Year in Review: 2016

2016.  It’s been quite the year.  Without even getting into it on a global scale, this has been a year full of huge changes and amazing experiences in my life.  I’ve called four different places home (Elmira, Walton, Costesti, and Festelita).  I started the year off as a college senior, completed my final semester of college, graduated in April (though I won’t get to see my diploma in person till I go home in about a year and a half), traveled to South Africa, substitute taught for a month, and then departed to Moldova as a Peace Corps volunteer in May.  Whew!  This year has been a combination of hard, challenging, amazing, and occasionally mundane.  Here are my top 16 moments of 2016 (in no particular order).

1. I suppose this is more than a single moment, but all of the days and nights spent with my Perry Apartment roommates laughing and talking.  I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to live with for my final year of college.  From nights when we all crammed into one small bedroom instead of the huge living room to eating homemade cookie dough by the spoonful, I certainly miss living with my four roommates.

2. Experiencing St. Patrick’s Day in Rochester with Kristine.  I spent a short weekend in Rochester with one of my best friends, catching up and watching the never-ending parade of green.

3. Graduating College.  I’m not actually sure what date I supposedly graduated on, but I did it!  Our college had uneven trimesters and I finished in April between the 2nd and 3rd terms, but I think I technically graduated in June (I didn’t get to go to graduation and I’ve never seen my diploma, so it all feels a little like it didn’t happen).

4. A trip to South Africa.  My parents called me one day and basically were like “Hey.  So I know we said we were going to go to Canada in three weeks, but would it be okay if we go to South Africa and visit Heather [my sister] instead?”.  Um, obviously!  It was a great trip and the best graduation present ever!

5. Related, going bar-hopping with my sister in South Africa.  This is usually not at all my thing, but I had a really fun time going out with my little sister and her friends.  She basically forced me to go out with them, since I won’t be in the United States for her 21st birthday this coming spring, but it truly was a lot of fun (and no worries, totally legal there!).

6. Substitute teaching for a few weeks before leaving the country.  I really enjoyed getting to work with kids after a semester off from teaching at all, and I even got to substitute in the art room and music room, which I really enjoyed!

7. Getting together with my high school friends (again, before leaving the country).  Although I’d seen them individually, the four of us hadn’t been together since I think freshman year of college, and I was so happy we could get together one more time before I left the country for a long-ish period of time.  Also, one of them drove a 4-hour round trip just to come meet up with us for a few hours (I really appreciated it, Beth!).

8. Moving to this beautiful country called Moldova and starting my Peace Corps service.  Do I really need to say more?

9. Attending my first Moldovan wedding.  It was definitely an event I will forever remember.

10. Spending 8 hours a day with fellow volunteers during PST.  While this was also rather hard at times (that’s a LOT of time to spend with the same people), I have so many wonderful memories, including singing to 90s hits, eating ice cream every day, haircuts during lunch breaks, and lots of laughter.

11. Getting our site placements and visiting our sites for the first time.  I was a little worried when the blindfold came off and it appeared there was no one else even somewhat close on the map to me, but as soon as I visited the following weekend, I loved my little village.

12. Getting to know and love my host family(ies).  I was incredibly fortunate to be placed with wonderful host families both for PST and now here at site.  My current host family often introduces me to others as their “American daughter” and they have been beyond wonderful to me.

13. Teaching middle-school-aged students.  What?! The one age level I always said I would never want to teach has become my favorite.  They’re seriously awesome!  And just in general, finally feeling like I belong at school.

14. All the little “surprise” moments that are some fantastic mix of strange, unexpected, bizarre, and cool.  As probably any Peace Corps volunteer can tell you, regardless of where they serve, this is what makes Peace Corps both amazing and challenging.  One small example: when the bus, during a snowstorm, stops halfway up a hill, backs down it, and hooks up a car to the back and tows it all the way to town.

15. Walking through the sunflower and wheat fields during my first visit to site.  It was so truly peaceful and beautiful.  Think of fields of yellow sunflowers stretching far to one side and fields of tall wheat stretching far to the other side.

16. Exploring Moldova.  So far, I’ve been to Chisinau (too many times to count), Ungheni, Criuleni, Causeni, and around the towns of Festelita (Stefan Voda raion) and Costesti (Ialoveni  raion).  Moldova is a beautiful, diverse country, and I hope to see much more of it while I’m here.

In English, but in a Moldovan style: I wish for you a year with success, health, peace, and happiness.

Fynboshoek Cottage

During the middle of our trip, we stayed in an awesome farmhouse/cottage in Stormsrivier.  We found the place on Airbnb and I knew immediately that we needed too stay there!  There was no electricity, but the place did have running water.  It was a simple but beautiful place to stay.  We thoroughly enjoyed our stay there.  It was also located on a working dairy farm.  We were glad to get out of cities and stay out in the country, where it was dark, quiet, and peaceful.

The front of the house, with the large Dutch door
The front of the house, with the large Dutch door
Me in front of the cottage- here you can see the size of the Dutch door a little better
Me in front of the cottage- here you can see the size of the Dutch door a little better

The house was made of earth materials almost entirely sourced on the property.  I think the walls were a straw/sod sort of material- no bricks were used.  It was then covered with plaster, both inside and out.  The door was a gorgeous, solid, thick wooden Dutch door.  The hardware was clearly hand forged.

Fynboshoek Cottage
View of the main living area from the loft- you can see the bookshelves and other nooks here, as well as the fireplace
Fynboshoek Cottage
Another view from the loft- you can get a sense of the height of the ceilings, as well as the additional window up above
Fynboshoek Cottage
The living area looking towards the front door
Fynboshoek Cottage
The sitting area and fireplace
Fynboshoek Cottage
This is a bit blurry, but it shows the front door, as well as the wooden wall behind the couch (which is the wall that leads to the loft)
Fynboshoek Cottage
One of the pretty bookshelves, as well as the view from the sitting area into the kitchen

There was a medium-sized living area, complete with fully stocked bookshelves (books written in various languages and boardgames), a huge fireplace, and cathedral ceilings.  The furniture was extremely comfortable as well- a large couch and an armchair. Not only was the house itself beautiful, but the textiles and wallpaper used throughout was very nice- someone knew what they were doing when they decorated the house!

Fynboshoek Cottage
The dining table (with candle chandelier above), stove, fridge, and sink area with cabinets. The kitchen had great light thanks to french doors leading onto the patio and three other windows.
Fynboshoek Cottage
Table in the middle, cabinets and appliances to the right, french doors to the patio and shelving with dishes on the left

The kitchen wasn’t huge but was perfect and beautiful.  There were cabinets along the right wall, with soapstone counters, along with a gas oven/stove, a sink, and a refrigerator/freezer.  On the left side, there were open shelves stocked with plenty of dishes and baking/cooking tools.  In the middle, there was a rustic farmhouse table with a candlelit chandelier above.  The water was heated by a gas.  When you turned the hot water handle, it started a flame that then heated the water as it went through the pipes- very cool!

Fynboshoek Cottage
The outdoor patio, accessed either from the hallway or the kitchen

Off the kitchen, there was a outdoor patio.  It had a rustic pergola above, and a table and benches for sitting.  This bordered the farm’s garden.  There were lots of small monkeys in the trees behind the patio.

Fynboshoek Cottage
The hall from the living area to the main bedroom and bathroom. The stairs lead up to the loft above
Fynboshoek Cottage
The bathroom- subway tile on walls and pretty vanity with mirror on the right
Fynboshoek Cottage
The sink and mirror. This room also had a gorgeous wooden door with hand forged handle
Fynboshoek Cottage
The shower, which was open to the room but had a glass wall dividing it from the toilet, which is out of the picture to the right

There was a small hallway from the living room to the bathroom and main bedroom. The bathroom was very nice.  There was an open shower (typical in South Africa), a very nice wide vanity with sink, and a toilet.  The walls were white subway tile and the floors were a slate-like stone.

Fynboshoek Cottage
Sorry this picture is blurry- the pretty bed with beautiful bedding, nightstands, as well as one of the built-in-the-wall shelves. The window sills in the house were very thick, providing lots of places to put fresh flowers
Fynboshoek Cottage
The other side of the bedroom

The main bedroom was quite spacious.  There was a bed made from wood on the property, two side tables, and a couple of built-in shelves.  It was quaint an nice.

Fynboshoek Cottage
Two twin beds in the loft
Fynboshoek Cottage
The pretty view from the loft’s window

Above the bathroom and main bedroom there was a large loft.  It was accessed by a set of narrow, steep stairs.  There were two twin beds, as well as an armchair.  There was a small window, and the loft overlooked the main living space.  The ceilings were actually pretty high for a loft.  I’m not particularly tall, but I think even my dad could stand up comfortably in most of it.

Fynboshoek Cottage
My mom reading as the sun started to go down

We ate dinner before it got dark, then lit all of the many candles for some light as dusk hit.  Our host had wood all set up in the fireplace for a fire, so we also had a nice fire to provide light and warmth.  We played cards in the candlelight.  We had to be up very early in the morning, so I also took a shower in the candlelight.  I was worried it would be too dark, but it was actually quite quaint and nice.

We really wished we could have spent at least one more night here.  It was gorgeous, and after many nights staying in medium-sized cities (which we aren’t very used to), it was nice to be out in the country.  I think it would have been a great place to relax for a day or two.  I also would have liked to see more of the farm, but we were there for such a short amount of time.

What I Packed: South Africa (April-May/Fall)

When packing for 10 days (plus 2 days travel) in South Africa, I knew I wanted to pack fairly lightly, but it was also a little tricky to figure out what to bring based on the varied weather we were expecting.  Late April to early May is fall in South Africa, and although temperatures in South Africa don’t typically get very cold at any point of the year, my sister had warned us that they could vary from rather hot (definite shorts weather) to fairly chilly (between 45 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit- typical fall weather in the northeastern United States).

I took two backpacks for my luggage- a smaller daypack and a large hiking pack.  I was just able to fit everything in the two.  The smaller daypack was my carry-on bag, and I checked the larger pack.

Packing for South Africa

Carry-On:

I’ve had my Osprey Sirrus 24 Day pack for about two years, and it is perfect for taking on the plane, as well as for walking around while traveling.  It is also perfect for hiking!  It has excellent support and distributes weight well.

Checked Bag:

As I mentioned, I used my new larger hiking pack as my checked bag.  I have the Osprey Aura AG 65.  This was my first time really using it, and I was pretty surprised by how much the pack held!  It was easy to transport through airports and from place to place in-country.  The biggest con of using a backpack like this is that it is only accessible from top and bottom, which makes finding the clothes you’re looking for a bit difficult.  There are some pretty large pockets on the top, which I found very useful and easy to access.  I kept my toiletries and other stuff I wanted to be able to find easily and quickly in them.

Clothes:

Bottoms:

Packing for South Africa

2 pairs shorts | 1 pair black dressier jeans | 1 pair blue jeans

Tops:

Packing for South Africa

Red flowing tank | Black cowl neck tank | Chambray peplum tank | Floral button-up tank | Heather gray casual tank

Packing for South Africa

Black-and-white striped tee | Navy embroidered tee | Geometric tee

Packing for South Africa

Other Clothes:

Packing for South Africa

Black knit dress

Packing for South Africa

Black flowing sweater | Beige sweater

Packing for South Africa

Brightly patterned infinity scarf | Large green patterned scarf

Packing for South Africa

Reversible black/brown belt | Gray sweatpants | Sports tee for sleeping | Black leggings | Black cami

Shoes:

Packing for South Africa

Nike sneakers | Black flats | Comfortable flip-flops | Black sandals

Other:

Packing for South Africa

Rain jacket | Towel | Washcloth | Swimsuit | Umbrella | Snacks | The Last Lecture | Katie Daisy lightweight journal | Fire tablet | Pocket Moleskine notebook | Passport | Sunglasses | Small Pouch (cash, debit card, license) | Shower flip-flops | Cross-body bag | Camera (and chargers, not pictured) | Watch | Luggage Scale

Important Notes:

*The weather was mostly mildly warm/hot.  I only wore 1 pair of shorts a couple of times.  I had just the right amount of tank-tops and short-sleeved shirts.

*I wore the long-sleeved shirt several times.  I wish I had brought at least one more long-sleeved shirt.

*I debated bringing hiking boots.  I ultimately decided not to bring them.  For most of the trip, I didn’t need them.  However, I really wished I had brought them when we were in Hogsback.  This was the only real hiking we did, and it was very muddy.  Sneakers were not quite sufficient.  I’d definitely recommend bringing hiking boots if Hogsback is part of your plan.

Day 11 in South Africa: Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, and travel back to the USA

May 2, 2016

We got up early and packed everything up.  We met up with my sister for a quick brunch and hot drinks, then said goodbye.  I likely won’t see her in the next two years, so it was a tough goodbye.  We then drove to the airport in Port Elizabeth, a 1 1/2 hour drive.  We returned our rental car and made our way through checking baggage and such.  It was definitely a bit weird to think our trip was already over.  The flight from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg was about two hours long.  In Jo-burg, we had a pretty long layover, so we spent a lot of time checking out all of the shops and restaurants.  We had to go through a bunch of extra security at our gate because of US regulations- every single person was frisked, and they looked through our carry-on luggage.  I read on the plane for several hours, then slept until about 3:30.  I read for the remainder of the flight, and was able to finish a book (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society– a really good book!) just before we landed.

We arrived at JFK the following morning.  It took a couple of hours to go through customs and such.  We then had a 3-hour drive home from there, that took more like 4 hours due to traffic.  After over 24 hours of travel, we were very thankful to be home and to be able to stretch our legs out again!

We had a very wonderful trip.  South Africa is a beautiful country.  I was surprised by how much the landscape changed throughout the country (and we only really saw the southern part of the country- I imagine it changes a lot more in the north as well), from stunning coast line, to rolling hills, to steep mountains.  I was also surprised by how much remote country there was.  In the United States, towns are scattered pretty close together.  In South Africa, you would drive between large cities- for maybe 2 hours- and not see a single smaller town in between.  It was definitely an amazing trip for us.

Day 10 in South Africa: Elundini Backpackers and Hogsback

We got up pretty early.  The host at the backpackers made us “breakfast in a tin cup”- eggs, vegetables, and bacon.  We ate out on the porch of the communal space.  After breakfast, we packed the cars up and headed to Hogsback.

View from lookout on trail in Hogsback
View from lookout on trail in Hogsback
Our hike in Hogsback
Our hike in Hogsback
The two little dogs that accompanied us on our hike in Hogsback (photo cred to Todd Ogden)
The two little dogs that accompanied us on our hike in Hogsback (photo cred to Todd Ogden)
Our hike in Hogsback (I'm on the right)
My mom, friend Isabelle, and me on our hike in Hogsback (photo cred to Todd Ogden)

We stopped at the only grocery store in Hogsback to grab some snacks to take with us on our long (4-hour) hike, then started hiking.  We started on the trail towards “Big Tree”.  Just as we were coming to the trail head, two small dogs dashed across the street and headed to the trail.  They ended up staying with us the entire four hours we hiked, and acted as though we were their owners- which we found quite funny.  This part of the hike took us less than an hour and was a bit hilly.  The terrain here was mature, dense forest, which isn’t super common in the other areas of South Africa we travelled.  The trail was very muddy and therefore pretty slippery as well.  Big Tree is a pretty big tree (though small if you’re used to huge redwood trees).

Madonna and Child Waterfall in Hogsback
Madonna and Child Waterfall in Hogsback (photo cred to Todd Ogden)

From there we continued on the trail to the waterfall “Madonna and Child”.  This part of the hike was longer- about 2 hours.  The waterfall is beautiful.  After the waterfall, there is a very steep incline to a road.  This was definitely the hardest part of the hike.  We thought there was a trail that cut across from a small village to Hogsback, but we either couldn’t find it or it doesn’t exist.  We therefore ended up walking along a dirt road for about an hour back to Hogsback.

Me and my sister after our hike in Hogsback
Me and my sister after our hike in Hogsback (photo cred to Todd Ogden)

We were pretty tired and hungry by the time we made it back to Hogsback, as it was about 3 PM.  We grabbed lunch at The Lighthouse Restaurant, then headed back to Grahamstown, as you don’t want to be on the road there after dark.  We made it back to Grahamstown just as it was getting dark.  We had leftovers for dinner, and hung out as a family for a bit, then went to bed pretty early, as we were very tired.