Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The End of Book One

This post Peace Corps life has been insanely busy, which is why I haven't found the time to write the last chapter in this adventure- the journey home.

I have now been in America a month and the adjustment process has been both easier and harder than I expected. So much of America is the same, but it is different too. Things that I loved before, I now dislike and visa versa. I  am now annoyed by things that didn't use to bother me, or these annoyances have been heightened. A couple days ago as I stood in the shampoo aisle at Target trying to decide on conditioner, I almost burst into tears because the Target was packed and there were so many options, I couldn't do it and walked out of the store without conditioner.

But now I am getting a but ahead of myself talking about what America is like and the last time you left me, I was in Macedonia and had just become an RPCV. Our story continues there.

I completed my service before Phil, so we hung out in Skopje and Kumanovo with a friend and did some last minute gift shopping. The day Phil completed his service, we hopped on out last bus in Macedonia and went to Berovo (where our final Peace Corps conference back in August was) for the night. We stayed with my American host sister (the PCV who had my Losovo family after me). She was the best host ever! Erika met us at the bus stop to help us with all our luggage, made us an amazing multi-course dinner, had hot water heated up for showers, and gave us her big comfy bed to sleep in. She had breakfast ready in the morning and fun cats to play with.

In the morning, Erika's neighbor came to pick us up to drive us to Sofia for our flight. The weather was starting to get bad as we left, but luckily we made it out before the blizzard hit. In Sofia, our bags were extremely overweight, but we got lucky and the Wizz Air staff didn't care (we had paid a lot of money already just to check bags, so that might have helped). Our flight from Sofia to Barcelona was a breeze and we arrived on time with all our luggage.

Since we were only in Barcelona for about 20 hours, we rushed to the hostel (Phil having to break out his rusty and selective Spanish to get there), then met up with some other RPCVs going on the boat with us for dinner.
Cool buildings were all around us
Gaudi is the architect of Barcelona, so his buildings can be seen all over
Another Gaudi
The rest of our time in Barcelona went by quickly, but we were able to sneak in a visit to La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's amazing work that has yet to be completed.
The outside of La Sagrada Familia
Inside- the colors from the stained glass were nothing short of amazing.
One side was filled with blues and greens
The other side lots of reds, yellows, and oranges
The organ pipes are one the side
The other tourist attraction we saw in Barcelona- sangria!
On the 27th, we made our way to the cruise terminal and oh my, the ships were huge! Boarding was the easiest ever and soon, we were on the ship, ready to start our 15 day cruise. We met up with the others in our group and explored the boat after checking out our staterooms (even the cheap inside, no window, lower deck cabins were fantastic).
Our first real view of the ship as we embarked.
Our ship (taken from the Bahamas actually)
Our first lunch on board was delicious, so we knew we were in for a delectable time. If was great having other brand new RPCVs on board with us as we spent a good 10 minutes walking around the buffet commenting on all the foods we hadn't seen for 27 months and that would have annoyed many people, although most people on the boat were kind of fascinated by us and our journey home.
The captain of our boat
The first night of the cruise, Phil found out he was given a place in the January 1014 A-100 foreign service officer training class, so we got some champagne and celebrated Phil's success. We both were over-the-moon with happiness and the boat became our celebration cruise.

I can't even begin to recount the multitude of things we did on the ship- there was always something going on. Our boat had around 4000 passengers and we were in the select group of about 40 people under the age of 35.
View of the boat from the top deck
One of the best parts of the boat though, was our main waiter each night at dinner. His name was Alex and he was from Ukraine. He was amazing and our group of 11 (8 RPCVs from Macedonia, one RPCV from Ukraine, and a young Spanish/American couple) enjoyed making jokes with Alex and tried to make his 14 hour days a bit more enjoyable. On the last night, Alex took 11 of the menus from that nights dinner and signed them for is as a keepsake.
At lunch, we would request Alex as our waiter if he had a large enough table.
In the dining room at dinner.
While I had heard about the grandeur of such ships, this was my first time on one, so I had no idea what to expect. The boat was above my expectations. This boat had everything from a hospital, casino, and two swimming pools, to a rock climbing wall, complete gym and spa, and about 10 different places to eat.
The walking/jogging track on the top deck.
The indoor pool
Sports court
The outdoor pool and hot tubs. There was an outdoor movie screen so you could watch the movie of the day in the pool. This is also where they held the belly-flop competition.
Mini golf
Julie demonstrating how to work out in the gym.
The Centrum- the inside stage area of the ship.
The food was as delicious as I had heard. We ate roasted rack of lamb, lobster tails, all kinds of fish, and an array of fruits and vegetables. The desserts, however, were on a whole new level. After night one, the chef was alerted that I couldn't eat any dairy, so he got to be creative on my desserts as most on the menu had milk. I had braised peaches, soy chocolate mouse, a chocolate cake that was to die for, and raspberry rhubarb cobbler to name just a few. One night, our table ordered all of the desserts on the menu with the goal being to share and sample all the desserts. Alex, however, felt a bite of each wouldn't be enough, so he brought us 3-4 of each, totaling around 30 desserts for 11 of us!
The table of gluttony.
Our ship stopped three times along the journey- Cadiz, Spain; Tenerife, Canary Islands; and Coco Cay, Bahamas. In Cadiz, we met up with another RPCV, Anna, and her friend who lives there for some tapas and a little site seeing.

Part of Julie's "set your camera on timed rapid fire and take seven pictures in the span on 10 seconds and insist people move around"
This photo gives a scale as to how big the ship was.
A monument in Plaza de Espana.
Julie likes to take surprise photos.
The narrow, cobble stoned streets
My PST Lozovo group in Cadiz.
In the Canary Islands, we rented cars and drove up into the wilderness towards the major volcano on the island. The landscape was amazing and the closer we got to the base of the volcano, the more moonlike the terrain became. Unfortunately due to the weather, we weren't able to get to the top of the volcano. Anytime you travel with Julie, Andres, or Shannon, you can expect hundreds of pictures to be taken.
When we got off the boat, there were musicians playing traditional music and dancers dancing a traditional dance.
The view of Tenerife from the docks.
Starting our drive up the volcano.
The moonscape look has started thanks to the volcano.
Once again, we used Julie's rapid shot to get some group photos.
Andres always takes the "move quick" to a whole new level.
After the Canaries, it was seven days straight at sea. This is the part most people have had questions about. I will tell you that it was amazing. We loved it as we were able to get into a bit of a routine. There was so much going on on the boat that there wasn't time to be bored.
Our first formal night
Formal night one
Formal night two
Formal night two
Just having some fun with the decorations
Black and white night
Having fun on the helipad
The view from the boat- pretty amazing!
Our first port after the transatlantic voyage, and out last port of call, was at Royal Caribbean's private Bahamian island, Coco Cay. There wasn't much to do there other than lay on the beach, swim in the ocean, and drink rum and cokes made with local rum. It was a very relaxing time. As we were getting ready to leave, Julie decided we needed some group pictures.
The waters in the Bahamas are too shallow for a ship as large as a cruise ship to dock, so we were tendered into the island and this was our first site.
The island was filled with bright, colorful buildings.
Looking out at the blue waters.
The island.
This is what you picture when you think of tropical island paradise.
Group picture #1
Group picture #2
Phil and I decided to take a picture in the seemed safe enough...
Then Stephen thought it would be funny to do a headstand behind us, however, he lost his balance.
Julie, Shannon, and I decided to take a picture too, but we not going to allow anyone to do headstands near us.
I could go on and on about the boat talking about the shows and activities and other escapades onboard the Serenade of the Seas, but there is more to write about, so I will summarize with pictures.
There were two performances each day, except for port days. We saw singers, dancers, jugglers, magicians, and hypnotists.
Sometimes there were additional performances in the centrum that featured dancers flying above our heads.
Watching the sunset on the top deck.
Our housekeeper was a master at making towel animals. We had an elephant...
a monkey....
and a dog to name just a few.
The best part of the cruise though, and why I would recommend it to other n PCVs returning home, is that it was a great way to unwind and renter the American world. We were on an American ship with American food, people, activities, and mindset. However, we were still with people who has been there in Macedonia and understood the process we were all going through. It gave us all a chance to get most the "oh my gosh there is soap in the bathroom and yogurt that you eat with a spoon rather than drink it again!" out of our system before we were around people who wouldn't understand or care what we were doing. We could tell as many stories about life in the old county as we wanted because we knew the people and places that were being talked about. Immediately flying home wouldn't have given us that closure and time to reflect and reacclimate.

Enough about the about, even though it was fantastic. When we arrived in New Orleans, we were met by Julie's parents. They waited outside in the cold for hours for us, but the site of the Macedonian flag in America was exciting. We went to their hotel to leave our luggage while we travelled around the city. The site of 10 people struggling to walk down the sidewalk while being loaded down with two years worth of luggage was quite an unusual site in New Orleans, so we got many inquisitive looks.

We were only in New Orleans until the morning (we have become pros at the 20 hours in a city), so off we all went to eat poboys and jambalaya and drink the local specialty drinks (horny alligator, atomic itch, and hand grenade). We ended the night at Pat O'Brien's piano bar, which was a ton of fun. You could request songs (any songs) and the pianists would try to play and sing them and they certainly achieved that (anyone who can make Sisqo's thong song sound good on the piano has major talent).
*All New Orleans photos are courtesy of Andres
St. Louis Cathedral
Home of the famous beignets
Pat O'Brien's Piano Bar
From New Orleans, it was on to Minnesota to spend time with my family. There, I got to met and hold new babies, see old friends, show Phil where I grew up and introduce him to all my parents' friends, celebrate St. Lucia, an celebrate an early Christmas with my family and sister's boyfriend. It was a fantastic mini trip to Minnesota, even though it wasn't nearly enough time there.

From Minnesota, we headed to Tucson to spend Christmas with Phil's family. I had met them all on Skype, but never in person. They were all lovely and welcoming. We hung out in Tucson for 5 days, then went to San Antonio with Phil's sister and brother-in-law. Lori and Vance were fantastic and took us to meet lots of their friends and we ate tons of good food. After a few days with them, we headed back to Tucson to get ready for the big move to DC.

We cleaned, sorted, and packed up everything for the movers and successfully completed our first of many pack outs. After a few more days in Tucson, we boarded planes to DC (where I am writing this post), and set off to start book 2 of Phillip and Sara's Overseas Adventures.

That said, it is now time to end book 1: A Peace Corps Journey, and with that comes the conclusion of this blog. I intend to write a blog for our Foreign Service life, however it's creation is still in the works. I will post on here once more with information about book.