Monday, August 27, 2012

The Amazing Paraguay!

Okay,
Sorry for the long break. We went on vacation to the lake. (Which is ironic, because we live on a lake...but it's always nice to see other lakes I suppose.) I went fishing, and boating, and shopping and generally ate my way one step closer to an early grave, but it was a blast and a huge blessing to get to hang out with my family and just enjoy their company for a few days.

Anyway, back to my travel diary!

The last thing I posted about was Machu Picchu, right? Well, from there I took the train back to Cusco, and three flights from Cusco to Lima to Sao Paolo to Asuncion.

My impressions of the airports of...
Peru - they have the slowest airports in the world with the worst customer service. Lima's international airport is where hope goes to die. Otherwise the country seemed really great.

Brazil - they like cheesy bread (which is unfortunate because I don't). Also, the Sao Paolo airport was well organized. Way to go Brazil. Everything seemed so much shinier and newer in Brazil, and it was beautiful and hot - even for the few hours of my layover - so I liked it a lot.

Paraguay - their airport is exactly the right size and they have free wifi. Why don't richer countries have free wifi? Brazil, for instance, or the US? Go figure.

So, the official guide:

Food
We mostly ate at Brazilian steakhouses and food courts. They have good hamburgers and the steakhouses were always nice, but this is not a vegetarian friendly place. Meat is a very important part of the diet. I would recommend the Lido Bar downtown as a great place to hang out with regular Paraguayans (rather than tourists) and their fish soup was amazing.

Sights
We saw a museum of religious artifacts, a history museum -in the old congress building I think- and a museum about the city itself. They were all well put together. The only problem is that the sights in Asuncion take about 2 days to see in their entirety. After that? I guess it's time to take up a hobby.

Money
I have two comments about money. First - even though Bolivia is officially the poorest country in South America, Paraguay seems like the poorest. At almost every intersection there are people (often kids) wanting to wash your windows, sell you trinkets, or just beg. I saw about 5 beggars in my 10 weeks in La Paz. I saw more than that on the ride home from the airport in Asuncion.
Second - Paraguayan currency is good for your ego. I was a millionaire in Asuncion for a week. (Actually, a multi-millionaire come to think of it!) Have you ever held a bill for 100,000 anything? The exchange rate is about 4000 guaranies to the dollar, so it takes a little getting used to.

The elusive 100,000 dollar guarani bill

Iguazu Falls
The view of the falls from Ciudad del Este airport. Can you see them? Yeah, neither could I.

I made my brother very solemnly swear to take me to the falls, only to discover once I got to the border that my Paraguayan visa was a single entry only - meaning that if I left I couldn't come back without trekking to the nearest consulate, waiting for Monday morning to roll around, applying (and paying) for a second visa to Paraguay, changing my flights and hotels and missing out on 3 of the 7 days I was planning to see the family. So, tail between my legs, I got all the way to Ciudad del Este and then turned around without seeing the falls. Major fail. It's a testament to how tired of traveling I was that I was not even slightly disappointed. There's always next time, right?

The Embassy
Yes, I arranged to tour the embassy while visiting my brother. I am that much of a nerd. But I figured, future job research, right? I found the embassy really laid back and comfortable. I probably shouldn't say too much, but the people were friendly, the amenities at the embassy itself seemed great, and they have peacocks and deer that live there. Need I say more? It's like working at the zoo!



So thanks big brother (and inlaws) for hosting me! You have a beautiful country, full of beautiful and kind people. My only regret is that Paraguay is so far from home.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Home Sweet Home

My life since I've returned to the midwest is everything it hasn't been in ages - quiet, relaxed, healthy, slow. I look forward to summer at my parents' house every year and it hasn't been disappointing. Especially now that I know I won't be around to enjoy this as much in the future I'm savoring it while I can. And, because I'm just that kind of person, I put all this happiness into list form.

*Picking fresh raspberries from our garden
*Buying sweetcorn right from the farmer's front porch
*Boating on the lake
*Loading our bags full of goodies at the farmers' market (shout out to the best apple cider donuts ever!)
*Drying clothes outside in the sun so they smell all warm and fresh
*Building a bonfire in our backyard and roasting our dinner over it
*Watching zombie movies (wait, how did that get on the list?)
*Watching for shooting stars and spotting all the constellations
*Sharing lunch with my grandmother
*Visiting the same hair cutter that I've been to since I was in Kindergarten
*Reading in the sun
*Staying an extra 45 minutes at church because we keep finding friends to catch up with

It's been a much needed, and very awesome break from my 'real life'.  Speaking of that real life, there's a parallel list I've been working on for the past week or so as well. It goes a little more like this:

*Buy another suit
*Buy new shoes to go with suit
*Buy business-y bag to go with suit
*Get travel orders
*Get housing for DC
*Get flights to DC
*Set a date for the Great Packout
*Sort, organize, and inventory everything
*Pick a health insurance policy (ugh)
* ' ' ' dental policy
* ' ' ' thrift savings plan
* ' ' ' life insurance policy
*Write a will
*Fill out all the paperwork
*Scan and email the paperwork
*Photocopy and mail the paperwork
*Wait, there's more paperwork?
*Send in the last of my Pickering documents
*Find a phone and plan that will work overseas
*File for all those frequent flyer miles from this summer (I'm up to 28 flights so far this year, I'm expecting 5-6 more. I have the carbon footprint of a small country at this point.)
*Change my mailing address with the post office


Think I'm missing anything? (Yeah, me too.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Machu Picchu

I'm back! (in the States that is)

I'm busy lying around all day and watching tv, but I thought I could spare a few minutes to finally post my pictures from the last two weeks of my South American adventure.

First, naturally, is Machu Picchu. One of the new seven wonders of the world, and with good reason. It's only a few hours by train from Cusco but it still feels like a hidden city.  Despite the fact that the travel agent made some questionable decisions while organizing this trip it was absolutely amazing. So amazing in fact that I think I'd like to go back and see it again someday (and maybe even hike a few days of the Inca trail). But first things first.

My impression of M.P.
1) There were tons of people. But strangely it didn't feel too crowded.

Most of my pictures look a lot like this.

...but only because I cropped out all of this.

2) It's really easy to get a good picture ... even if you aren't a particularly careful or skilled photographer. It's just that photogenic.





3) Finally, for the Inca it's clear that awesomeness came first, and safety a very distant second. I get the feeling the Inca would not have made me take off my shoes before boarding an airplane. Nor would they have labels on dishwasher soap to tell me it isn't edible. The Inca were just a little bit too cool for that.

Tips from me if you're planning a visit:
*Bring - Sunscreen, sunglasses, water, and obviously, your camera
*Wear layers. It's one of those places that is maddeningly hot and cold all in the space of a few minutes.
*Stay overnight in the town of Aguas Calientes, don't do the day trip from Cusco. If you're in Aguas Calientes (at the base of the mountain) you'll get several extra hours at the site when the lighting is interesting and the crowds are thinner (and the sun isn't so hot). Plus it's a super cute little town. See?

Sort of Peru meets old Colorado mining town.

*Skip the tour guides. You'll have more fun on your own and you'll have the freedom to see what you want.
*Know what kind of traveler you are and embrace it. If you really like hiking and camping the Inca trail (or one of the many smaller trails) is a must, but don't do it just because everyone else says you should. If you want a comfortable trip or just don't have as much time the train is a perfectly legit option and there's a luxury one if you want to pretend you're back in the golden age of travel.

Okay, that's it for now! I'd post more pictures but I have an awful lot of tv to watch today and don't want to fall behind.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Update

Things are going fine here in Paraguay (yep, I'm still in South America visiting my brother). I've seen a few of the sights and spent a lot of time with the extended family, which has been great. So far Paraguay has been 100% more relaxing than the rest of my travels this summer, and its exactly what I needed. I'll try to devote a separate post to Asuncion once I get back home and can upload all my pictures. Because, you know, talking without pictures is boring.

In the meantime, I thought I'd post a quick update about all the logistics for A-100. (In case you're one of those 'detail' people.)

First, I got my official invite pretty late, weeks after the regular invitation letters started going out. From what I hear this is standard for the fellows. They said something about it being handled through different offices. So future fellows, just be patient!

With the invite letter came a bunch of information and forms. It's all a little confusing, but basically, you write the housing people to set up housing, you write the transportation people to get your stuff shipped to DC, and I'm still trying to figure out who to write to get my plane tickets. There are lots of potential complicating factors - for people who have kids, or own property, or are moving from overseas - but luckily mine is the easiest case you could have. No kids, no pets, no house, not even that much stuff. The process seems very self-directed, which is what I've heard from others as well. No one is going to hold your hand and make sure you get your life organized so you need to be proactive.

The plans seem to be going fine. I have my housing assignment already and while it isn't very thrilling (ie I'm staying at Oakwood), it was the path of least resistance and I found that strangely tempting. Also the packout has me confused a bit. Apparently I'm the one who sets the pack-out date. It strikes me as a potentially bad idea to have the one person involved who has never handled a pack out before choosing the ideal date. Can it be the day before I move? Is that a bad idea? Any advice from bloggers who know the ropes would be much appreciated!

Other than that I'm just busy soaking up the last drops of South America. I'll be home this weekend and I could not be more thrilled. Til then, adios!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

La Paz

So I know I wasn't technically posted to La Paz, but I did spend the summer there, and I was at the embassy after all, so I decided to join in my first Foreign Service Blog Round-up and contribute my thoughts on what makes the city a good place to live.

The Pros

1) Location, location, location
La Paz is only a weekend away from some of the most interesting sights in South America, many of which I got the chance to see while I was visiting. There's the Salar de Uyuni - the largest salt flat in the world - only an hour's flight from La Paz. There's Lake Titicaca, one of the most beautiful places I've been in my life. You can see it in a weekend easily. You can bicycle down the deadliest road in the world and be back home in time for dinner. You can climb in the Andes or zipline through the jungle. Slightly longer trips will get you to Machu Picchu and some of the major tourist cities in South America, like Rio or Buenos Aires. La Paz really is a perfect jumping off point if you'd like to travel in the area.

2) You want it, you got it
Some people at the post might disagree with me on this one, but after living in Thailand, Bosnia, Serbia and Sri Lanka I can say without a doubt that Bolivia has a much better selection of American products than I've ever seen abroad. On a given day you might be able to find 3 different kinds of Honey Bunches of Oats (silly me, I didn't even know there were multiple kinds), several variations on Kraft Ranch dressing, Thai Kitchen noodle packets, and multiple sizes of Kikkoman soy sauce. Not just at the big groceries stores either, but right down the street at the market. I've heard the fresh cheese selection isn't what some people would like, but there are some perfectly good specialty stores for that, so I saw no reason to complain. (In Thailand they didn't even have cheese in my neighborhood. And in Sri Lanka the only American product we had on our shelves was an occassional box of Corn Flakes so I didn't have much patience for food complaints in La Paz.) Amazingly La Paz is also a consumables post so you can really go to town if you want.

3) The weather
I know weather is boring, but hear me out on this one. If you don't want to ever have to shovel snow, or show up sweaty and gross to work, then La Paz is your post. Think of it as fall all year round. At night it's cool and crisp and you wear your jacket. During the day it's sunny and warm(ish) and you can run around in a t-shirt and jeans. (I personally am more of a summer-all-the-time, so-hot-you-can-hardly-breathe type of person, but I realize that I'm sort of the exception to the rule.) I wasn't there all year, so I can only vouch for their winter, but I've heard the weather doesn't vary too much.

4) The people
The people at the embassy were totally great, both the local staff and the American staff. But it wasn't just them that made Bolivia so great,  it was the Bolivians we met on a daily basis. They were always kind to us and patient with my terrible Spanish. I never once had anyone (from taxi driver on up) try to get more than a fair price out of me, even when they knew I was foreign and might not have known the difference. They are proud of their heritage and eager to share it with newcomers, but there wasn't any of that cultural superiority that I've gotten in a few other places where I've traveled. In short, Bolivians are awesome and that's a pretty big component of happiness anywhere, right?

5) Dieting without the diet
Everyone loses weight in La Paz. And the best part is, you don't even have to try. It's something about your body needing oxygen to metabolize food or blah, blah, blah science... doesn't really matter. The point is that it's a near certainty. While I don't want to encourage any body-image issues I will say that it was awfully nice to eat whatever I wanted, never exercise, and still effortlessly lose all those extra grad school pounds.

There are plenty of other perks that I thought worth mentioning too. Flowers bloom all year round. You can see an American film right after it comes out in the very awesome VIP theater (with giant recliners and full meals) for the same price as a regular ticket in the states. Life is cheap - especially food. There are tons of interesting restaurants and cafes to try out, from Japanese to German to Brazilian. The time zone lines up nicely with the US, so it isn't a pain to call home. In short, it was an excellent place to live and one I'd highly recommend.

The Cons
1) Heaters, or the lack thereof
Apparently Bolivians just don't do central heating, so neither do embassy people. This works out fine in the middle of the day when it's nice and warm, but at night and in the mornings I found it miserably cold. They do have radiators (and I think you get one per bedroom) which work great. But it would also be nice to have heat in other rooms (like the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room,etc.) Our living/dining room went basically unused and we carted the heavy radiator down to the kitchen so it wouldn't be 50 degrees in there while we were trying to make breakfast. Not a deal breaker, but I think 2 years without heat is a little unnecessary. (*Note: Most of the men in La Paz didn't mind this at all/enjoyed it immensely. It was more of a problem for the women I spoke with.)

2) The internet
Maybe it was just me, but I was surprised by the lack of easy internet access. It's entirely possible that real FSOs get help setting up real (and fast) internet connections, while interns are left to their own devices, and if so, it's entirely understandable. But our experience was terrible. It took several weeks to get ahold of an internet company and they quoted us a price of several hundred dollars a month for the slowest service. There are also the USB modems, but they worked badly if at all. It's not the end of the world to have bad internet, but it made it impossible for me to skype my parents for the entire ten weeks, or check my email at home, or download kindle books, or anything really, so in the end it was a major annoyance.

3) Roads
I'm sort of running out of things to complain about, but I will say that I found the roads mildly annoying. They are big fans of the speed bump in La Paz and that, combined with the narrow, twisting roads made for quite a few carsick moments. This isn't a huge deal though. 

4) The saltenas places all close at 11 am Think of the perfect lunch/snack food. Now picture you can never have it fresh at lunch/snack time. Yes. I'm really reaching now, but it is kind of annoying. 

5) Cooking... it's more difficult 
If you've ever tried to cook at altitude (say in Denver, at around 5,000 feet above sea level) then you can probably imagine that in La Paz - at 13,000 feet above sea level - baking can be a challenge. So much so that the best chef I met still hadn't figured out (after 2 years) how to make brownies happen. This makes boxed mixes basically useless, since you need to be able to adjust the quantities of things like baking soda (or whatever). So again, not a deal breaker, but worth considering if you're headed here in the future. Learn to cook a real cake and read up on high altitude baking and you should be fine. 

Ok, that's my two cents! Hopefully someone with more experience about schools and shipping and pets and all the rest can chime in on La Paz too.

Friday, August 3, 2012

September 10th

... a day that will live in infamy.

 This is the day I join my A-100 class in DC. I hope the State Department is ready for me! (I also hope they have some decent housing left.)

Even though I've known for over two years that this was coming it's still exciting to see it in writing and get my invitation letter. I'm very excited to meet another FS blogger who I've been following for years and to connect with all my Pickering buddies. And of course, to get my hands on that bid list...

Now, on to the paperwork!

Home is...

Where did I leave off?

Oh yes, complaining about my hotel room in Cusco. Well, long story short I did something I've only done once before, ever. I asked for my money back and moved somewhere else. (The other time was a $20 hotel room in Gallup, NM. The biker gangs and the fact that the door wouldn't fully close - much less lock- tipped me off that a single 19 year old female was not going to be safe spending the night there.) This time I just had a snobby moment and decided that I'm not a poor student now and it's time I stopped acting like one. I found a more civilized hotel, bought myself a giant slice of chocolate cake with dulce de leche and camped out with the heater on full blast and the tv showing ridiculous cop dramas from the US. Clearly I was a bit homesick...

I saw Machu Picchu the next day. I'll give that it's own post later.

Then I spent a full day flying from Cusco to Lima to Sao Paolo to Asuncion. This also deserves its own post because I'm going to need a lot of space for all the complaining I plan to do about that trip. The good news however is that me and my important bag of stuff arrived safe and sound. I got to meet the Paraguayan inlaws and spend some quality time with the brother I haven't seen in way too long.

Paraguay so far has been beautiful and warm, even though this is their winter. We sat by a little lake and watched the waves go by. I wore actual shorts (for the first time this summer) and soaked up all the glorious heat. It made me very nostalgic for home. I think my bidding criteria might have a large weather component...

I'm torn between wanting to stay longer and savor the time with my brother and wanting to get home ASAP to see my parents. I'm just grateful to have had this opportunity at all. Pretty soon I won't be able to take this kind of time off, so I'm enjoying it while I can...

Well, that's it for now. You can expect plenty of updates from me this week, since my super awesome hotel has better internet than all the cafes of La Paz put together...