow down the enemy.
These hills were built around the fort to prevent anyone from getting a good shot at it and to allow fort guns to have more time to mow down the enemy.

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.

SE Road Trip – Rocket Launches & Manatees at Cape Canaveral

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.

 

The actual, original mission control for the Apollo missions was turned into this re-enactment
The actual, original mission control for the Apollo missions was turned into this re-enactment

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.

SE Road Trip – Biscayne NP & Miami

The NPS boat fleet at Biscayne National Park
The NPS boat fleet at Biscayne National Park

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.

 

This complex hosts several cool galleries and a cafe
This complex hosts several cool galleries and a cafe
For several blocks, every building is covered in this art
For several blocks, every building is covered in this art

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.

 

We had to try the Cuban street food
We had to try the Cuban street food

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.

 

A couple times a month this street festival happens, lucky for us it was the night we were there
A couple times a month this street festival happens, lucky for us it was the night we were there

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.

Delicious Cuban food
Delicious Cuban food

SE Road Trip – Key West & Dry Tortugas National Park

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.

Our good friend Daniel joined us in Key West
Our good friend Daniel joined us in Key West

Continue reading “SE Road Trip – Key West & Dry Tortugas National Park”