Back to Bangkok

With my heart full of joy from my elephant time, we headed back to Bangkok to pick up our visas for Vietnam and try to figure out how to spend the rest of our month in Southeast Asia. 

The train ride south was one of the more pleasant 15-hour journeys I’ve enjoyed. 

The scenery along the way was beautiful, and the drop down beds were surprisingly comfortable. I liked settling into my own little cave for the night. (Let’s get real. I felt like a hobbit, which made my heart burst with hobbit and elephant joy.) I also loved that when they played the national anthem around 8 p.m., everyone stopped what they were doing, stood, and sang along. The song ended and the world around me resumed.

We got out of the train station and easily found our way to our hostel, the aptly named Cozy Bangkok Hostel, where our room was ready even though it was hours before check in. 

The parade and events honoring the king meant we hadn’t been to some of the tourist stops on our last pass, so we planned to check out the palace and then wander with a friend from the hostel. But it turns out the palace is pretty expensive in comparison to other exhibits, so we just took a photo outside and called it a day. 

Plus, the coolest thing we saw in Bangkok was the reclining Buddha, which was just big, and wow.

 

The most important thing was we needed to get to the Vietnam Embassy to pick up visas between 4 and 5 pm. No earlier, no later. 

Susan wasn’t feeling well, so I grabbed a motor bike taxi and headed over on my own. I checked the price, gave the driver the address, and then held on tight. Zipping in and out of traffic was simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-wracking. I loved it. 

He dropped me off at the embassy. I picked up our passports after a bit of a wait, double checked all the dates and info, and spent the evening exploring before heading back to the hostel. 

I had planned to try to make it to a Couchsurfing meet up, but instead, we spent several hours chatting with a woman at our hostel who was on her way back to the UK after spending a year teaching English in Cambodia.

We had just sat down to try to come up with a general plan, since the original fell apart on day one. (A loose plan at least, since post-Peace Corps me is way more game to just wing it.)

Anne heard us talking about possibilities and in the end, she helped us design the next several weeks, starting with Cambodia. 

She had recommendations for sites, food, beer, and contact info for the best tuk tuk driver in town, who had been a student in her adult classes. And then Anne went a step beyond and introduced us to another Peace Corps Volunteer who happened to be at the hostel too. 

He was about to start his third year in the Philippines, and was taking his extendee leave. (Peace Corps pays for a trip home for a month if you sign up for an extra year.)

It was fun to compare posts, food, families, and like classic PCVs, we were on poop stories within 15 minutes. 

Just before midnight we remembered that we had to be back at the train station around 5 a.m., so we wished him luck and finished repacking for the next country. Next stop, Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Advertisements

Sawa dee Chiang Mai

The journey north started hesitantly. The sleeper cars on the train were sold out and when they said the seats reclined a little, we had no idea what our 15-hour ride would be like. 

We were pleasantly surprised though with spacious seats, and the afternoon departure meant amazing views of the countryside outside of Bangkok. 

I couldn’t help but grin when the first rice fields came into view. It looked just like Orizari. 🙂

Vendors got on and off at every station, walking the length of the train calling out (or singing out in some cases), what they were selling. This lasted late into the night, so we were quite tired when we pulled into the Chiang Mai station before dawn. 

We shared a red taxi with some other travelers, and thanks to the wonderful host at Chill Bed Hostel, we were ushered in and sent to bed straight away. 

(Red Taxis are pick-up trucks with long benches and a covered roof in the back. They can fit probably a dozen people plus luggage.)

I only had a few hours to bond with my pillow before I was off again to spend a half-day at an elephant sanctuary. 

I had no coffee, but I had plenty of elephant adrenaline. (I mean, guys! I was going to play with them!!)

Our hostel host set it up for me via email before we arrived, which was perfect. My friend Susan, who I’m traveling with, wasn’t interested in the elephants (don’t worry, I’m questioning her sanity too), so she slept in while I fed bananas to my new best friends. We drove more than an hour outside the city, up windy roads and dirt paths into the jungle, and then the magic happened.

This sanctuary had nine elephants, ranging in size, as young as a few months, and as old as 35 years. They were all wandering near the feeding area, waiting impatiently for us to learn the proper technique. (And snap a flurry of photos.)

We fed our friendly hosts bananas and sugar cane, first raising our treats above our heads and saying, bahn. At the key word, the elephants open wide for us to place  a banana or piece of sugar cane in their mouths. 

Then they immediately reach out their trunks to see if we have more. 

It was delightful. Seriously, magical.  I’m grinning just thinking about it.

The elephants were playful and fun, giving out kisses and hugs with their trunks and always stretching out toward whoever had a banana in hand.

I knew the bananas and sugar cane ran out when the elephants started wandering away. (I get it. Food is my top priority too.) 

Then we followed them on a walk through the jungle, where they kept eating, took care of some business (ahem, you know the kind), and then ate some more. 

After they ate again, it was bath time, which turned into spraying all the guests with their trunks and the most adorable moment of my life. 

Guys. Gosh. It was so great. dsc_0272-min

The self-restraint I’m showing by not posting every picture is impressive. 

So that was day one in Chiang Mai, and it was hard to top. I loved their night market (which it turns out almost every town has, but they were my first and favorite). We visited some beautiful temples, including one on a mountain outside of the city. 

The only bummer in Chiang Mai was realizing that the malaria meds Peace Corps gave me were causing problems. I had no appetite, felt like I had a pill stuck in my throat constantly, had terrible indigestion and acid reflux, and had pain whenever I tried to eat. It was also hard to sleep because it was worse while laying down. So, after Google told me this often happens to people who take doxycycline, I decided to just wear more bug spray and hope the side effects went away. 

But despite that though, elephants! 

We had hoped to head east to Chiang Rai and then into Laos, but visas waited in Bangkok. We had sleeper cars for our return train, which was like having my own little hobbit hole. 

So we headed back to Bangkok with no plan beyond picking up our visas for Vietnam, but има време секогаш, така ли? (There is always time, right?)

Pro Tips:

  • elephant sanctuaries are great. Riding elephants is not. Learn more here.
  • Red Taxis are a great way to get around and if you have a tourist destination out of town, a good way to save some money. Two German girls approached us outside one of the temples to ask if we wanted to join them and save a few baht. We ended up as a group of six, and visiting something we probably would have skipped on our own.
  • Uber is a thing, and cheaper than taxis. Or hostel host requested one for us a few times.
  • Seriously, the elephants were so great. 

Sawasee Ka Bangkok

When I started thinking about where I wanted to travel after Close of Service (COS), my biggest priority was somewhere warm and affordable.

(January in Macedonia = super cold. Two years of volunteering = poor.)

Naturally, Southeast Asia was a top contender, and it’s on the way home (if you take the long way). We planned to head north through Thailand, cross through northern Laos, and then head south through Vietnam. We landed in Bangkok thinking we would stay no more than two nights, which we hoped would be enough time to secure visas to Vietnam and acclimate to yet another time zone. 

It turns out, our trip encompassed Chinese New Year, which celebrates the lunar calendar. The Vietnamese Embassy was not offering express visas, so the earliest we could pick them up was in four business days. And there’s a weekend in there, so make it six days. Oh and Susan forgot her passport the first time we went to the embassy, so make it seven days. But that’s the last day before the embassy closes for the holiday, so don’t miss it. Yikes!

So our plan for Southeast Asia went belly up after less than 24 hours. Oh well. Има време. 🙂 

We decided to cross off the major tourist sites in Bangkok, head north to Chiangimg_7323 Mai for a few days, and then return to pick up our visas and figure out where to next. 

But it turns out, our visit fell 100 days after the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and a huge procession around the city shut down the Grand Palace, several other sites, and at one point, all the streets between us and our hotel.

Oh well. Има време. 🙂

Seeing the procession was interesting, because we had seen photos and flower arrangements and billboards with well wishes and condolences all over the city from the moment we got off the plane. He was clearly a beloved man, and even months after his death, many locals lined the streets dressed in black, honoring their late leader. 

The city itself was nice, but it was the biggest place I’ve been in years. The size of the buildings was  crazy to me and the traffic was always ridiculous. It was a little bit overwhelming at first.

The street food was all amazing though and I loved paying less than $1 for a giant plate of noodles, so overall Bangkok was okay for me. (food > everything)

With Vietnam visas in the works and photocopies of our passports to offer to our next hostel, we boarded a 15-hour train to Chiang Mai, where relaxation and elephants were waiting for me. 

Pro Tips for Bangkok:

  • For US citizens, a visa to Vietnam is $60 if you are getting it at the embassy for a land crossing. You can do it cheaper if you do visa on arrival through a tour company, but that’s only allowed if you fly in. 
  • Always ask taxi drivers to run the meter and ask a local what a price should be. We had drivers quote us 500 baht for a trip that actually cost us 80 baht. 
  • Always haggle for anything you buy from a vendor.
  • Eat the street food! Yummy, cheap, and seriously, so yummy. 
  • The foreigner office at the train station is super helpful. The bus station is upstairs in the same building, so compare prices before you book. Our round-trip train tickets were less than half the price of a one-way bus ticket to Chiang Mai. It took a bit longer, but the views along the way were beautiful.

Merhaba Istanbul, again

I have loved a lot of the places I’ve traveled as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but Istanbul was so wow the first time that I had to go back. 

Turkey was my first trip out of Macedonia, an adventure sweetened by spending it with my two cousins, one of whom was living there at the time. 

This time, I enjoyed Istanbul with friends who I met in Kocani, where they completed volunteer terms last year.

I’m traveling with another volunteer, who finished service in November, and we stayed near Taksim Square at an Airbnb, courtesy of a referral credit. (Shameless plug: want to use Airbnb? Sign up through me here and get a credit for your first stay and give me credit for my travels. Fala!)

It was a hip area with lots of shops and restaurants, and with three metro lines to get us wherever we needed to go. (The Istanbul metro is top notch. User friendly, lots of maps, and with English repetition and translations on most signs.) 

We spent one day with my friend Ali, who shuttled us around to all the main sites, sharing what history he knew and making up what he didn’t. (Everything was built in the 6th century and I always added that it honored the great Sultan Ali.) We walked through the exquisite Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque, free entry), walked past the Hagia Sophia (closed on Mondays), and then stopped at our favorite site in that area, the Basilica Cistern (20 lira entry). 

The Blue Mosque wowed me just as much as the first time, but the Cistern was the crowd pleaser. The light, the soft music playing, and the calm vibe were perfect. I also enjoyed a silly photoshoot with the medusa heads located in one corner. One is upside down and the other sideways, so we tried to make the ladies feel included. 

We had some traditional köfte for lunch (at the original place, Ali said), and then went for a boat ride on the Bosporus. The boat picked up near where Ali went to high school, so we got to hear about how his rival high school used to row down the water past their school and how after graduation, some people jumped in to celebrate. 

Turkish hospitality (which makes Macedonian hospitality seem small) meant Ali took us all the way back to the door of our Airbnb and insisting we stay with him next visit. 

img_7202

The next day, we went back to the Hagia Sofia (open on Tuesdays, 40 lira entry), and enjoyed wandering the historic structure. We made a wish in the weeping column, which someone unfortunately translated as the Sweating Column on the sign, and though we were impressed by the interior, my favorite moment came after we exited.

We walked out as the call to prayer started, and as we paused to take it in, the call from Hagia Sofia paused and the imam from the Blue Mosque picked it up. A third mosque nearby sounded next and all three alternated to the end. It was a beautiful experience.

With the touristy business out of the way, we went to the Asian side of Istanbul to meet another friend, Çan, and Iris. (After seeing us off at the bus station, she flew to see Çan the next day.)

We wandered a hip neighborhood, walked along the water, tried what Çan calls “food of paradise,” and then went for a beer together. It was a casual, wonderful afternoon, and a nice little baby step away from Macedonia and toward home.

[Quick sidenote: There has been a travel ban in effect for Peace Corps Volunteers to go to Turkey for the past year and a half, which prevented a second visit I had planned while my cousin was still living there, so I was happy to return to the beautiful country. Several people asked if it felt safe going there with recent events, but you can find danger anytime you step out your door. I never felt unsafe for a moment, and I’m a big believer that you shouldn’t let fear stop you from living. Of course, I was also with friends and didn’t go looking for trouble either, I should add since my mother is reading this.]

img_7266

Oh! And my favorite Turkish soap star, who I watched religiously all through Peace Corps training in Macedonia, is starring on a new series, so I got to watch her in all her glory. It was weird to hear her real voice speaking Turkish, since I’d only ever heard the Macedonian voice that dubbed over hers. She’s perfect in both languages, obviously.

It was a great way to start my trek, which will tentatively include Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, before a long flight to the west coast and a road trip back east. I’m missing my Macedonian life, but it’s pretty great to go places without having to fill out a Peace Corps permission slip. 

Last day in MK

It was hard to sleep my last night in Orizari. My mind was trying to process too many things at once, and I was certain I had forgotten a half a dozen things I needed to do or pack. 

My last morning, I woke up early for a whispered coffee with my host parents while my nephew slept. He’s only four, so my leaving hadn’t quite made sense to him, but my host mom said he’d made a fuss about me never leaving Macedonia after I went to bed. “Never Auntie Beka! Never!”

I promised we could have ruchek (lunch) over video once in a while. 

My host mom went overboard preparing me for my ride to Skopje for my last appointments. She made fresh juice, and heated up the remaining zelnik pastry we made the day before, wrapping it in foil so it would stay warm. 

When it was finally time to get in the car and head to the bus station, neither of us succeeded at conveying many words. Many hugs, hand squeezes, and the traditional three cheek kisses. She whispered well wishes and I promised to come back to visit. We both wiped away many tears.

Just one more hug and then I was sitting in the car with my host dad, letting him do all the talking as I brushed at my eyes. He isn’t such a talkative guy, but he’s always been very kind in his few words. He said I will always be their daughter.

And then we waited. In classic Macedonian fashion, compounded by the steady assault of snow and cold that week (-30 C!), the bus was late. The delay gave me time to say goodbye to all my favorite ladies at the bus station, who have been patient, kind, and repeated bus schedules hundreds of times. After an hour, the next bus on the schedule pulled in, and I took that one. 

The quiet small talk I had with my host dad for the hour was perfect, and when he walked me to the door of the bus, there were tears in his eyes. (Obviously, you all realize by now that I was a mess.) 

My sweet sitemate Iris was already on the bus gave me a big squeeze before we shared our goodbye stories. We weren’t prepared for how difficult it was to leave. 

And then our bus broke down. (Macedonia was not even subtle about her desire to keep us a bit longer.) 

It was later than we planned, but we made it to Skopje, went through our final few signatures, meetings, and hugs, and then that was it. Bank account closed, all packed, and my mailbox in the office already relabeled for a new PCV. 

The staff gathered around our bell, a new tradition for Peace Corps Volunteers in Macedonia. Iris and I rang the bell, and then signed the wall with our Close of Service (COS) date and group (#MAK19, you’ve probably heard of us). 

img_7080

And then we all just stood there, as the moment washed over us. Was that it? Two and a half years ends with a bell and a sharpie? 

I remembered that I had written a thank you to the staff, partially in English and Macedonian, but I decided only to read the Macedonian part, as most of the group gathered were the wonderful Macedonians who have cheered us on, hugged us, encouraged us, and hugged us again, all through service. 

I only made it a few lines before I needed to stop every few words. And then they all hugged us again. 

That evening and the next day were full of more beautiful, horrible goodbyes. My dear friends from GLOW, who are some of the best people I know. My host sister who drove across the city to meet for just a few minutes before my bus and sent me a text that made me cry in the taxi on the way to the station. 

Then finally, another sweet friend who waited in front of the bus with Iris, waving until we were out of the station. 

I took an extra moment getting on the bus, just before my feet left the ground in Macedonia, and then glanced over at my friends once more and we all laughed. It was the last time my feet will be on Macedonian ground for a while.

Then, the adventure of COS and the long journey to my home in America started with an overnight bus to Istanbul.

Saying Goodbye

The last two weeks have left me bereft of words. Saying goodbye to all the people I love so dearly, who have shared their lives with me for two years, and with no knowledge of when we’ll see each other again has been perhaps the hardest part of my Peace Corps service.

It started with my amazing students. The last day before break, I spent the morning watching Home Alone with my English Club. What an incredible group. Earlier in the week, we finished reading Number the Stars (in English!!) and I could not be more proud of them. It was the first book they’d ever read in English. They have been a joy to work with; always up for my silly games and activities. I’m crossing my fingers that the clubs continue with the resources I left behind.

img_6864

I walked out of the classroom where we watched the movie and was immediately blindfolded by my fifth graders, who walked me to their room where I was showered in confetti, hugs, a beautiful framed picture of us and lots of sweet wishes.

The rest of the day was a blur of hugs, cards, and sweet words from all my kiddos. Some of the students asked if I would come back and be their English teacher next year. When I shook my head ‘no’ they simply said, “okay, then the year after that.” They all wished me safe travels and invited me back as soon as I can make it.

One student wrote a card that wished me luck, health, and love, and that all my future students would always listen when I was teaching. (From the mouths of babes, right?)

Some other sweet ones simply told me they loved me and about sent me over the edge with tears.

img_6895

My counterparts and colleagues were all kind. I wrote them a thank you card in Macedonian and made a little lunch for everyone. (The tradition here is that when you celebrate, you treat everyone.) More hugs and well wishes, though theirs were focused more on coming back to visit with a husband and children. Ke vidame, I said. We will see.

I did one final presentation at the American Corner, where I’ve done cooking sessions for two years. We drank hot chocolate and decorated cookies. (Because eating your feelings helps.)

Every goodbye has gotten harder. Saying final goodbyes to dear friends – just one more hug, one more see you soon – have been impossible to do without tears.

I said goodbye to my first family, from training, after the New Year’s holiday and I was okay until my host mom hugged me. We both pulled back with tear stained cheeks and no words.

It’s always the mamas that get you.

I sat with my family all day today, our last day together in Orizari. We made a traditional baked pastry stuffed with leeks and cheese this morning, one of my favorite meals. It was the first thing I ate with my host family when I arrived and the symmetry was beautiful.

After dinner, my host mom poured a glass of wine and turned to me and said, “We’re not going to cry, right? No tears.” I told her I couldn’t promise anything.

img_7069

We took one more family photo and then I brought out my gifts, just a few small things, and a thank you note that I carefully wrote in Macedonian, telling them how much I have loved being their American daughter and how special my time here has been.

My host mom started to read it aloud, but halfway through stopped and looked up at me with wet eyes. She read the rest to herself and then we sat on the couch for a while, holding hands, not talking; just letting the tears fall. She said she’ll keep the card with her always, keeping it as safe as her passport.

So now I’m sitting here in my empty room, wondering how the time has gone by so quickly. When I get up tomorrow and leave Orizari, I’m not sure when my next visit will be. I do know for sure though, that Macedonia is my second home for always and I’m already missing it.

It’s the little things

With less than a week to go, I’m starting to get lots of questions about what nearly two and a half years in Macedonia was like. But how can you sum it up?

It’s the smallest of moments that highlight this experience for me.

I went to Kocani this week to meet some friends for coffee and when I got off the bus at my village, one other older woman got off too. She asked where I lived. I told her and she said, “Oh! You’re Rebekah! My granddaughters are so sad you’re leaving.”

After a quick back and forth to determine which students she was referring too, I started to make my goodbyes so I could start walking home and she said of course, her son was going to give me a ride home. When he pulled up one of her granddaughters was in the car. She broke out in a grin when she saw the two of us waiting.

They knew where to drop me off without a word of directions and they made me feel so loved and appreciated.

It was only five minutes of my nearly two and a half years, but it’s one of many small memories that have made this time incredible.