October 2007

Hello All from America!

I can't believe we have actually been back for several months now. In some ways it feels like we never left, in others it feels like this is a dream and we need to wake up soon to light the furnace :)

We are living in Washington DC now and so far like it quite a lot. We're still not sure if we actually like DC or just America, but it all seems good. We have not had any trouble getting used to things like running water and trash collection, but the amazing amount of variety and choice here still overwhelm us at times. There just cannot be any reason to have this many choices in peanut butter.

Jack just got a job in the State Department and starts on Monday in the Office of Consular Affairs. He's mostly interested in the job, but slightly concerned at the no mid-day nap reality of American jobs. As for me, I'm a full time grad student at American University studying International Training and Education. Ideally when I graduate in two years I will get a job with an exchange program through a university or private organization. I also got a job as a research assistant to an AU professor.

Jack has been working hard at updating our website, so check it out for a bunch of new sections from our last days in Kazakhstan and our trip home (Bayanaul-our home), Keeping Warm, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Good-bye).

Our trip home was amazing. We started out driving to Karaganda, a city about four hours from Bayanaul. We had four huge bags and five medium sized bags. Our friends in Karaganda put on quite a show for us complete with banya and swimming along with lots of vodka and horsemeat. The next day, with the help of about 8 people we amazingly got all our bags on the train. Once in Almaty, we were met by other Peace Corps volunteers at the train station who helped us get our bags to the office. After a rather emotional leaving of the office, we went for one last visit to our first host family and then to the airport bound for Moscow.

Luckily, some of our bags we were able to leave at Peace Corps since they were supplies we were returning or donating. So we took off for Moscow with only four huge bags (only two that roll) and two medium bags. Here is what Jack had to say about Moscow:

28 June.
Well, here we are in Russia. The free market is definitely here to stay, and it only takes about 30 seconds on the street to figure that one out. Speaking of the free market, our hostel forgot to pick us up at the airport, and the free market taxi driver wanted $100 to take us into town. we got him down to half price, which is still terrible obviously, because Amy told him that we wouldn't be able to eat of we paid him what he wanted (don't say we didn't learn anything in Kazakhstan.) also our hostel is called Godzilla's. The Kremlin is really interesting, with its old collection of Russian orthodox churches. A kremlin is a fort which stands at the middle of a Russian city, and Moscow's kremlin is of the most intact (if not quite the best preserved) and is the seat of Russian government. Saw Lenin today, which was interesting and strange. He is very there; all preserved in what looks like a kind of big Tupperware box. He's very waxy looking. Not all the big deal communists are still regarded well here, but Lenin is still very much a national hero. His mausoleum is filled with police very actively enforcing a respectful silence.

From Moscow we took the train to St. Petersburg:
30 July. Successfully took the train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, although lugging our 220 + lbs of bags to the end of the platform (we were in the last car, of course) was sort of a pain. St. Petersburg is beautiful, although much more European as it was built modeled on western european cities. St. Petersburg is truly a world class city, the Hermitage/winter palace (residence of Peter and Catherine The Great(s) among others, now one of the largest museums in the world) is truly amazing, and had all the big art names like Picasso and da Vinci and Michelangelo, etc. St. Petersburg really felt more like Paris with people kissing all over the place and holding hands while walking along the riverbanks. Because it's so far north though, it is light out until about 2 am, so all the bars and restaurants stay open all night. We unfortunately were too tired from sightseeing all day to stay up too late, but we did make it to dusk one night at 12 am.

From St. Petersburg we flew to Helsinki, Finland where we got an amazing deal on a super nice room at the Holiday Inn. We were in heaven! We visited the zoo and an old fort in Helsinki, but there weren't a lot of sights. Mostly we just enjoyed being in Finland. People were extremely friendly and the parks were full of groups of students picnicking together over a couple of beers or sickening sweet Finish cider. Young Fins seem to love the punk look with Mohawks and brightly colored hair, although they are incredibly clean and well groomed otherwise. Fun fact about Finland: bottled water has never caught on because the tap water is delicious. It's so true.

Next we were off to Tallinn, Estonia by boat! We stayed in the "old town," which has been described as too Disneyish, but I loved it.

From Jack: a very smooth ride on the Baltic Sea. And if you're older than 15, you can play the slot machines on the boat, which seems to be a major attraction. Estonia feels like a very happy country. I'm not really sure what that means, but in Russia and Kazakhstan they seem to have this idea that good and interesting means big, dark, and oppressive. Estonians are blond and chirpy and smile much more. And, in my opinion, it's none the worse off for being touristy.

09 July we went out into the national forest one day in Estonia. We didn't see any bears or lynx, but the pine forest on the Baltic was very pleasant, and Estonian public transport is cheap. And clean. And helpful. People don't seem to mind speaking Russian to us, which is helpful.

To complete our tour of public transportation, we took the bus from Estonia to Riga, Latvia. 10 July Latvia is cool, although taking the bus across the border from Estonia to Latvia was sort of a long ride, and we were only here really one day, which wasn't long enough. Because we were only there one day it was kind of hard to get a feel for it, although everyone was very nice. Riga is much bigger than Tallinn, and feels like it. It's not as touristy as Estonia but not quite as nice either. The Latvian lat is actually worth two American dollars, so things seem cheap and then they're not.

I was surprised by the extent to which people were willing to speak Russian with us in Estonia and Latvia, as especially in Estonia Russia is not as popular there. But I was glad for the safety net and we used it a fair amount. Maybe people didn't mind as much since we were obviously American and not Russian.

From Latvia we flew back to the US through Poland. Our bags made it from Kazakhstan to Russia to Finland to Estonia to Latvia to Chicago (where we went through customs), and we never had any problems. Then somehow from Chicago to Detroit they managed to lose one of Jack's bags. Welcome back to the USA!

We were really happy to be back and to see our family and friends again. Thank you so much for letting us share our adventure with all of you. It made the experience so much more meaningful to be able to share it. And of course we will be forever grateful for all the care you showed us while we were so far away from keeping in touch and sending us goodies!

For our last Kazakh-style toast: We wish you all health, happiness, and success in your endeavors.
Jack & Amy