My last week in The States

I’ve been staying with my dear friends Kathy and Julia, just outside Albany, NY. Tomorrow I leave for Vietnam. It’s been a whirlwind of activity here as my friends send me off with a greater appreciation for upstate New York.

Kathy took me to Van's, a Vietnamese restaurant in Albany. This is a tofu steak with a tasty lemongrass sauce.
Kathy took me to Van’s, a Vietnamese restaurant in Albany. This is a tofu steak with a tasty lemongrass sauce.
We had some great food, including fish at The Cat's Meow, a local lunch spot.
We had some great food, including fish at The Cat’s Meow, a local lunch spot.
I helped Julia with a lovely fundraiser at this historic house in Albany, NY.
I helped Julia with a lovely fundraiser at this historic house in Albany, NY.
I love caves and we had a particularly good tour guide at Howe Caverns.
I love caves and we had a particularly good tour guide at Howe Caverns.

 

At Howe Caverns, it's really dark. This is one of the best photos inside the cave. We also went on an underground boat ride during the cave tour.
At Howe Caverns, it’s really dark. This is one of the best photos inside the cave. We also went on an underground boat ride during the cave tour.
Kathy took me to a small, but well done Iroquois museum. This tells a bit about these Native Americans. Wish the photo was better.
Kathy took me to a small, but well done Iroquois museum. This tells a bit about these Native Americans. Wish the photo was better.
At the Iroquois Museum there is a small pool in the basement activity room with real turtles swimming around a turtle sculpture, In their creation myth, the earth is a turtle.
At the Iroquois Museum there is a small pool in the basement activity room with real turtles swimming around a turtle sculpture, In their creation myth, the earth is a turtle.
Julia and I went to The Big E, a regional state fair. This bunny on the left was the oddest animal we saw.
Julia and I went to The Big E, a regional state fair. This bunny on the left was the oddest animal we saw.
There were draft horse pulls in the arena at The Big E.
There were draft horse pulls in the arena at The Big E.
MIdway at The Big E. We also did a wine tasting where I was stung by a wasp. Worse wine I've ever had, so we didn't buy any.
MIdway at The Big E. We also did a wine tasting where I was stung by a wasp. Worse wine I’ve ever had, so we didn’t buy any.
But I got a lot of wonderful wine during my stay. Kathy, Julia and I stayed in a cozy cottage on Seneca Lake, one of the FInger Lakes. It's become quite a wine growing region. This was outside our back door. We could see the sunrise in the morning.
But I got a lot of wonderful wine during my stay. Kathy, Julia and I stayed in a cozy cottage on Seneca Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. It’s become quite a wine growing region. This was outside our back door. We could see the sunrise in the morning.
We saw a lot of grapes growing in Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. We tasted a LOT of wine too.
We saw a lot of grapes growing in Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. We tasted a LOT of wine too.
In addition to wines, we also tried a few spirits. This place made their own gin and whiskey.
In addition to wines, we also tried a few spirits. This place made their own gin and whiskey.
Julia and I went to the Garlic Festival. You just never know what you might see there.
Julia and I went to the Garlic Festival. You just never know what you might see there.
There was lots of produce at the Garlic Festival and over a dozen different kinds of garlic. Who knew there were so many. The local garlic is called "Music" so I brought some of that home for Kathy.  Julia and I also tried Garlic Chocolate Chip Cookies. I can cross that off my list for the rest of my life. I'm a culinary adventurer, but some things I don't eat twice.
There was lots of produce at the Garlic Festival and over a dozen different kinds of garlic. Who knew there were so many. The local garlic is called “Music” so I brought some of that home for Kathy.
Julia and I also tried Garlic Chocolate Chip Cookies. I can cross that off my list for the rest of my life. I’m a culinary adventurer, but some things I don’t eat twice.
...and Julia brought me back a Moxie soda from Maine.
…and Julia brought me back a Moxie soda from Maine.

And for my last evening meal in the USA, I had pizza. Can you think of anything more American that that? LOL

Hiking Gear for the Appalachian Trail

When I started hiking the Appalachian Trail March 1 of 2014, I knew I wasn’t the strongest hiker out there. I couldn’t carry as much weight as I used to and I had little experience camping and hiking in winter conditions. I was prepared to learn a lot. The one thing I thought I knew was gear. I was very sure I had chosen the right equipment for my hike.

So it is very humbling to admit that only a handful of items were still with me by the end of the trip. I changed everything except:

  • One long sleeve, button down shirt, which I still wear.
  • The trash compactor bag (not just a trash bag) I lined my backpack with. This held up well and kept everything dry.
  • A simple down jacket from REI (which I used as a pillow in warm weather).
  • Silk bag liner (which I sent home in the summer).
  • Silk long underwear (which I sent home in the summer).

Before I totally forget the details, I wanted to put down all of the changes I made to my hiking gear and why. These changes obviously increased the cost of my hike immensely, though in most cases I had purchased the original item from REI. I highly recommend buying equipment from REI because they have an outstanding return policy. They are not, unfortunately, easy to buy from while you are on the trail, but they will let you ship anything back if you are a member and it was purchased within a year.

sleeping bagSLEEPING BAG

I started with a 27F Women’s Big Agnes Bag. I ended with a Western Mountaineering 10F Down sleeping bag, (cost, roughly $550).

Why I changed: The Big Agnes bag is a perfectly good sleeping bag; it simply wasn’t warm enough for me and for the conditions. I had originally planned to start the hike April 1, but started a month earlier than that. I needed more warmth for what turned out to be a cold, extended winter season. Also, I sleep cold.

I switched to a lightweight, summer bag the first week of July. It was down, so a bit pricy, and rated for 35F. It worked well, but was not dry down, so needed airing out in the sun often to keep it really dry and fluffy. By July, it was too warm to use most nights, but I kept it.

BACKPACK

I started with the 70 liter, GoLite Jam. I almost immediately changed to the ULA Catalyst (cost $250). By summer, I changed to the ULA Circuit (cost $250). ULA packs were very popular on the trail this year and almost everyone I talked to loved theirs. The packs are virtually identical, only the size is different.

Circuit-2TWhy I changed: The GoLite Jam was the most horrible pack I’ve ever owned. It didn’t hold the stated weight (30 pounds) and all the straps were showing wear by day three. One broke on the third day of my hike. The worst was the fit, which got more painful with each step. If I’d had to use this pack for the whole trip, I’d have thrown in the towel that day.

At day 3 at Mountain Crossings, I was fitted with a ULA Catalyst. I’ve never had a better fitting pack in my life. It has never shown any wear, is water resistant, versatile and roomy. The only reason I went to the ULA Circuit is that after a while I needed less room. I kept reducing my gear weight, and needed less volume. The Circuit was smaller and a pound less in weight. I cannot recommend these two packs highly enough. Also, please visit this the outfitter and hostel at Mountain Crossings when you go through Neels Gap, GA. Let them go through your pack and lighten your load. Don’t be embarrassed. It will keep you hiking longer than any other thing I can recommend. I bought the Circuit at the Mt. Rogers Outfitters in Damascus, Virginia and they are also good, knowledgeable folk with solid advice for hikers.

TENT

solo5I started the hike with the Big Agnes Fly Creek, UL2. I changed to a LightHeart Gear tent (about $250)

Why I changed: In a mix up, I briefly lost my Big Agnes Fly Creek tent, 3 days before I reached Franklin, NC. At the time, I didn’t think I would get my tent back and so bought a replacement at Outdoor 76. I needed the item immediately and there were no Fly Creek tents available in town. The Big Agnes tent is excellent. Both the Fly Creek and the Copper Spur models were very popular on the trail this year.

The day after I bought the new tent, my old tent was returned to me. I decided to keep the new one because it was only 2 pounds (about a pound less than the Fly Creek) and used my hiking poles as support. I was very happy with this tent. There are several ways to set it up and though condensation is a problem in the most closed down set up, I think it’s the best single walled tent I’ve seen. At Outdoor 76, they cut a ground cloth of Tyvek for me for an addition $8. Please visit this outfitter when you go through Franklin. They were kind and gave me good advice.

imagesIMPNFQZTSLEEPING PAD

I started with the Big Agnes Q-Core Women’s full length pad. I ended with a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad, ¾ size.

Why I changed: The Big Agnes pad is a fine sleeping pad. It is even possible to sleep on your side with this pad–something you can’t often say. But it weighed 18 ounces and I simply had to cut the weight of my load. Also, I didn’t have the lung capacity to blow up the full length pad by the end of the day. The ThermaRest was 9 ounces and because it was ¾ length, it was easier to inflate. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable, but it was adequate for me. This would not have been a good solution for everyone, nor the best one for cold weather. BTW, I had initially spurned the NeoAir because it sounded like a bag of potato chips when I lay down on it in the REI store to try it out. I don’t know if they changed the model or if it simply wasn’t as loud as I had thought, but I didn’t find this to be an issue at all.

STOVE

JetBoilI started with the Snow Peak GigaPower Stove with Piezo ($50). I ended with a JetBoil ($79), which I sent home once it got warm.

Why I changed: The Snow Peak is a good stove. I’m not knocking it. I changed because I found I didn’t really want to cook; I wanted to boil water. And I wanted the water very hot, very fast. Plus the Piezo starter on the Snow Peak didn’t work as well in very low temperatures. Of course, nothing works as well in very low temperatures, so that’s not a surprise nor a reason not the buy the Snow Peak. This is one of the few times I got something that weighed more, but I didn’t need to carry a spare fuel canister since the JetBoil took 2-3 minutes to heat the water instead of 8+ minutes. But the truth is I don’t care much about cooking when I’m hiking. If I were camping, that would be different. When it was cold, I was most concerned with hot water for coffee or soup. Once it got warm, I skipped the soup and found other ways to get my caffeine. Personally, I found the JetBoil almost impossible to cook in. Meals burn easily in it. Others had better luck, so perhaps I’m not attentive enough. But if all you want to do is boil water, this is your stove.

MISCELLANEOUS CLOTHING CHANGES

I also changed most of my clothing.

SOCKS: I’d started with Thor-Lo hiking socks and almost immediately went to Darn Tough. They may be pricy at $ 19 each, but they really take a beating. They still look good after 1,000+ miles. I used silk sock liners for the first two and a half months until I had pretty much destroyed the liners. Silk is expensive and it is fragile (when wet), so it’s no surprise they didn’t hold up for as long. I wore them because I have extreme issues with blisters. The silk felt so good on my feet and the liners lasted long enough to let my feet toughen up. They were well worth the money to me. I had two pair of liners and I wish I had brought four.

SHIRTS: I had started with a few poly shirts. I replaced them with Smart Wool. Wool doesn’t hold body odors as long and it kept me warm. I loved the wool–until the temperature hit 90F. At that temperature, the shirts suddenly felt like a furnace and I had serious chaffing issues under the arms. When it’s that warm, though, your shirt doesn’t matter much. I bought a couple cheap shirts from a thrift store made of some poly material.

SHORTS: I mostly hiked in basketball shorts. I liked the length (almost to my knees) and the pockets. I wore them over silk long underwear or leggings when it was cold.

SHOES: I buy Merrells. Period. Use the thick, hiking sole ones, not the thin “barefoot” style. You need the extra sole, especially in Pennsylvania where the rocks are killers.

SMALL STUFF: I also made some minor changes to small gear, mostly to save weight. I bought a tiny headlamp, very small knife and got rid of anything I didn’t absolutely, positively need. By the end of the hike, my full pack (summer gear) was always less than 20 pounds, even with a liter of water and 5 days of food. With winter gear, it would not have exceeded 25 pounds. I cannot stress enough how important a light pack is.

I hope this information will be helpful to those who are hiking in the future. Again, this is what I learned from 4.5 months of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

NOTE: I have plans to hike The Camino in the future. All this gear may get another tough use.

Vietnam in one week

I am on my way to Vietnam in only one week. There’s still a list of things to take care of, but I’m mostly ready to go.

The last document needed for my work visa is in the mail. I’ve bought my ticket and packed the items I’ll carry with me. I’ll be spending my last week in The States with my dear friends Kathy and Julia, outside of Albany, New York. We’ve got a few adventures planned, mostly involving wine, good food and a little sightseeing. Kathy and Julia rescued me off the AT when my foot was too injured to hike on. I am indebted to them forever and can’t possible express the kindness they have shown me.

Everyone says how jealous they are that I’m “footloose and fancy free.” But it’s not that easy. This has taken some careful planning, more time than I expected, more money than I’d hoped, and every ounce of persistence I possess. And I’ve given up most of my stuff. Here are a few random details for those of you who might consider an adventure like this:

EVERYTHING I OWN I’m not taking much with me. The first thing I did when I realized I was definitely going to tropical Vietnam was to shed all my warm clothing. I’ll be lucky if it ever drops below 60F. I’ll be carrying most of what I own on the plane. I’ll have two carry-ons—a backpack and a large handbag—which will have a change of clothes, my documents, electronics, camera, a couple fragile items and a few toiletries. I’ll check two bags, mostly with clothing and personal items. The first bag is free and I’ll have to pay about a hundred dollars for the second checked bag. That may seem pricy, but it’s less than sending it later, plus I’ll have the items immediately. That will leave about two boxes of things that my friend Kathy will mail to me when I have a permanent address. I’ll be sending items USPS. A box of 25 pounds will cost roughly $125. I’ll store my hiking equipment with Kathy, but not much else.

Please remember that I used to own a three story, two bedroom, two and a half bath condo, filled to the brim with stuff. I’ve shed most all my belongings. The folks at Good Will know me very well. All my books are electronic, my photos digital. Even the art my niece sends me is scanned and kept electronically. My clothes are horribly boring and all intermix. My hairstyle requires little more than a comb and my makeup routine takes a minute and a half. I have nothing decorative, nothing to dust, no furniture, no kitchen equipment.

Ladies, I only own four pair of shoes. And I might get rid of one pair.

Most of what I kept when I started hiking was stored in my friend Sue’s attic in Atlanta. Another friend who has shown unbelievable kindness and support.

CAR Julia’s husband, Bill, has arranged to sell my car after I leave. Bless him. It’s a 2001 Saturn with 200,000+ miles on it, so I’m not expecting much money. But it has served me very well. I can’t imagine what I would have done if dear friends Ann and Nelson in Snellville had not kept the car in running order for me during the summer while I was hiking the AT. Another set of friends I am indebted to for life.

TOURIST VISA I’m going initially to Vietnam on a Tourist Visa.  Many countries require a visa, but most you can get on arrival (Visa On Arrival, VOA). Here’s the details for getting one in Vietnam. And this is the company site I used to get my letter.

WORK VISA I did most of my research about teaching English more than three years ago. The rules have changed and it isn’t as easy as it used to be. There are new laws, Hague conventions, which require more documentation than I was prepared for. Most countries that want English teachers require only two things: English is your first language and you have a four year college degree. That’s still true. And you can travel there on a tourist visa, though you can’t legally work on one. For the school to get a work visa for you, you have to prove you are not a criminal and that your documents are legitimate. Basically, I needed an FBI Background check and a copy of my diploma. And EACH had to be “apostilled.” An apostille is an authentication process. Quoting the FBI website: An apostille is a certification that a document has been “legalized” or “authenticated” by the issuing agency through a process in which various seals are placed on the document. So far it sounded easy, especially for someone who has no felony convictions and hasn’t even had a parking ticket in three decades.

It wasn’t.

The diploma had to be sent to my college, who verified that the diploma came from them, and then sent to the Illinois Secretary of State office for a seal and letter of authentication. It took 6 weeks and about $30. The FBI background check took FOUR sets of fingerprints before I got success. The first three were ink and were turned down as un-readable. The last set was digital. I paid a “channeler” $50 or more for each set, even the ones that didn’t work. According to the FBI customer service person I spoke with, “a high percentage” of inked fingerprints are turned down by the FBI, but digital prints “almost always work.” Please note that the FBI website gives instructions only about inked fingerprints. That took two months and more frustration and tears than I care to remember. It could have taken a year if I’d done it without the channelers. Then the background check had to have an apostille. If I’d had 2-3 months, I could have sent it to the US State Department myself. I paid a courier service about $200 to take care of it. I’ll have the document this week.

All of this to prove I have a real college degree and that the FBI keeps my criminal file in a folder marked “Harmless.”

LEAVIN’ ON A JET PLANE I’m flying out Monday. My dear, dear friends have agreed to drive me to Newark Airport rather than have me fly from Albany. It won’t save any money, but it cuts off about ten hours of travel time. It’s roughly 22 hours, with one stop in Hong Kong. Flights of that length, especially sitting in coach, are brutal. Though it’s important to move around when you can, I do my best to be unconscious for as much of the flight as possible. I wear eye shades, ear plugs and take a sleeping pill. I especially try to sleep on the NEW schedule of the country I’m flying to—it takes a bite out of jet lag later. I don’t drink alcohol as it makes jet lag worse. I won’t arrive until almost midnight Tuesday.

HOUSING IN VIETNAM That remains to be seen, but initially, I can stay at the school’s apartment. Many English schools in Asia provide housing, but this one doesn’t. On the other hand, housing is fairly inexpensive. I hope to find a small, furnished apartment. I’m sure I’ll have a couch for friends to visit. (Hint, hint) I’ll be 20 miles outside of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in a town called Bien Hoa. It’s the site of the former US military base.

TRANSPORTATION My school host, Thom, has promised to meet me on arrival to Vietnam. This is a true kindness. It will be midnight before I walk out of the airport outside Ho Chi Minh City. The apartment I’ll stay in initially is on the same block as the school and I’ll have use of a scooter. I expect to buy one after I arrive and get up enough nerve.

LEAVING MILLINOCKET, ME Remember than most of the above was arranged while working twelve plus hour days at a hostel near Mt Katahdin, the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. I’d like to say that my work/live stay at the Appalachian Trail Lodge was a lot of fun, though very hard work. I’d like to say that. Well, the hard work part is certainly true. While I won’t waste time or energy on details, I will say that my time with the owners of this lodge sucked from me much of the joy I initially felt about the Appalachian Trail. While I may be able to finish the hike eventually, I won’t be staying here.

I will miss my co-worker and roommate, Tie. She’d like to manage a trail hostel next year. No one would be better or harder working. Whoever is smart enough to hire her will be delighted with their choice.

THANKS Barring injury, hiking the Appalachian Trail (I initially typed the word trial. Freudian Slip?) is mostly mental. It’s hard to stay positive unless you have people behind you. No one hikes alone. I want to take this time to thank all of you who supported me in my hike north on the AT. I was blown away by trail angels, kind words on my blog, offers of support, soft beds to sleep in, cold sodas, donations to keep me on the trail, encouragement on social media and many smiles. It helps more than you can know. I didn’t finish the hike the way I would have liked to, but I did FOURTEEN HUNDRED AND FIVE miles. Nothing to be ashamed of. You helped.

Things I’m still working through:

  • Insurance. I expect I qualify for travel insurance and have asked for a couple quotes.
  • Notifying my credit card companies
  • Canceling my phone. I’ll get a new service once I’m there.

So that’s the update. The adventure continues…..

The “red tape” part of the adventure

Much of what I read online indicated that getting a background check was the hardest part of getting an English teaching job. Now I know what they mean….

The good news is that I definitely have a job in Vietnam: I’ll be working in Bien Hoa, the former US military base, located about 20 miles outside of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly called Saigon). I expect to start at the beginning of October. The school has 300+ students. I’ll be teaching evenings and weekends. The school teaches to all ages of students from kindergarten to adults. While I may have a few classes with very young children or with adults, I’ve primarily been hired to do SAT prep with high school aged students who are interested in going to college in the USA. They can’t get into an American college without excellent test scores.

The bad news is that it’s taking way too long to get the documents needed for a work visa in Vietnam. I’ve been working on this for 6+ weeks and I feel I’m in the red tape ring of Hell.

The process for getting work visas has recently changed across the world and most documents require an “apostille,” an authentication process. And all of the items HAVE to be sent to the USA, not a foreign country, so I need to wait on them here in The States. The apostille process is to prove your documents are not just internet frauds and to reduce the possibility of terrorism. Mostly, though, it just makes everything more difficult, takes a lot longer and makes you pay “channelers” to handle things for you.

<Sigh>

I’ve received notice that the apostille on my diploma is done, but it hasn’t been sent to me yet. No idea what the holdup is. The third set of inked fingerprints was sent to an FBI channeler for a background check. The FBI “updated” their system over the weekend and it caused an additional delay. Today I received word that the prints were rejected as unreadable. They say the ridges on my fingers simply don’t show up.

Yes, I cried. Yes, I should have been a thief.

So…..tomorrow I’m going on an unscheduled adventure to….. Manhattan. Yes, this seems like an unreasonable distance to travel, but there I can get an electronic fingerprint scan that will be sent directly to the FBI. The results will take about a week. I’m guaranteed the kind of paperwork that can be quickly apostilled by the State Department. Which will take another week… and another channeler (i.e. more money).

And if you are following along on the calendar, this attempt simply HAS to work or I will miss my start date for Vietnam. So it has to work….because they won’t hold this job open for me forever.

In the meantime, I’m reading up on Vietnam history and customs, learning a few words in Vietnamese, reviewing my High School math and science.

And trying not to worry.

The AT is different for each person…

photo

This made me smile.

I’m working hard to secure an overseas teaching assignment. I have a verbal agreement with a school in Vietnam. The school is located outside Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) and classes are predominately evenings and weekends.  I am trying to learn a few simple words and phrases in Vietnamese so I can at least say hello, thank you and I’m sorry when I arrive. It’s a very tough language and I suspect I will be the comic relief of the entire school. If I’m successful at securing the job, I’ll be doing SAT prep for high school students who want go to college in the USA. While I’ll work with students on English conversation, much of my classroom focus will be SAT math and science prep. So in addition to learning a new language, I’m reviewing Algebra, Geometry & Chemistry (which is going quite well) and Physics & Trigonometry (which I am NOT doing so well with).

Since I only have a verbal agreement with the school in Vietnam, I am continuing to look through other teaching opportunities, but they are only back up options. Verbal agreements are probably worth the paper they aren’t printed on. So……Just in case.

But, frankly, none of the above is as difficult as wading through the documentation needed to get a work visa. New global regulations have gone into place in the last couple years, mostly to combat terrorism and false documents. New words have joined my vocabulary, especially Apostille. It’s a French word for an authentication process and I need one for my college diploma to prove it’s real and not a fake created on the internet. That’s taken a month, but should be delivered this week.  I’ll also need a health check (which I can do in country), copy of my passport (got that) and my TEFL certificate (Teaching English as a Foreign Language).

The item that’s taking so much time is the FBI background check. First I need the background check, Then I need the apostille for the background check. So far, two sets of fingerprints have been rejected. The ridges on my fingers don’t show up well. Clearly, I should have been a thief. I sent a third set of inked prints last week through a channeler: someone who should speed the process along (from 6 weeks to one) but also charge four times the usual price. This (I hope and pray) will be back this coming week. Next I’ll pay a small Washington DC firm to speed through my apostille–which will take another 5 business days and more money than I’m willing to admit to. Ugh.

But at least I’ll have it done and will be ready to move onto the next steps. I’m ready to move from the red tape to the real adventure.

For those interested in teaching English outside the US, this blog post was one of the few I found helpful with the process. If you’d like to be confused AND have lots of time (or a desire to cure insomnia) go straight to the FBI website.

This is what a background check should look like. Suspect all mine says is "Mostly Harmless."
This is what an FBI background check should look like. Suspect all mine says is “Mostly Harmless.”