Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Adventure Begins - Finally!!

10 months ago, I applied for the second time to the Peace Corps. After a successful interview and 5 months of anxious waiting, I received my official invitation to serve in Colombia! Another 4 months of medical exams and restless wondering led to the day that I had been waiting for for a long time - staging in Miami! Before the Peace Corps sends new volunteers out into the field, they gather in a pre-determined city for one day of training, also known as staging!

August 26th has been circled on my calendar since March. The day finally arrived, as 4:30 am came way too early! Have asleep, I lugged all of my luggage (and life) down the small, cramped stairs of Kevin and Erin's apartment complex, trudged across the street, caught a bus and then the metro, before finally arriving at O'Hare for my flight to Miami. The flight was a straight shot with no major problems to report! Once we got off of the plane, my baggage was literally waiting for me on the baggage claim belt, both sitting nicely together. I made my way outside and caught the next shuttle bus to the Crowne Plaza International Hotel, where our Peace Corps staging event was being held.

After getting checked in at the hotel (and taking a necessary shower), I made my way down to the lobby to get registered and start meeting the people that I'll be spending the next 27 months with! It was a lot to take in at first, but we all settled into each other's company very quickly! The staging event was filled with a few ice breakers, some general information about the history of the Peace Corps, a review of the main goals and expectations, and some other interactive activities to help prepare us for our journey to Colombia.

After all of that was done, a majority of us headed out into Miami for one last night on the town. We ate at a really good Cuban restaurant near the hotel. It was great being able to enjoy delicious food and get to know each other better. Following that, a smaller group of us headed down to South Beach and ended up at Wet Willie's. Wet Willie's is famous for the adult slushies and they definitely didn't disappoint! We enjoyed a few drinks, more stories, and then headed back to the hotel, anticipating our flight the next day!

August 27th finally arrived! As we all checked out of our rooms, loaded our luggage onto the bus, and headed to the airport, the air was filled with excitement, nervousness, and overall unknown for what we had all just gotten ourselves into! The check-in process went fairly smoothly and we all made it through security and to our gate in time to board the plane! The take off made it officially real that we were really doing this - leaving the United States for 27 months to work and serve with people on a different continent!

We landed in Barranquilla, passed through customs, located our luggage, and walked out in the muggy, Barranquilla night. To our surprise, we were greeted by current members with signs, shots of coffee (even I took one), and tons of enthusiasm. Despite the long day of traveling and all of us being pretty weary, it was such a nice welcome to the country. Definitely energized us all a bit and gave us a bit of a glimpse as to what the next 2 years holds for us!

After a brief welcome speech from George, our CD (Country Director), we boarded a bus and headed off to the hotel where we would be staying for the first few days in country. The drive was really neat and it was cool to see the city at night. We arrived at the hotel and were ushered into a conference room (where our trainings would be held for the first few days) for a proper welcome from the staff and others. We received our room assignments, moved all of our belongings upstairs, and then had our first Colombian meal in country! I can definitely tell that I'm gonna love the food here! Afterwards, we just hung out with some of the current volunteers and then called it a night.

It has been a hustle and bustle of activity from the time that we landed in Colombia! There's still a lot more to talk about, so stay tuned for more posts on the coming days!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Last Days Stateside...

I finally have some time to sit down and recap the last week or so! It’s been a whirlwind, filled with goodbyes, new faces, and exploring unknown cultures! 

After saying goodbye to my mom and grandparents in Iowa, I spent my last few days in the United States in Illinois. My dad and I drove to central Illinois to see my aunt and grandma one last time. It was a really nice to see everyone, especially my grandmother. She’s a very special person to me and it was the perfect send off! From there, we headed up to Chicago to spend some time with Kevin and Erin. After saying goodbye to my dad, we trudged my entire life up three flights of stairs into their new apartment. That night, we met up with Erin’s friend Ines, who was visiting from Spain, for some delicious Thai food. The neighborhood that they live in is very quaint and very close to Lake Michigan, making it the perfect spot to spend a few days in the city!

The next day (Friday), I went for a run down to the lake and enjoyed a gorgeous view of skyline. It was a bit of a struggle since I was out of commission for the previous month after pulling a muscle in my back, but I managed to run/walk about 6 miles and not get lost! That night, Erin and I headed out to Park Ridge to stay with Kevin’s parents in preparation for our big weekend plans! Saturday brought an early morning and Kevin’s alumni cross country run at his high school. He came in 10th and was 2nd among all of the alumni that ran. Later that day, while Kevin and a few of his friends went tux rental shopping for an upcoming wedding, Erin and I wondered around a shopping complex, dodging the rain when we could. It was nice to be able to catch up with her and reminisce about our time in Florida! That night, I was treated to a night out in Edison Park, complete with drinks and an attempt at dancing!

Sunday, we piled into Kevin’s car and headed to Guernee, IL to spend the day at Six Flags Great America! It has been about 10-15 years since I was last at the park and all of the childhood memories came flooding back. It was such a great time! We conquered the Goliath, a wooden roller coaster that has an 85-degree drop and multiple twists and turns! It was a rush and definitely worth the hour wait. The rest of the day was spent dominating Superman, Batman, and Ragin Bull, amongst others. We headed home, exhausted and sunburnt, and headed back into the city to Kevin and Erin’s apartment.

Monday, while Erin was at work, Kevin and I headed downtown to the Loop to take in the sights of Chicago. Even though I’ve been to Chicago numerous times, I still love walking around the downtown area. A trip to Millennium Park and the famous “Bean” statue was complemented with the “Face Fountains” nearby. We also scoped out where Phetsada will be attending pastry school, the Sears (Willis) Tower, Chicago River, and other sights. It was awesome being back in the city and just out and about! That night, my trip to Chi-town was topped off with the one and only famous deep dish pizza! No trip to Chicago is complete without this delectable delicacy! Kevin and I devoured ¾ of our pizza, while also getting caught up. It was the perfect way to end my trip to the Windy City!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Storm Chasin' Some Bulldogs

The title of this post may cause you to scratch your head a bit or decide that I've finally gone off the deep end. While the latter may be true, there is a method to my madness...

Last week was spent catching up with family that I haven't seen much of in the past couple of years. The week started out with a trip to Omaha, NE to see my brother at his "big boy" job. He is currently the Ballpark Operations Assistant for the Omaha Storm Chasers (a AAA baseball affiliate of the Kansas City Royals). He helps out with the day-to-day maintaining of the Werner Park, including but not limited to, dodging exploding urinals in the men's room, power washing peanut shells for weeks at a time in preparation for Peanut Free Day at the park, and banning and barring unruly patrons from the park for life. If that description doesn't make you jealous of his job, then I don't know what will! In all reality, he helps to make sure that the park is ready to go for each home game and then on game days, the parking lot is his domain.

One of the definite perks of knowing someone on the operations side of things is some first class treatment. Not only did we have some awesome seats waiting for us at the ticket booth, we were also treated to some VIP status parking. You drop the name Matt Owen to any of the parking attendants and you can pretty much get what you want at that ballpark. The game itself was really good. You couldn't have asked for better weather! The Storm Chasers ended up falling to the Iowa Cubs 7-4. But even though I was wearing the Omaha gear, I was really glad to see the I-Cubs win. As a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, I've known a little bit in regards to heartbreak when it comes to baseball. To be able to watch firsthand some of the up and coming stars that could be playing in the Windy City soon was a real treat!

Another highlight of the game was being able to see one of my mom's old bosses and his wife, Gary and Karen. When my parents lived out in Washington D.C., they both worked for the National 4-H Council. Gary was my mom's boss and after moving around the country and living in Hawaii for the last couple of years, they recently moved back to Nebraska. They made the short drive up to Omaha from Lincoln and joined us for the game. We all ended up having a great time, bolstered by the amazing seats and even better weather!

That night, after Matt got done working at the park, we headed out for some pizza and family fun time at the miniature golf park. I came out on top, so all is still right in the world! After left the friendly greens, we headed over to the ballpark and were treated to a personal tour of the facilities. Told you being related to someone that works at a stadium has its perks! Matt took us through the entire stadium, including the clubhouse, dugout, press box, luxury suites, batting cages, and even onto the field. Mom and I ran the bases and I made sure to snap a few photos!

The next day, the fam piled into the CRV and headed down to Lincoln to spend the day with Gary and Karen. We were treated to a tour of the University of Nebraska, walked through the historic downtown area of Lincoln, and took in the sights at the University Museum on campus. Growing up as starch Iowa Hawkeye fans, we have been trained to not look too fondly on our neighbors to the west. Despite this gracious hospitality, you won't be seeing my brother donning Cornhusker Red anytime soon.

Memorial Stadium, home of the Nebraska football team
Last weekend, my mom and I made the hour trip down south along the Mississippi River to Oquawka, Illinois. Now if you've never heard of this small, little river town you're not alone. There's not a whole lot that would draw one there unless you have family residing amongst the 500 inhabitants.The reason for our visit was to celebrate the birthday of my mom's sister (my aunt) Carol. It also served as a chance for me to see my cousin Clint and my mom's other sister, Marcia, before I leave for Colombia in a week and a half. The house that we stayed in for the weekend looked out over the Mighty Mississippi River, and while it lacked Internet and cable, it served as a great spot for the weekend festivities. As is to be expected when the Holthaus sisters get together, there was quite a bit of card playing. I held my own, going 6-1 over the course of the weekend. My partnership was in high demand at the table and it proved to be the lucky token for anyone who was paired up with me!

The real highlight of the weekend was heading down to Macomb, IL  and going bulldog hunting. Macomb is the home of the Western Illinois Leathernecks and their mascot is a bulldog. Some of the area businesses and organizations decided to take some bulldog statues, decorate them, and then place them around town for citizens and others to come find and admire. In all, there are 14 bulldogs throughout the town and campus. My aunt's, mom, and I made it our mission to find all 14. Mission accomplished! Not only were we able to successfully locate all 14 bulldogs, but we also got to see some parts of town that we otherwise would have bypassed.

All in all, it was a great week filled with lots of quality family time and some pretty fun adventures/experiences. It was great seeing my brother and aunt's one last time before my 27 month hiatus from the US kicks in!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Long Road Home

Road trips are some of the most amazing experiences that one can partake in. They're an awesome way to see a portion of a country that one may not be able to see at any other time. This types of adventures are something that I look forward to. I love traveling and embracing various regions and seeing sights that many only view in photographs.

At the end of my second year of AmeriCorps, I had to make my way back to Iowa. Instead of just driving straight back from Florida, I decided to make a road trip out of it. My first pit stop was up in Old Town, Florida to see my friend Kevin. Kevin and I met in college through Camp Adventure. Kevin was the director of the day camp in Stuttgart, Germany the summer after I was there. That summer, we were able to meet up in Rome, Italy and Salzburg, Austria. He's now a traveling OT and was reassigned to Florida a few days before I left. So the timing was perfect! He's currently staying in a small "cabin" behind a motel in the middle of nowhere. With the river right behind his humble abode and no other souls for miles, we spent some time catching up down on the docks. It had been about 3 years since we last crossed paths in Chicago, so it was good to hang out again.

The next stop on my road trip home was Houston, Texas to see my college friend Megan and her boyfriend, Chris. Megan and I met (along with our other friend, Trisha) at UNI while taking Spanish classes together. I still remember the day:

It was a Friday morning in our Spanish Linguistics class during my senior year. There had been a rare Thursday night football game at the UNI Dome the night before and I had managed to get my sly mug up on the big projection screen numerous times throughout the game. As we were leaving class, Megan came up to me and mentioned that she had seen me on the screen at the game and called me a "big screen whore." Needless to say, an instant friendship was formed between the three of us that still holds strong to this day.

The 12 hour trek through Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas was made even more daunting when my air conditioning decided to quit on my as I was leaving Florida. Louisiana presented itself with traffic jams, interstates running through swamp land, and a stifling heat that caused me to sweat out 4 water bottles worth of perspiration! Needless to say, arriving at Megan's apartment was a welcome reprieve from the long hours in the car! It has been four long years since Megan and I last saw each other in the flesh! I was welcomed to Texas with a delicious homemade meal and some much needed rest!

Unfortunately, the trip took a bit of a sour turn when I was out for a run with Megan and Chris and ended up pulling a muscle in my lower back. This was an unexpected and unwelcomed addition to my trip home. I spent the rest of my time in Texas limping around and trying to regain my spry youthfulness. Outside of injuring myself, Megan and Chris were awesome hosts! They showed me around the great city of Houston, including some pretty wacky sights:

- Gigantic statues of the Presidents of the United States, just chilling in a random parking lot. Oh, and they were joined by all four members of the Beetles. I mean, who doesn't want a large, plaster bust of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln?

- Massive lawn chairs just chilling in the middle of a residential street, beckoning all that walk/run/live by to come and have a seat in them. These chairs make even the tall feel small...

 - The "We <3 Houston" sign on the side of a road. This super colorful and monstrous landmark has been moved a couple of times to help prevent it from being vandalized and defaced.

 - A wall consisting of water cascading down, covering the spectators in a unending light mist that felt amazing on those hot, lazy Texan days.

Another highlight of my trip to Texas was the celebration of Megan's 26th birthday! We definitely celebrated to best of our ability! I was able to meet some of her friends in Houston, including her two roommates while she completed her Master's at the University of Houston. In addition to new faces, I was also able to catch up with Elizabeth, another former UNI grad who I spent the summer with in Italy for Camp Adventure. We met up a couple of times while I was in Florida and it's always a good time when we finally cross paths.

Following my great pit stop in Texas, I crawled back into my car and headed up north to good ole Iowa. 14 hours of driving + a bad back = frequent pit stops to stretch and regain feeling in my tailbone area. The drive took me through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and finally landed in Atlantic, Iowa at my friend Trisha's house. She recently accepted a job at Atlantic High School as a Spanish teacher and has been in the process of getting settled into her new house and classroom. I was able to help her get posters on the wall, move desks around, and figure out some lesson planning during my relaxing time with her.

I finally made my way back home and was reunited with my parents and the farm. It's been good to be home, but I'm definitely ready to embark on my next journey to Colombia!