Iceland: Golden Circle Part I

The Golden Circle is a short looped drive that includes many of the top tourist attractions in Iceland. It’s close to both the capital city of Reykjavik and the airport, so even those that are only in Iceland for 24 hours often do this route. You can hit all of the main sights in a matter of hours, but we decided to split our time there into two days and stayed along the route. Here’s what we did on our first day of the Golden Circle.

Fridheimar Greenhouse:

We were a bit tired on our first day, so we allowed ourselves to rest some that morning, then headed to Fridheimar Greenhouse, which is a greenhouse that grows primarily tomatoes. Several years ago, the owners decided to add a restaurant directly inside one of their greenhouses, complete with a tomato-based menu. They’re quite famous for the incredible food, and we tried both the classic tomato soup with homemade bread, the mozzarella and tomato tortilla “pizza”, and the ravioli. Everything was delicious and it was cool to eat surrounded by the tomato plants!

Geysir:

After we had filled our stomachs with fantastic food, we headed towards Geysir. As the name indicates, this is a geothermal area with several geysers. The prominent geyser, which gives this attraction its name, no longer goes off, but there is a smaller geyser (Strokkur) that goes off about every 5-10 minutes. Behind the geysers there were several lupine-covered hills. My parents, who have been to Yellowstone National Park in the US, weren’t all that impressed with Strokkur, but the area was undeniably pretty either way.

Gullfoss:

From Geysir, we headed to Gullfoss Waterfall. This waterfall is the most impressive of the waterfalls we saw in Iceland in my opinion. It is a powerful waterfall, with two separate steps over which the water flows. The photos really don’t compare to seeing it in person. It is simply stunning. We walked along both the upper and lower paths, which affords you two different views of the falls.

Efsti-Dalur:

After Gullfoss, we still had a couple of hours before we needed to be at the Secret Lagoon, so we decided to drive in the opposite direction to Efsti-dalur, a farm that also has a restaurant and homemade ice-cream! I had read that the ice-cream was fantastic there, and it didn’t disappoint! The ice-cream is made right there on the farm, and there are windows from the ice-cream parlor directly into the barn where the cows are.

Secret Lagoon (Gamla Laugin):

We ended our day at Secret Lagoon, a natural hot pool along the Golden Circle. We had decided to skip the Blue Lagoon, one of the top attractions in Iceland, because we dislike crowds and went here instead. My luggage hadn’t arrived with me, so I ended up having to rent a swimsuit, which is something I usually wouldn’t do, but it was fine. We really enjoyed our time here, just relaxing in the hot water. It was the perfect end to a busy (and fairly cold) day!

Notes:

Where we stayed: Duo Bungalow in Selfoss (Airbnb)

Costs: Our meals at Fridheimar were around $20 USD/person; Ice-cream at Efsti-dalur was about $8 USD for two big scoops of ice-cream; the Secret Lagoon was about $26 USD/person.

Tips:

  • We really enjoyed each of the stops on this day! Our favorites were Fridheimar, Gullfoss, and Secret Lagoon.
  • At Gullfoss, make sure you do both paths. Also wear rain gear, as there’s a fair amount of mist.
  • You should reserve a table in advance for Fridheimar, and you also need to book in advance for the Secret Lagoon.

Travel: Moldova and Romania

It’s been quite a while since my last post.  That’s because I’ve been travelling!  Two weeks ago, my parents arrived in Moldova and we spent some time in the country that is currently my home and also spent a week in Romania.  It was quite the vacation, and I’m so glad my parents were able to come visit me and get to see where I live and what I do and that we also got to travel to another country together.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing detailed posts of the places we went and what we saw.  We saw a lot in just two weeks, so it’ll be quite a few separate posts.  But for now, I’ll just share the basics of our trip.

My parents began and ended their trip in Moldova.  We spent the first three days in my site (the village I live and work in), spending time with my host family and visiting places I frequent, such as my school and the public library.  We then headed to Romania for a week, and then spent another four days exploring the rest of Moldova.

Here’s what we saw in Moldova (in no particular order): Feşteliţa (my village), Soroca, Orhei Vechi, Ţîpova Monastery, Purcari Winery, Comrat, Cricova Winery, and Chişinău.

And here’s what we saw in Romania: Sinaia, Bran Castle, Braşov, Rupea Fortress, Sighişoara, the wooden churches of Maramureş, and Breb.

Our travel route through Romania starting at Leuseni and ending at Stefanesti).

Besides the time we spent in my village (where we stayed with my host family), we stayed in a combination of Airbnb rentals or hotels that we found through Booking.com.  In Moldova, we stuck entirely with Airbnb, while in Romania, we booked through both Airbnb and Booking.com. I’ll share more specific details about lodging with each post.

Overall, it was a packed and busy but very great trip.  It was wonderful to see my parents after a little over a year apart, and I enjoyed getting to show them around Moldova and experience Romania together.

The Start of Something New…

As much as I wish I had taken photos during our time in Philly or at the airports, I didn’t.  So this is going to be a long, word-filled post.  If you don’t really want to hear about our staging in Philly or our flight, feel free to skip this and go to the next post, which will be published momentarily!

On May 29th, I flew from Binghamton, New York (such a small airport!!) to Philadelphia for the first stage of Peace Corps service- what is know in PC (Peace Corps) as “Staging”.  Staging is essentially a 3-day orientation that includes a number of different training sessions that are designed to introduce new Peace Corps trainees to the basics of the Peace Corps, as well as go over basic safety and security information and other such things.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon or night.  We had registration for an hour that evening, where we took a pre-staging online survey and got to know some of our fellow trainees.  Our group of trainees/volunteers is called M31, as we are the 31st group in Moldova.  There are currently 59 of us, spread between four sectors: EE (English Education), HE (Health Education), COD (Community and Organizational Development), and SED (Small Enterprise Development).  My sector/program has 17 volunteers.

We then had the rest of the night free.  I went to dinner with several other girls- even on the very first night, I had already made new friends.

On Monday, we had training from 9 AM to 12:30 PM.  We had lunch free, so I went with a group of other trainees to a Mexican restaurant.  The food was very good, and the restaurant was very cool- Day of the Dead inspired, with dark purple walls, lots of gold, and skulls.  We then returned to our hotel in the Society Hill area of Philly and had training from 2:00 to 6:00.  The training was long and there was a lot of sitting, but it was mostly very useful information.  After training was over, we were free for the night.  I went to a bar/restaurant somewhere in Philly- the food was very good and I made a few new Peace Corps friends.  After, we hung out in the hotel.

Tuesday’s schedule was pretty much the same as Monday, but we got done a bit earlier in order to get our Peace Corps t-shirts and take our group photo.  For dinner, I walked with a group of 10 or so other trainees to a restaurant a couple of miles away from our hotel.  The restaurant, Saloon, was pretty pricey, but it was our last night in the United States, so we were all okay with that.  The food was excellent, and we got the entire upstairs room to ourselves.  The atmosphere was very cool as well- exposed brick wall, old wooden beams and trim- the space was clearly old and beautiful.  After dinner, we all went to bed pretty early.

On Wednesday, we boarded onto buses with ALL of our luggage (which was a LOT), and headed to New York City to get our flight out of Philly.  The trip to JFK took a very long time, but we made to the airport before they had even opened up the check-in lines for our flight.  With 59 of us and approximately 240 bags of luggage (2 checked and 2 carry-on per person), we took up a lot of room near the check-in counter.  We did have a bit of a hassle checking in.  The Peace Corps allows each volunteer two free checked bags, but that fact somehow didn’t make it to the airport as it should have.  It took us almost two hours to get the confusion sorted out, and then some of us were still left off the list, which took some more time to remedy.  In the end though, it was all fine, and we were incredibly grateful to the volunteers (Sarah, Ingrid, and Andrea) who really stepped up to the plate and took care of things!  Thankfully, getting through the security line was a breeze.

The first leg of our flight (from JFK to Munich) was about 9 hours long.  We had a VERY short layover in Munich.  Munich isn’t a very busy airport, so it was just the perfect amount of time to get changed into nicer clothes and get cleaned up a bit before the last leg of our flight to Chisinau, Moldova.

Packing, Packing, Packing

My big duffel bag, filled with all of my clothes and shoes
My big duffel bag, filled with all of my clothes and shoes

Anyone who has ever had to pack for 2 years in just a couple of suitcases knows this is no easy feat.  I’ve been planning for packing for almost two months: making lists, getting things that were missing, figuring out what to use for luggage, and thinking about what I’ll miss and want to bring.  It’s hard stuff.  In some ways, I think it’s a bit harder to pack for the Peace Corps in Eastern European countries such as Moldova than it would be if I were going to, say, a country in Africa that is hot all year.  In Moldova, we need to bring clothes and necessities for three distinct seasons (hot summers, cold winters, and milder but rainy springs and falls).

One of the current volunteers recommended thinking of what we would need by thinking of packing for three weeks, instead of three seasons.  It’s common in  Moldova to wear the same outfit more than once in a week, so we don’t need a ton of variety day-to-day.  So basically, we need to pack as though we’re going somewhere hot for a week or so, somewhere cold for a week or so, and somewhere in-between for a week or so.  I found this tip quite helpful.  We were also advised to think of clothes in terms of layering- a shirt you were in the summer will work in the winter if you wear a warm sweater over it.  And, although the quality and style is not what you might be able to find in the United States, you can get most things here if you forget something or need to replace something (and several more modern countries are nearby, so you can also pick up things you need if you visit a country such as Germany).  One thing we were told not to skimp on is footwear, as the quality, price, variety, and sizes are very different in Moldova than in the United States.  If you have even somewhat larger feet, it’s very difficult to find shoes at all that will fit (luckily, I have quite small feet, so I shouldn’t have that issue).  In addition, road conditions make is so that shoes wear out much more quickly there.

Even with all this information (and more!), the prospect of packing is quite overwhelming.  I focused largely on winter necessities (like a very warm winter coat) and shoes, as well as professional clothes to wear to work.  Female teachers in Moldova generally wear skirts and dresses, which is a bit different from what I’ve typically worn teaching in the United States, so I also made sure I had plenty of dresses and skirts.  I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the clothes I’m bringing, although I wish I had a few more casual tanks and tees.

All my clothes and shoes- see the extra room?
All my clothes and shoes- see the extra room?

So what am I bringing? I’m bringing 2 pairs of jeans, 2 pairs of longer jean shorts, one pair of black skinny jeans, and one pair of dressier pants.  I’m bringing four skirts (black, green, navy, and a striped white, black, and grey maxi skirt), and five dresses (3 knit, super comfy dresses, 1 that’s slightly more dressy, and a dressy floral one for weddings and the like).  I’m bringing 3 long-sleeved shirts, 4 short-sleeved shirts, and 6 tank-tops (no spaghetti straps).  I’m bringing 2 sweater/cardigans, and 4 or 5 pull-over dressier sweaters.  I’m also bringing plenty of stockings, leggings, and long-underwear, sweatpants, a couple of lounge/exercise shirts, and 1 cami.

For shoes, I’m bringing a pair of sneakers, nicer tall black boots (that I got on clearance from JCPenny’s for $17- score!), my sturdy hiking boots, a pair of black dressy sandals, sturdy flip-flops, shower flip-flops (mine are from Old Navy when they had $5 flip-flops- I’ve had them for years!), and two pairs of black flats (one pair has a slight lift and aren’t quite as comfortable, the other are very comfortable, but not very good quality).

All the "other" stuff I'll need to fit- toiletries, odds and ends, and other necessities (and wants)
All the “other” stuff I’ll need to fit- toiletries, odds and ends, and other necessities (and wants)

I did a practice pack today, just with all of the clothes and shoes (I didn’t include toiletries or other things I need/want to bring), just to see how things would fit.  We are allowed to bring (Peace Corps pays for the extra baggage fee) 2 checked bags, a carry-on, and a personal item for luggage.  After reading lots of advice from current and past volunteers, I knew I really wanted to bring a large hiking-style pack as one of my checked bags.  However, a backpack, even a large one, doesn’t fit as much as a large suitcase or duffel bag, so I was a little nervous about fitting everything.  I figured if all of my clothes and shoes fit (and didn’t go over the weight limit) in my large rolling duffel bag, then I should be okay fitting everything else in my big pack, carry-on, and personal item.  I was able to fit it all (including large winter coat), with a bit of room to spare, and it was *just* under 50 pounds!  I’m planning to pack all of my shoes in the other two bags (as they are smaller and therefore won’t fit as much, therefore weighing less) in order to make the weight a little less.  There are a couple of items (like a blanket that I’m hoping to fit for comfort reasons, but can go without) that I’m hoping to fit.  Basically, I plan on putting all of my heavy items in my smaller checked bag, which is my Osprey Aura 65 pack.  I’m still trying to figure out my personal item- the pack I was hoping to use is a little too big, so I’ll have to pack it in one of my other bags, since I want it with me there.

We’ll see how my actual packing goes later in the week, but I think this is a good sign that I should be able to fit everything I need (and maybe some extras that I just want).  Yay!  Have you ever packed for a long-term trip or adventure?  Any tips?

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.