Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Moving Along in the Process

On Sunday evening I officially completed my Peace Corps application. The application process is done online. Since it is fairly lengthy and includes writing a couple essays, you don't have to complete the whole thing in one sitting. They give you a user ID and password and let you return to it as many times as you like until it is finished. I finally completed it all Sunday night.

I was then notified via an automated email that I should be receiving an information packet within the next 10 days. Surprisingly, today (two days later) I had a large envelop from the Peace Corps sitting in my mailbox. Along with some more paperwork to complete (including some cards I need to take to the local police station for fingerprinting) are some descriptions of potential assignment areas for which I qualify.

In my application I had expressed an interest in the areas of education, environment, and (worst case from my point of view) information technology. I received two descriptions of opportunities in my packet: one for secondary education math teaching and a second for a more general topic of "computer science", which could involve teaching computer science or doing more general computer-related work, such as installing networks, setting up computer labs, etc. I guess I didn't qualify for any of the "environment" related opportunities.

The math teaching opportunities are in southern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, while the computer science opportunities are more widespread: Africa, Eastern/Central Europe, Asia, and the Pacific region. In my application I didn't express a preference for a specific geographic region; I figured I'd leave that up to chance.

The information packet also helped clarify for me the timing of the application process. From submitting an application (which I just did two days ago) to arriving in a country for pre-service training takes from 6 to 9 months. So, I could end up heading out to some foreign land as early as July. Yikes! That seems pretty soon.

One interesting item in the information packet was a brief mention of the competitiveness of the application process. It reads, "More than two candidates are identified for every one Volunteer request; thus, the selection process is very competitive." Hmmm.... less than 50% odds of success. I guess I'll have to see how it goes. It could turn out I'm not going anywhere.

The next step in the process (besides filling out more paperwork and getting fingerprinted) will be an interview. I should be contacted within the next few weeks by a Peace Corps recruiter.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Change in Direction

I've put this off long enough.

Ever since I was in high school, I've been wanting to join the Peace Corps, but there was always some excuse for not doing it. My most recent excuse has been selfishness and the contentment with living a comfortable carefree life.

Well, after 20 years of excuses I decided now is the time. No more excuses. I have no family to support, I'm not in any relationship, and the only expense I have is my condo. I have plenty of money saved to pay the mortgage for the two year commitment where I'll have no income, so what am I waiting for? If I wait any longer I'll find myself regretting not having done it earlier in life.

So, as of today I've officially started the online application process. Hopefully it won't turn out like my most recent job interview with Google (they said no thanks after the second round of interviews), but I suppose I'll have to wait and see. I wonder how many people get rejected from applying to the Peace Corps?

I'll be sure to post an occasional update here on my progress - assuming things do progress. The application process is said to take anywhere from six to nine months. If I get rejected, I'll be sure to write about that, too.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Pride Rock

While ending the afternoon safari on the Maasai Mara, we came across a few lions hanging out on a rock. It looked like they were all getting ready to go on a hunting expedition - they were all staring off in the same direction. Unfortunately, we couldn't hang around to watch, so I was only able to snap a few pictures before we headed back to the lodge.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Great Rift Valley

The second day we were in Africa, we drove out of Nairobi and headed for the Rift Valley to go on safari. As we left the city, the landscape slowly began to change, from a more urban setting to buildings with a more rural character. These are a few pictures I took along the way.

After about a half-hour drive, as we came over the crest of a hill, there was a dramatic view - the Great Rift Valley!

This is a panorama made from about 7 pictures stitched together. If you click on the image, you'll get a much larger view. Hopefully it gives an idea of how impressive this view was to see in person.

If I remember correctly, the Maasai Mara, our destination for safari, was somewhere off in the distance beyond the mountain on the right horizon. It was a long, several hour bumpy ride on roads that were often more passable by driving off the edges of them onto the dirt rather than driving down the bumpy pothole filled paved center.

Scary Leopard

While on safari in the Maasai Mara, we came across a warthog... up in a tree.

It was obvious from its condition that it hadn't climbed up there on its own - it was quite dead, with parts of its guts hanging out. The question was, what predator had put it up there and where was it now?

After about 10 minutes of waiting near the tree, a member of our party finally spotted something. There was a leopard hiding in some tall grass and bushes about 50 yards away! See if you can spot it in this picture. You can click on the picture for a slightly larger view - it might be helpful.

Here's a zoom in on the picture. Unfortunately, given the grass obscuring the view, this was the best picture I could get. I need to get more practice using the manual focus on my camera. As it was, my camera kept focusing on the grass in the foreground, so the face is a bit blurry.

I found the whole situation quite chilling. I imagined what it would have felt like to be walking along these plains and suddenly discover that face staring back out at me. Or worse, walk past and not notice and become its next victim.

Agama Lizard

I'm not 100% certain, but I think this is a female Agama Lizard. It was on some rocks near the hyrax from my previous post.

Rock Hyrax

This little critter might look like a rodent, but supposedly it is the closest living relative to the elephant!

I spotted this hyrax atop a cliff overlooking Lake Nakuru. The lake is home to a huge number of flamingos. (I'll post a bit more about the flamingos later.) In an odd coincidence, I just discovered my guidebook Wildlife of East Africa contains a picture of the rock hyrax taken from the exact same cliff spot! (The arial view of the lake shore in the background of the photo is unmistakably the same.) I guess this cliff is a popular place to see the hyrax.

Here is the photo from the book and a photo I took immediately before snapping the picture of the hyrax atop the cliff. It's definitely the same place.

(If you look closely at this last picture - or click on it for a larger view - you can make out the pink sea of flamingos along part of the shoreline.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008


While on safari in the Maasai Mara, you have to at least take one picture of a wildebeest. It's just such a fun word to say. Wildebeest.

I'm not 100% certain, but I think these two are wildebeest calves. They're much cuter when they're young.


I briefly spotted a black-backed jackal on the Maasai Mara. It didn't stick around for long and it was the only jackal I saw on the whole trip. Too bad - this guy was pretty cute.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Living in paradise

As I mentioned earlier, one night we camped out at a Maasai village on top of a large hill. This picture is my lame attempt at capturing part of the view. It was much more impressive in person - one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. Running across the middle of the picture is a lush green gorge, a large lake can be seen further off in the distance, and on the horizon the rightmost mountain is actually an active volcano. Although it can't been seen in this picture, there was even smoke coming out of the volcano!

Looking further up the hill from our campsite, this was the view:

(If you click on the photo for a larger view, you can make out the Maasai huts a bit better.)

Lion - with poor hygiene

I saw a couple of male lions on the Maasai Mara. One of them was covered with flies, as can be seen from these successively zoomed in photos.

So much for the idea of felines constantly staying clean...

This other lion seemed a bit bored.

Jet Lagged

For some reason I'm finding it more difficult than usual to adjust to the 8 hour time difference since returning from Africa to the US. I seem to still be on Africa time and these past couple days I've found myself crashing in the late afternoon (when in Africa it is the middle of the night). I was so tired yesterday evening that I skipped my karate classes, went home early, and immediately fell asleep. I slept for about 12 hours, so hopefully now my body is back on US time.

On the bright side, I've been waking up early enough to actually shock people at work by arriving on time.

Perhaps I'll be awake enough this evening to post some more pictures from my trip.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cheetah Pictures

Here are a few pictures I took of a cheetah that was found lounging under a tree in the Masaai Mara.

One thing I didn't expect on the safari was just how "tame" the animals were. I'm not sure if they are used to the safari vehicles driving around, or they just don't perceive them as a threat, but most of the animals wouldn't run away when a vehicle approached. In fact, some would allow the vehicles to get quite close. For some of the more popular animals (such as the predators), it was a common occurrence for a whole bunch of vehicles to be clustered around the animal. Once one driver found a popular animal, everyone else in the area would drive over to see it too. If you saw a cluster of vehicles off in the distance, it was a safe bet that they were all looking at a predator.

Here's a photo to give you an idea of what it looked like with the cheetah and how close the vehicles were to it:

Giraffe Pictures

I should be sleeping right now, but I just took my malaria medicine (I have to continue to take it for several weeks after my trip) and it made me extremely nauseous. Due to my traveling all day today, I definitely took the medicine too late in the day and my stomach was completely empty. It's the first time the medicine actually made me vomit. (I'm sure you all wanted to know that.)

So, anyhow, since I couldn't sleep, I figured I'd transfer some of my Africa photos to my computer. My mom's one request before I left was that I get her a photo of a giraffe, so these are for her.

These three pictures were taken on the two day safari in the Masaai Mara in Kenya. As usual, you can click on them for a larger view.

Back from Africa

I just got back from Africa. I'm now back home in a the US. I don't have much time to write a full update - I have to work in the morning. The trip back to Nairobi from Arusha was uneventful. Nairobi was pretty much back to normal. Being in the city for Saturday night was a dramatic contrast to how the city looked two weeks earlier on a Saturday after the elections. This time the place was bustling with people, even late at night and in the wee hours of the morning. Two weeks ago the streets were deserted.

It's nice to be back home - especially since there's a forecast for snow in the morning. I miss the winter weather.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Africa Update #4

This'll have to be just a quick update - I don't have much time to write today. Things are going well here in Tanzania. The country is quite beautiful. Arusha lies in the shadow of Mt. Miru (not sure if I spelled that correctly) so there's always a great view of the mountain from most of the city streets. The city has an interesting mix of the modern along with more of a developing nation environment. You can take a two minute walk from the city center where there are ATMs and other such modern conveniences and end up on some dirt side street with bustling markets that look like they haven't changed in hundreds of years.

We visited an orphanage in Arusha a couple days ago and dropped off some gifts for the kids there. It was nice to see the kids smiling and laughing as they played with some simple new toys.

Yesterday, while we were stopping at a small shop selling firewood on the side of the road, a couple of kids ran out to the car pointing, laughing, and yelling, "Mzungu!" Mzungu is a Swahaili term meaning "white person" or something similar. Apparently the kids hadn't seen many white people as they thought I looked quite funny. One of the kids even ran back to his house to carry out his younger brother so he too could get a look at the Mzungu.

Today we plan a short hike up part of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, a full climb would take several days and we don't have that kind of time. We drive back to Nairobi tomorrow (Saturday) as most of the group flies back to the US Saturday night. I fly back Sunday morning.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Africa Update #3

I think it's Monday today. Without a normal daily routine, I'm finding it hard to keep track of what day of the week it is. Sorry for the lack of pictures, but I don't have an easy way to upload them right now.

The camping out at a Masaai village was a great experience. The Masaai village was near the top of a small mountain or very large hill. It's probably the most beautiful place I've ever been to. Every direction you looked was just open fields, small patches of trees, and large mountains off in the distance. There was even anactivevolcano visible off in the distance. I know the Masaai have a hard life, but this place looked like paradise.

As I mentioned before, we were bringing a goat to the village as a gift. What I didn't know is they planned on eating it that evening! While we didn't have to join in on the meal (we had brought along our own food as well hired a cook to come along on our trip), we were invited to watch them kill and cook the goat. Being a vegetarian, I had mixed feeling about it, but figured it wasn't an opportunity to miss.

Before it got dark, we first helped gather firewood for the evening. While looking for loose branches among the bushes and small trees, one of the Masaai warriors told us about the various uses of the plants we were encountering. There was the bark from one tree that could be chewed to get moisture when there wasn't any water, some other bark to help with stomach problems, another for aiding in pregnency, some leaves to get put under your arm pits for deoderant, some grass used for making tea, and bunch of other plants I can no longer remember.

Once we gathered enough firewood it was getting dark. We took a break and had a great meal that our cook had prepared. I've been camping many times before, but never had such a great meal. I wish I could hire a cook to come along with me on all my hikes! After our meal, we went to the area where the Masaai were going to kill and cook the goat. Only the Masaai men of a certain age were allowed to attend - the rest of the village would be allowed to come later after the goat was killed and most of it had been eaten.

For killing the goat, they layed out a bunch of leafy branches from a bush and then forced the goat to lay down on it. Then, while one warrior held the goat down, the other covered it's nose and held its mouth shut. After a minute or so, the goat had been suffocated. Then, the warriors began to remove the goat's skin. I won't go into all the details, but nothing from the goat was wasted. For example, after removing all the goat's organs, they even drank the remaining blood that had pooled up in the chest cavity. (Sorry, I didn't take any pictures of the whole goat killing and eating business.) After the Masaai had their goat dinner, they performed some tradition songs and dances around the fire. After the singing and dancing, we headed to our tents for the night.

We set up our tents a few hundred feet from the village huts. It was quite windy up there on the hilltop, and it got windier and windier as the night progressed. I have never before been in a tent in such strong wind. It was so windy that the tent poles were being flexed enough to force the roof of the tent down into my face as I tried to sleep. I occasionally felt like I was going to be slowly suffocated like the goat. Fortuntely, all our tents held together and no one flew off the mountain during the night.

In the morning we went for a hike further up the mountain to an area where the Masaai gather water. Along the way we stopped at a different Masaai village and were invited in to have some tea in one of the huts. Once we got to the water source, we were shown how they can make a fire using just two sticks and a bit of donkey dung. We also got a lesson on throwing a Masaai spear and got to each take our turn doing some target practice. We then headed back to camp, presented some more gifts to the village and then headed back to Arusha.

All in all, it was a great experience visiting the village. It really made it clear how little one needs to survive in the world.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Africa Update #2

Just another quick update... I have about 20 minutes of time left on my Internet account.

Tomorrow morning we head to a Masaai village to see what life is like as a Masaai. For those who aren't familiar - the Masaai are a tribe in Africa who continue to live a nomadic lifestyle herding cattle and goats. At least, that's my possibly flawed understanding of them so far. I'll definitely know more tomorrow. We will be camping overnight in their village out of in the middle of the wilderness - or so I've been told. It should be an interesting experience.

A heartfelt thanks to everyone who sent me an email or left a comment on the blog these past few days. Sorry I can't reply to you all individually. It's really great to hear from you all. Although I am traveling with 8 other people, I only really know one of them well, so oddly it gets a bit lonely here at times. Given they are all family and my lack of an outgoing personality, I occasionally find myself feeling like the odd man out. So again, thanks again for all the responses.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

Update from Africa

First off, we are now safely out of Kenya. This morning we left the very very bad situation in Nairobi and are now in Arusha, Tanzania.

I'm in an Internet cafe with a somewhat flakey Internet connection, so it's a bit slow using my usual web interface for posting blog updates. This leaves me a very short time to write. Please parden the typos and occasional poor grammar as I won't have time to proofread this- only ten minutes left on my cafe time slot.

We were in Kenya for the first 5 days of our trip. The capitol Nairobi was unusually empty when we arrived on Saturday night due to the tensions from the deciding of the election results. People were avoiding the city. All businesses had been closed since the 24th of December and then because of the increased tensions, the businesses remained closed. Some places were running out of food because stores had been closed for so long.

For Sunday we tried to avoid any trouble in the city and went to a waterpark near where the embassies are. It was a pretty safe area and it was good to just relax after losing more than a day from travel. The next day we left Nairobi in the early morning and headed to the Massaai Mara to go on a two day safari. The safari was awesome and I hope to share lots of pictures when I return.

While on safari we were keeping up with the news of the unrest due to the undecided election results. When it was announced the current president won, we were told that was going to be bad. We were traveling in two safari vehicles and they had a two-way radio network with all the other safari tour drivers to keep track of what roads were safe for travel and which were not.

At one point when things were getting really bad we made contigency plans to just get the heck out of Kenya and head directly for Tanzania even though we had left most of our luggage at a hotel in NAirobi while we were on safari. Fortunately, things calmed down enough to risk the trip back to Nairobi on Wednesday.

The news said that Thursaday there were plans for a big rally in Nairobi to protest the election results, so we decide to head out early early in the morning. On the way out, we gots to see lots of armed soldiers surround the main park where the protest was planned, and lots of police in riot gear. It was definitely a good idea to get out.

Our drive to Tanzania was very uneventful and we are now planning on staying the remainder of our time here. We fly out of Nairobi, but if the situation remains bad there we will consider catching a flight from an airport in Tanzania direct to the Nairobi airport to avoid any trouble. On the drive out of Nairobi to the first safari, we drove through the aftermath of one of the riots and it wasn't a pretty sight. Based on the footage I've seen in the news, I don't want to be anywhere near it. Fortunately, the Nairobi airport is south of the Nairobi, so it might be safe to take the drive from Tanzania direct to the airport.

On a the lighter side of this update, the safari in thE Massai MAra was awesome and I saw (and got pictures of) just about every major animal you might think of when thinking of African wildlife. It's amazing how many animals there are in the open plains. It's interesting to think that that's what the world used to be like before people came along and created cities and all that.

Well, gotta run. I already added more time to my account to finish this, but I must reallyl go now. Hopefully I'll have more time to write a more coherent summary of what we've done so far.