First Weekend with my Liberian Host Family

The first couple days with my host family, I had training at Doe Palace during the day, so I was only home for breakfast and in the evening. In the mornings, my ma would fix my breakfast – one day it was scrambled eggs with onions on bread and another was spaghetti (in Liberia, spaghetti is a breakfast food!).

Then my little brothers would show me the way to Doe Palace (as they say here, they “carry me” to Doe). They like to show me the “fastest ways” but all of their shortcuts and weaving in between houses and through yards instead of on the roads (not roads like we think of in the US, more like dirt paths and some larger dirt roads, that don’t have names), so it has been very hard for me to figure out my way around!

Then my brothers would meet me after training to carry me home to another dinner at the table by myself. After dinner, one of the first nights, I taught my siblings and some of the neighbor kids how to play the Egyptian Rat Screw card game – now they ask me as soon as I get home if we can play the game! I’ve since taught them War as well, and they love to try to cheat if I’m not paying attention.

Host siblings and neighbors learning new card games

At my host family’s house, we have current (what Liberians call electricity) that comes on in the evenings. At first it was only in the living room/dining room, but after a couple of nights, they set it up in my room too – that evening after it was already dark out, there were about 8 people in my room as I shined a flashlight so they could see to set it up. It’s only one bare lightbulb in the middle of the room (that works about 2 out of 3 nights), but it’s definitely nice to have!

That next Saturday was the first day that I didn’t have training so I woke up early to start the day with my family. After breakfast, my host sister taught me how to wash my clothes – no washing machines, here we use buckets and a washboard. It took about an hour to wash a week’s worth of clothes, but that was with Blessing helping me (and definitely doing more than her share!).

Liberian washing machine – washboard, tub and bucket!

Next Blessing and I made dinner – my first cooking lesson! We made a currie soup (soups here are thicker, more like sauces) and rice on the coal pot. I had my first experience slicing an onion the Liberian way – they don’t use cutting boards, instead they hold the onion and slice it in their hands. The first time she handed it to me to try, I almost nicked my finger! I also had my first experience cooking on the coal pot!

Cooking on the coal pot

Washing the rice before we cook it

After we finished cooking, I went to meet up with a few Peace Corps friends. One of our projects during PST is to have a boys or girls club with kids in our neighborhood – hoping to write more about our boys club in a later post!

Then I came home and had some time to rest in my room and figure out how to call home to America! Here in Liberia, it’s very much a community oriented society, compared to the more individual focused society at home. Peace Corps told us that if we spend too much time alone in our rooms, our families may think that is weird and worry that we are sick or unhappy. Our families were also told that we like to have time to rest, but even so, after about 2 hours, my host family was knocking on my door to check on me!

Sunday morning, I woke up for another cooking lesson, this one with my ma. This time I learned how to make bitterball soup with chicken (another soup that is more like a sauce or gravy served over rice). Bitter ball is a small eggplant-like vegetable found here in Liberia and other countries in West Africa.

Cooking lesson with my host ma

Stirring the soup on the coal pot while my host ma supervises

Making bowls of soup and rice for the whole family

After we finished cooking, it was time for church. Visiting a Liberian church was definitely a new experience for me! The service was full of music from the choir (which my ma is a part of) and lots of singing and dancing. Because it was my first time at that church, during the announcements I had to stand up and introduce myself and share that I am from America and am with the Peace Corps. Luckily my ma gave me a heads up so I didn’t feel totally put on the spot! The entire service lasted a little over 2 hours, which was relatively short compared to some of the other churches my fellow trainees went to.

After church, we headed home and wrapped up the weekend with some time to rest in the afternoon and more card games in the evening!

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Adoption Ceremony – Meeting my Liberian Family

When we returned from the site visit in Cape Mount County, we just barely had time to eat a quick lunch, re-pack our bags (of our two suitcases, one will go in storage for the rest of PST) and change into something presentable for the Adoption Ceremony! This was when we would meet the families that we’d be staying with for the next 10 weeks during the rest of PST.

Most of us trainees were anxious about meeting our families, but once the event started, it was such a joyous atmosphere that it put us more at ease. After a quick introduction from the staff, the adoptions began! They called the parents up to the front and then called out the name of the trainee that the mother has given birth to… yes, they really talked about it in terms of giving birth, along with not knowing whether they would have a boy or a girl, or for the few couples in the group, their families were surprised with twins. Some of the mothers even played along, pretending their backs were aching from carrying a child for 9 months as they walked up to the front!

You could see on their faces how excited the families were. It was fun watching the rest of my group meet their families. I ended up being called second to last – I was getting anxious as I waited and waited to be called!

When my name was finally called, my host ma gave me a huge hug and we walked to our seats to sit together for the rest of the ceremony. Then we had some cold soft drinks (something not to be taken for granted here!) and a snack before heading to my new home.

We gathered my stuff from the dorm and even with one suitcase going to storage, I still had a lot of stuff to carry and it was only me and my ma. Some of my fellow trainees had to walk their stuff to their homes, but luckily my family had arranged with a friend and another host parent to drive us to the house. My fellow trainee, Mena, and I loaded up our stuff and her new pa drove us stopping at their house first because “it is closer to the road.” I did not quite know what I was in for until after dropping her off, when we headed towards my new home. In the about 5-minute drive, Mena’s pa asked my ma 5 different times “cars go here?” as she directed him – it was so tucked back into the neighborhood that even he was unsure if cars were able to drive down the small paths and over the brush to get to my house. But we made it!

When we got there, I met some of my host siblings: two little brothers, Seth and Prince, who are 10 and 12 years old; my sister, Blessing, who is 18; and my “older” brother, Samuel, who is 27 (I don’t think my ma realizes how old I am!).

And they showed me my room, here are some pictures!

After putting my stuff in my room, I sat down to what would be the first of many uncomfortable dinners – in Liberia, they don’t sit down to eat together around a table, but rather have almost a hierarchy at meal times. As a guest, I sat at the small dining room table by myself to eat, while my ma talked to me and my little siblings watched me eat (something that we were warned would probably happen and has continued in the couple of weeks that I have been here). But my first dinner, fried plantains, was really good – something I will have to have my ma teach me how to make!

In my next post, I’ll write more about my first few days with my new family!

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Site Visit in Cape Mount County

The first few days at Doe Palace felt almost like being at summer camp because we had days full of activities and slept in bunk beds in the dorms. We got our first taste of what life will really be like in Liberia when we left to visit currently serving volunteers. I was in a group of 4 going to visit a volunteer named Steve who lives in Cape Mount County, the western most county bordering Sierra Leone.

The first leg of our trip to Cape Mount County!

Just getting to his site was an adventure! The Peace Corps drove us in vans to Monrovia (the capital city) where we met Steve and some of the other current volunteers who would travel with us the rest of the way. In Monrovia, we got a taxi to head to Cape Mount. In Liberia, a taxi isn’t full until it has 4 people riding in the back and two in the front passenger seat so we were pretty packed in there for the about 3-hour drive to Steve’s site! In all it took around 5 hours to get there – and we were one of the earlier stops, a couple other groups continued on to sites that were even further.

The parking in Monrovia where we got our taxi to Cape Mount

We arrived in town and as we walked from the main road to Steve’s house, we ran into a few of his friends from the community. Since Steve had been gone for a few days, he didn’t have any food at his place so one of his friends offered to pick up eggs and bring them to his house. He asked for one carton, thinking it’d be a tray of about 30 eggs… but there was some miscommunication – he showed up with a huge box of about 300 eggs! Steve took it in stride and needless to say we ate eggs every day we were there! (Another note on eggs, in America, they have to be refrigerated because the cleaning process that producers are required to do removes a protective layer around the shell. But in many countries around the world, they are not cleaned in the same way so eggs still have that protective coating and don’t need to be refrigerated.)

After we dropped our stuff at Steve’s house, we went into town. His community was much smaller than Kakata and seemed very welcoming as everyone in town seemed to know Steve and many people wanted to meet the rest of us too. The market was much less overwhelming than the one Kakata (though maybe I won’t feel as overwhelmed after spending 3 months in Kakata!). We also stopped at the town’s video club to watch some of the Liberia-Zimbabwe game in the League of Nations tournament. The video club had a projector and a small tv showing the game (I tried to take a photo but it’s pretty dark!).

The Video Club

Learning Liberian Checkers

Then we headed back to Steve’s house where we hung out on the front porch and met many of Steve’s neighbors who dropped by and the neighborhood kids who taught us how to play Liberian Checkers. That night we learned that Steve is able to get current (electricity) during the evening by paying his neighbor to tap into his generator, which was nice so that we weren’t sitting in the dark once the sun went down!

Games in Steve’s kitchen in the evening

We spent two full days in Cape Mount County. Steve didn’t teach until the afternoon, so we were able to sleep in in the mornings and catch up on some much needed sleep after the busy days at Doe Palace. The we’d eat breakfast (eggs of course or bread with jelly and bananas for me because I don’t like peanut butter!) and get ready for school (my first bucket bath!).

The first day at school, we just introduced ourselves and sat in on Steve’s high school chemistry classes. On the second day we wanted to observe one of his Liberian colleagues teaching. But instead of observing, the teacher brought us into a classroom, had us introduce ourselves and then told one of my fellow trainees to stay and teach. He then brought the other 3 of us into the next classroom and left one and so on until we were all standing unprepared in front of a middle school classroom. So my first Liberian teaching experience was completely on the fly! I let them ask me questions about myself and America and then asked them about what they were learning. They told me angles so I reviewed the different kinds of angles with them and then they asked me for equations. After some clarifying questions I realized they wanted to practice addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and asked how many digits (they told me 4) so I made up some practice problems. Every now and then the teacher would pop his head in and I’d try to let him take over but he kept telling me to just keep going! After we did the practice equations, I ran out of ideas and they kept asking me to teach science (not exactly my area of expertise!) so we ended up doing more Q&A about America until another teacher finally relieved me!

Jeopardy review game at school

After school, we would head to the market to pick up something to make for dinner. One of the days, we stopped at the entertainment center (basically like a bar) to get a drink. Then we’d head back to Steve’s where often the neighborhood kids were already hanging out on the porch. One night we paid the neighbor to make us a traditional Liberian dinner (a totally normal thing to do here – it sounds like some volunteers do this every day) so we tried Gbassajama, a cassava leaf & chicken soup with rice (soups here are very thick and always served over rice, more like what we think of as a sauce at home).

Other highlights of the site visit were meeting Bassa, Steve’s dog (yes, some volunteers get pets while they’re here!); learning about the water pump and the well and how to filter our water (and check out the photo of Andy and Austin trying to carry the water back from the well on their heads – the kids thought this was absolutely hilarious!); and hearing the inside scoop on what Peace Corps life is really like in Liberia!

The taxi we took on our way back to Kakata

After our third night, we got up early to head back to Kakata, another full taxi ride back to Monrovia and then a Peace Corps van back to Doe Palace. And we had just an hour or so to pack up our stuff and make ourselves look presentable for the Adoption Ceremony, where we met the host families we’d be living with for the rest of PST – more on that in my next post!

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First Days in Liberia – the Start of PST 

After landing in Liberia, our group, LR-7, piled into a couple of buses and headed to Doe Palace in Kakata. Doe Palace is the Peace Corps training center, a compound with dorms, a dining hall, classrooms, a small medical building, a volleyball net and several palava huts. This is where we spent our first few days in Liberia. After a long day of travelling, we were happy to arrive, meet the staff, have dinner, shower and get settled in. Doe Palace is much nicer than expected – real showers, WiFi and even air conditioning made it seem like they wanted to ease us into life in Liberia!

The road to Doe Palace

After our first night, we kicked off PST (pre-service training) with a jampacked schedule! The first two days we went from 8am until 9pm in sessions throughout the day with short breaks sprinkled in and a couple longer ones for lunch and dinner. We had all kinds of things going on, from initial medical meetings and getting additional vaccines and our malaria meds, to an overview about money in Liberia (in Liberia they use USD and Liberian dollars, LD, which right now are about 112 LD to $1 USD). We learned about everyday tasks such as taking bucket baths, bucket flushing the toilet and washing our clothes on a wash board. We each also had one-on-one touch-bases with our country director and the program and training managers.

Dining Hall Porch- flags for each of the 15 counties of Liberia

Outside of our training sessions, we had our first chance to explore Kakata, the city we are staying in. We had a current PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) take us around the town. Right off the bat, I was surprised as we set off just walking through yards right next to houses and winding around through the community rather than walking on roads like I’m used to – but it is totally normal to cut through yards, in fact you have to to get to some places. After walking through some more residential areas, we walked to the market, which was a bit overwhelming! The market was made up of winding stalls and while some areas seemed to have specific things (like the fruits and vegetables area with very narrow walkways), other areas seemed to be a mix of everything with a stall for lappa right next to a bucket vendor next to someone selling peppeh (peppers)! To add to the confusion, there were people everywhere and motorbikes zipping by. Then we headed back to Doe Palace along the main road.

The Dorm Building at Doe Palace

Another big part of our training is learning Liberian English. Besides a few American staff members and a couple of current volunteers, most of the staff at Peace Corps are Liberian, so our language lessons are being taught by several of the Liberian staff. I didn’t expect it to be so hard to understand, but it really is almost a whole new language! It’s challenging because you know the words, but some of them are said differently, letters and entire syllables might be dropped and others might be added like instead of saying hello, it’s “hello-o!” It will take a lot of practice to get it down!

Palava huts where we have some of our small group lessons

On our third and fourth days, we continued with training at Doe, but didn’t feel quite as busy because we had our evenings free. So I was able to work on my washboard technique to clean some of my dirty clothes (besides taking a long time, it’s a lot like you’d expect!). And we had another chance to go into town. When we arrived, we each received a piece of lappa (colorful African fabric), so a group of us headed to a tailor to drop off our lappa and get measured so we could order something, I ordered a skirt!

Our group, LR-7 and all of the staff and volunteers that were there to greet us on our first day

At the end of the 4th day, we were assigned to our groups for site visits – for our next three days we headed out to visit currently serving volunteers, more on that in my next post!

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Staging in Washington D.C. & Off to Liberia!

I made it to Liberia!  I’ve been here almost two weeks, I’m working on catching up on blog posts about everything here, but first I want to start from the beginning! 

Armed with two checked bags each 50 pounds or less (after some last minute shuffling at the airport) and my back pack and day pack, I began my Peace Corps journey by reporting to “staging” in Washington D.C. The 56 of us in my group, LR-7 (the 7th group of 2-year volunteers to go to Liberia), were in D.C. for just two days.

Peace Corps Liberia
I arrived in the afternoon and the first session wasn’t until that evening, so I went out to lunch with some fellow volunteers (when we all had crazy amounts of luggage and were on the shuttle headed to the same hotel, it was pretty obvious that we were in the same group!). Then we had a quick registration and intro session and were free for the rest of the evening. So a group of us went to a nearby restaurant intending to get burgers (possibly our last for a while!) only to realize that the burgers were only on their lunch menu! But no matter, the food was still good and it was fun to get to know some of the other volunteers – which I was quickly realizing would be a big part of staging!

The next day kicked off what would not be the last of long days of training! We were in sessions all morning and afternoon, our first overall introduction to the Peace Corps (not just Peace Corps Liberia). We did a couple ice breakers, talked about the Peace Corps core expectations and broke into groups to do skits around some of the different scenarios that we may face. Another thing that I really appreciated was that we talked about what everyone is excited about and anxious about – it was nice to hear that a lot of people were feeling the same things!

Peace Corps Liberia Group Photo

We finished up around 5:00 and then were free for the evening. A group of us decided to rent bikes and ride to the National Mall! Our hotel in Virginia was only about 5 miles away. At first I wasn’t sure we were headed in the right direction but we eventually found the right bridge and just across the river was the Lincoln Memorial!

Seeing the Mall by bike was so much faster than walking it like we did on our family vacation last summer! We stopped at the Lincoln Memorial, rode by the Washington Monument, stopped for ice cream and rode past the White House before returning our bikes. And we stumbled upon a free concert in front of the Capitol building!

After watching some of the concert we ordered an uber to head back towards the hotel and we ended up having a very inspiring conversation with our uber driver! When our driver found out we were leaving for Peace Corps, he told us that he had so much respect for Peace Corps volunteers because the first Americans he had ever met were his Peace Corps teachers when he was growing up in Swaziland. They were the reason he wanted to come to America! It was so fitting for our last night in the U.S.!

The next morning, we checked out of our hotel and headed to the airport. The only hiccup was right at the beginning when we were checking our bags. We had thought that the weight of our carry-on bags didn’t matter so, of course, that’s where we packed our heaviest stuff, but then some people were getting their carry-on’s weight checked too! It turned out fine for me, but I was definitely nervous! The rest of the 28-hour trip went smoothly, flying from D.C. to Brussels to Monrovia. Arriving in Liberia, after going through customs and picking up our bags at a very chaotic baggage claim (with no missing bags for the group!), we were greeted outside by Peace Corps staff and volunteers!

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Then we headed to the city of Kakatta for the start of our pre-service training, more about the first week of PST in my next post!

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Visiting Mammoth Cave: Domes and Dripstones Tour

Last April, while visiting family in Louisville, we decided to take a day trip to Mammoth National Park. Located in central Kentucky, Mammoth National Park was officially established in 1941 and is home to the longest cave system in the world. On the surface, Mammoth National Park extends around 80 square miles but the underground cave systems extend a least 405 miles! Exploration and surveying continues today, with new passages discovered each year!

There are tour options of various intensities, but we chose the 2 hour Domes and Dripstones Tour. With over 100 people on the tour, we rode buses to what appeared to be just a door at the bottom of a sinkhole but it was really a man-made entrance to the cave. At the mouth of the opening, you can feel the cool air from within the caves, which stays around 54 degrees Fahrenheit year round.

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Heading into the cave, we descended around 280 steps winding through small openings, over deep crevices and under large domes. The descent was both exhilarating and at times a little terrifying. Water dripped down on our heads throughout the climb but once we got 250 feet underground, everything was completely dry. We stopped to rest for a few minutes on benches while he ranger taught us more about the cave system. At one point she turned off every source of light humans had put into the cave. Immersed in complete darkness, there was no source of natural light in the cave at all.

 


We continued our trek through wide caverns and narrow pathways admiring the variety of dripstone formations along the way. Our tour concluded with a visit to the “Frozen Niagara”, a large formation of dripstones resembling a waterfall frozen in its tracks. After hiking through the caves for 2 hours we only explored 0.18% of the discovered passageways throughout the cave system!

 


Once back at the visitor center, we had to walk over soapy mats to clean off the bottoms of our shoes. This is to try to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease detrimental to bats. The fungus first appeared in the United States in the winter of 2007 and an estimated 5.7-6.7 million bats have died in country since. We talked to the park ranger about it and she told us that these efforts are to try to contain the fungal disease and they are hoping the bats will develop an immunity.

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Overall, the cave tour was definitely worth the $15 price tag. Before you head to your tour, be sure to walk through the visitor center for small exhibits and an informational video! You’ll learn about the discoveries made in Mammoth Cave throughout history. Our quick day trip was well worth the trek but we wish we had more time to explore all the things Mammoth National Park had to offer!

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A Day in Key West, Florida

During one of my last weeks before leaving for my Peace Corps service in Liberia, I took a trip down to Florida for some family time! Mom and I headed down to the Florida Keys for a couple of days. Though we stayed in Marathon, around about mile 50 on Florida Route 1, we spent a day exploring Key West! Here’s how we spent our day…

The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum

Our first stop in Key West was a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home and luckily, we got there just in time for the next tour. As our guide led us through the house and around the grounds, we learned about Hemingway’s life and about the history of the house. He lived in the house for about 10 years with his second (out of four!) wife and 90% of the furniture is original. In addition to the living quarters, we got to see Hemingway’s writing room above the carriage house where he wrote nearly 70% of his work!

The other draw to the Hemingway Home are the 40-50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats that live there! Most cats have 5 toes on their front paws and 4 toes in back, but Hemingway’s first cat, Snow White, had additional toes. Many of the cats on the grounds are descendants of Snow White and have inherited the polydactyl gene of extra toes as well. The cats are everywhere, so our tour guide introduced us to some of them! Hemingway used to name them after famous people so they have continued the tradition – here are some photos of Billy Holiday (notice his 6 toes on his back paw!), Humphrey Bogart and Grace Kelly (from left to right)!

Key West Lighthouse

We also visited the Key West Lighthouse and Museum, right across the street from the Hemingway House. First, we climbed the 88 steps to the top of the lighthouse – we could see the entire 2-by-4-mile island from the top! Lucky for us, there was a museum docent at the top who told us more of the history of the island and pointed out different landmarks, like the island’s port and the civil war-era Fort Taylor.

After making our way back down, we went next door to the lighthouse keeper’s quarters that is now the museum. We learned about the keepers and their families who lived there – in fact, they were mostly women! Additional exhibits explained how the light house worked and the network of lighthouses in the Keys. And we saw a true to size lighthouse lantern – it was taller than me!

Conch Tour Train

Often the best way to see the most of a city in such a short time is to do a sightseeing tour and that is what we did here too! We decided on the Conch Tour Train, a Key West icon. The driver or “engineer” is also the tour guide along the way, explaining the history of the city, pointing out the different styles of architecture and highlighting the landmarks as we passed by. We found that some tour guides were better than others, but all were very informative. There were also stops along the way that you could hop off to visit different attractions and then catch the next train, as they pass by every half hour.

Key_West_Conch_Tour_Train

Along the tour, we saw President Truman’s Little White House and the Southern Most Point of the US, both of which we would have liked to stop at if we had more time! We also passed by the Key West Cemetery where many of the graves are above ground due to limited space and there are a few cheeky epitaphs (like “I told you I was sick!”). We went through several different neighborhoods, each with different architectural styles and drove along the beach and many resorts.

The tour ended at Mallory Square, a touristy area on the waterfront with shops, restaurants and many nearby museums. To wrap up our day in Key West, we walked through the square and along the water. And we encountered some roosters along the way – they are all over the city! Mallory Square is famous for its Sunset Celebration, when every day of the year, there are street performers and food carts, and tourists gather to watch the sunset. If we didn’t have an hour and half drive back to Marathon ahead of us, we might have stayed for it!

Key_West_Roosters

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A New Adventure: I’m Joining the Peace Corps!

I’m excited to share my next new adventure – I’ve been accepted to the U.S. Peace Corps! After about 6 months of going through the application and then clearance process, it’s finally official, I will be volunteering in Liberia as a high school math teacher for 2 years!

Why the Peace Corps?

Volunteering with the Peace Corps is something that I’ve always thought I’d like to do and I realized last summer that there would never be a better time than now to do it! I like traveling and want to see more of the world and I’m excited to be fully immersed in a new culture. Volunteering and giving back to the community has always been important to me, and the Peace Corps combines both of these things – getting to see another part of the world and hopefully do some good in it!

Where is Liberia?

Liberia is in West Africa, along the Atlantic coast, and is about the size of Tennessee but with about 2/3 of Tennessee’s population. The official language is English, but most of the country speaks Liberian English so I’ll learn a little of it (more about Liberian English here!). There have been Peace Corps volunteers in Liberia since the 1960s, but during the 1990s, the program took almost a 20 year break due to Liberia’s civil war. The war ended in the early 2000s and the Peace Corps returned in 2008. Liberia continues to rebuild its infrastructure as much of it was destroyed during the war – that includes power grids, so I’m not anticipating having electricity while I’m there! The Peace Corps helps with the redevelopment, primarily focusing on education, as their education system was also left in rough shape following the war. So the ~50 of us 2-year volunteers going to Liberia this summer will all be teaching in middle and high schools with minimal resources.

You’re going into education??

When I applied to the Peace Corps, I applied open-ended to see what kind of opportunity I might get. Having studied business in college and worked in business for the last 6 years, I expected that they’d place me in the economic development sector so I was surprised when they wanted to consider me for an education role! Though I have no formal experience in education, the placement officer I interviewed with still seemed to think I’d be a good fit and said that they’d teach me enough to get started as a high school math teacher during training. I’m excited (and a little nervous!) for this opportunity and any tips or advice from my teacher friends would be appreciated!

So what’s next?

I have just a couple weeks to pack up my apartment, figure out what to pack in the 100lbs that I can bring with me, and see friends and family before I leave! Then at the beginning of June, I’ll leave for staging – two days in Washington DC getting a crash course on the Peace Corps and meeting the rest of my group – before flying over to Liberia (first a 7.5 hour flight to Brussels, then 9 hours to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia). Then for the first 3 months, we’ll have Pre-Service Training (PST) in a town about an hour from Monrovia. After that I will be placed in the school and community where I’ll spend the rest of my time in country.

Kathryn and I started this blog in the spirit of sharing our adventures so even though I don’t know how frequently I’ll have access to the internet, I plan to keep friends and family updated here, stay tuned!

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Going Off the Trail in the Florida Everglades!

Back in December, I took a quick weekend trip to visit my mom in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Thanks to weather delays causing me to reschedule my flight twice and fly out of a different airport (sometimes I have the worst luck when it comes to flying!), it was an even shorter trip than anticipated, but we still had time for an awesome day visiting the Everglades National Park!

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The highlight of our time at the Everglades was the “Wild Walk in the Wilderness” Hike at Shark Valley! We arrived at the visitor’s center in the morning dressed as instructed when we made our reservations earlier in the week: long sleeve shirt, long pants and old sneakers that could get wet and muddy. We met the park ranger that was leading our hike, Anthony, and discovered that Mom and I were the only ones who signed up for the hike. This turned out great because we were able to ask lots of questions and go at our own pace.

We set off on our hike from the visitor’s center beginning on the paved bike path and after walking not even a hundred yards, we found ourselves just a few feet away from 4 or 5 baby alligators sunbathing in the water just off the road! I was nervous that the mother alligator would come charging at us if we got too close but Anthony assured us we were fine because in this part of the park they are used to people (as long as we stayed a few feet away!).

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We kept walking a little further down the path and then the real hike began, time to go “off-roading!” With that, we followed the ranger right into the ankle deep water of the marsh, walking along the trails that alligators had cut through the saw grass.

It felt like walking through a swamp, with the water getting up to our knees at times! But, technically, it’s not a swamp, the Everglades are actually considered a river. This is because the water is slowly flowing (not stagnant like a swamp) which is where they got the nickname “River of Grass.”

While we were hiking, we stopped frequently so that Anthony could point out different things (and for water and photo breaks!). We learned the difference between sawgrass which will cut you if you rub it the wrong way (the reason for long sleeves and long pants!) and the other less harmful grasses. We saw some other plants, like the duck potato plant with its pretty white and yellow flowers, and some wildlife – herons, a turtle, and a lot of snails.

Towards the end of the hike, we arrived at one of the many tree islands we could see amongst the marsh. These little islands, also called hardwood hammocks, are elevated higher than the surrounding area, which allows trees to take root and can support animal and plant species that need dry land or shelter from the wet, open marsh.  They are usually so dense that you can’t walk through them, but this one had a path cut across it, maintained by the park, that was just big enough for the 3 of us to walk across before hiking back to the visitor’s center.

I would highly recommend this hike! It was the coolest way I can imagine to see the Everglades – you can’t get much closer than stomping through the actual alligator trails in mud and water up to your knees!

If you’re interested in this hike, here are the details: The hike is called the “Wild Walk in the Wilderness” and it leaves from the Shark Valley Visitor Center at the Everglades National Park. The schedule varies by season but during the winter (the dry season), this hike is only offered one weekend a month. It is free (so we couldn’t believe there weren’t more people on our hike!) but you need to make a reservation within the week before the hike.

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Naked and Afraid in a Japanese Onsen

Some people are comfortable being naked; I am not one of those people. Locker room changes and communal showers became regulars in my collegiate athletic career, but while my teammates lounged au natural, I quietly changed in the bathroom stall and waited until the showers were all clear. With my aversion to nudity, visiting a nude hot spring never crossed my mind until my travel companions decided to visit a Japanese onsen. Japan is volcanically active, which lays the foundation for thousands of onsens throughout the country. As an important part of traditional Japanese culture, I knew I had to try it!

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Traveling with only male coworkers, I tentatively wandered alone into the women’s locker room. Juggling my towel to attempt to cover every bit of exposed skin, I stripped down then placed the last pieces of my comfort zone in a locker. Using two towels is the custom: a large towel to dry off before leaving and a small hand towel to “cover your privates”. Ummmmmm, girls have two major private areas!?!  After internal deliberation, my hand towel drifted downward. Unsure of where to go next, because all the signs were in Japanese, I scanned the room and found that these women, young and old, skinny and plump, had no insecurities. They let it all hang loose!

By the luck of the draw, I chose door number two and miraculously found the cleansing area.  Slinking into the room, there were many small washing stations each equipped with a showerhead and bottles of soap and shampoo. I took a tentative seat on an open stool (only one cheek of course) and started washing my light blonde hair and tall, pale body. After a full body rinse, I realized that everyone who was washing when I arrived was still going strong.  So naturally, I decided to sit there rewashing myself over and over and over again not wanting to be rude on accident. I stayed until I spotted a small, elderly woman get up who I could follow to the baths.

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After the stressful start, I headed straight to the first empty bath I saw. I bounced from bath to bath to feel the variations in temperatures and jets whenever one emptied, stemming from both a desire to try everything and to escape invaders of my personal bubble. Settling into a bath with jets, I was finally able to unwind. I reflected on how difficult I made this experience for myself, I built it all up in my head. Slowly my tension evaporated, well, until it all repeated getting out…

 

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