Checking in on evacuated Peace Corps members
The call for American citizens to return to the United States came about suddenly and urgently at the beginning of March, 2020. Americans who were working, studying, and volunteering abroad had to improvise logistics to return to the U.S. One notable organization that had a complex issue of safely returning members from more than 60 countries is the Peace Corps.
Their struggle and circumstances
Many volunteers were evacuated very suddenly with no opportunity to secure stable accommodations or health care upon their arrival home. They were forced to leave the local communities they’d integrated into and grown to love, many in the middle of long term initiatives.
Returning home from an extended period of time can always bring feelings of reverse culture shock, especially when serving poverty-stricken or remote communities that many serve in. But especially for these recently evacuated volunteers, returning home to rising COVID-19 rates, vast unemployment, and a sense of instability that resonated from the general public through our political leaders.
What are they doing now?
Stephanie Erestera, a 23-year-old who had plans to continue her Peace Corps service in the Philippines until September 2020, immediately started searching for work. For the past year or so she’s been an educator and mentor to local teachers, and now faces uncertainty on many levels, though she’s happy she’s able to move back in with her parents for the time being. While she says she knows that it’s not an ideal job market to come back to, especially in her home town of Boise, Idaho, she “feels like it’s like that for a lot of Americans right now”.
Unexpected and involuntarily evacuated from Bicaj, Albania, Pawnee Maiden, a 24-year-old volunteer teacher, says she left behind a host family, students, friends, and coworkers that she’d expected to engage with for another year. She’s found the transition experience to be extremely hard and painful but has high hopes that she’ll be able to return and finish her service. Having returned to the DMV area, she’s now focusing her giving heart and love of service to her foster dog, Sherwin.
However, not all Peace Corps volunteers are in their 20’s. Adam Greenberg, 34, was volunteering in Zambia with his partner working on sustainable food sources. They had actually considered staying in Zambia instead of returning to the U.S., even if that meant no financial or logistical support from the Peace Corps. However, they ultimately decided that the better decision for Zambia’s infrastructure was for them to return home. Luckily, Greenberg says, they have enough savings to temporarily get by, though he will have to begin looking for work to pay the bills, another hurdle in itself as more than 26.5 million Americans have filed for unemployment since March.
Many returned service-people have also found themselves in Tim Feng’s complex situation. Feng, 23, returned to the U.S. from Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand where he served as an educator, but had to consider his high-risk parents in his last-minute planning. For their safety he ultimately decided to quarantine himself in a short-term rental apartment that he paid for out of pocket. Feng would also love to return to his service, but for now he is doing what he can to find stability here at home. He’s spent his time revamping his resume, seeking job opportunities, looking into higher education options, and the like.
How Peace Corps volunteers might continue to serve their community
The good news for Peace Corps volunteers is that they might be just the perfect people to continue to serve by supporting their fellow Americans. From their international experiences, Peace Corps volunteers are adept at “creating order out of chaos”, as the Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security so eloquently put in their recent returned Peace Corps volunteer study. Returned volunteers have real-world experience in establishing a routine, adapting to drastic change, and have experience coping with isolated/distanced from loved ones for extended time periods.
As returned volunteers continue to look toward the future, every day brings news and renewed hope—the Peace Corps recently announced that there will be an expedited application for recently evacuated volunteers who are interested in returning to service that will be announced in early June.
Peace Corps Comment
When asked to comment, a Peace Corps spokesperson gave the following statement: “The Peace Corps continues to support evacuated Volunteers—providing evacuation and readjustment allowances, a wellness stipend, extended health insurance, health and quarantine instructions and resources, information and webinars for federal government job opportunities, job postings for other private sector positions, and graduate school options.
Importantly, Volunteers who were evacuated will qualify for Non-Competitive Eligibility (or NCE), which makes it easier from them to join the federal workforce. They will also qualify for Coverdell Fellowships available for graduate school study. Volunteers who seek to return to their host countries or seek a new assignment will be given expedited consideration over the next year.
For more information, please go to https://www.peacecorps.gov/coronavirus/.”
How hotels are adapting to the new reality of COVID-19
Covid 19 has changed the world. From the minutia of our daily lives to how we plan, the coronavirus has pierced the very heart of society. Hotels, travel, and the general service industry has been hit particularly hard at this time, making an inherently social experience almost impossible to deliver. But all is not lost. Owners, managers and industry leaders are coming together to figure out a way to survive, and change, giving guests and consumers the time to dream about their next trip—and hopefully make it a reality when things are safe and sanitary. From check-in, to room cleaning to mini bars to pool areas, here are how some hotels, resorts and destinations are trying to make sure everything is safe and sanitized for the future of travel. Wyndham Destinations, the world’s largest timeshare operator, is looking at a phased opening in late May. Kevin Maciulewicz, SVP of Resort Operations, says they will be limiting the number of guests to maximize social distancing, depending on the specific configuration of the resorts. “We’re actually seeing very strong demand in bookings for travel in August and beyond from owners and guests,” he says. However, “many resort amenities will remain closed for the immediate future, including swimming pools, food and beverage, fitness centers and other public spaces,” he adds. In glamping news, Peter Mack, CEO of luxury glamping disrupter Collective Retreats, believes its vacation offerings are set up to naturally allow for social distancing. And though there are no lobbies, elevators, or hallways to deal with, they company is adding staff, cleaning more frequently and offering branded bandanas to guests. In fact, Collective Hill Country, in Wimberley, TX, has remained open through the crises. “And guests seem to feel comfortable given the open-air nature of the accommodations,” he says. In New York City, one of the hardest hit areas of the country, Collective Governor’s Island is offering a “Recharge Package” where guests can book a future stay at a discounted price—with a percentage benefitting the food bank, City Harvest. And at MGM Resorts a seven-point safety plan was recently released for all their resorts—a result of months-long work with public health experts, according to Acting CEO and President Bill Hornbuckle. For employees, this includes temperature checks before entering properties along with mandatory masks and gloves. To help with social distancing, plexiglass barriers will be installed in casinos and lobbies, and in rooms, air conditioning units were recently updated to help with air quality. “Our properties will not look the way they used to for a while, and that’s not only OK, it’s critically important, “says Hornbuckle. In addition, they will be offering a completely contactless check-in experience. Using a mobile app, guests will be able to check-in, pay their bill and get a digital room key via their smartphone. For those who feel uncomfortable going fully digital, employees will still be available with physical barriers to protect interactions and reduced lines, and physical keys can be made using self-serve key encoders. Of course, some hotels have decided to stay open during the crises and The Hotel Figueroa, or The Fig, a downtown fixture in Los Angeles, is adjusting to the times. Connie Wang, the hotel’s Managing Director, suggests there is minimal contact between guests and associates. “For the pool, we have positioned all furniture for appropriate social distancing of 6’ apart. Staff have been trained to fully wipe down all seating with disinfectant between guest usage, and a freshly laundered rolled towel placed at the head of our lounger is used to indicate to the next guest that it is safe to approach. We have signage to remind guests to socially distance, and staff to keep an eye out as well,” she says. In addition, they are using electrostatic sprayers with disinfectant in public areas, and UV light disinfecting technology in between guest stays. Face masks must always be worn by staff while guests are asked to don face coverings in indoor public spaces. Other, smaller hotels and resorts are also coming up with strategies for reopening, though most don’t have plans to reopen in the immediate future. To help limit interactions between guests and employees, the Harbor House Inn, in Mendocino County, CA, is considering opening only 50 percent of its rooms and allowing a “rest” day between guests. This would allow for in-depth cleaning and sanitation. And, The Inns of Aurora, in the Finger Lakes region, NY, have shifted its accommodation model to allow for full buyouts of three of the five inns on the property. Each one will be available at a base price and offer specific, customizable amenities like private chef service and grocery delivery on an a la carte basis. Check in and arrival experiences are also being reimagined and Arizona’s Castle Hot Springs plan on streamlining the arrival experience with guests before check-in, while the Wayfinder Hotel in Newport, RI, will completely skip lobby and curbside check-in, providing keyless guestroom entry. For the most part, most properties are considering making in-room dining easier and more comfortable. At The Roxbury at Stratton Falls, Catskill, NY, the usual buffet-style continental breakfast will become a la carte and they are working with local restaurants and food trucks to deliver meals—all of which will be directly delivered to a guestroom door. And, not to worry, Union Grove Distillery and Roxbury Wine & Spirits will also deliver to the hotel.
What to expect on Memorial Day during the pandemic
Most people staying home When we polled the Budget Travel audience, most people said they are prepared to stay home for the holiday weekend. According to AAA, this weekend is expected to set the record for the lowest travelled Memorial Day weekend since the organization began tracking the metric in 2000. In fact, there is so little travel anticipated, that AAA didn’t even bother releasing it’s Memorial Day travel prediction report for the first time. For those that do decide to travel, they are encouraged to stay within one days’ drive of home and within state lines of their home state. Beaches reopen Along the coasts, beaches are reopening to the public for the summer. Beaches in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut are all opening with enforced 50% capacity. They are also preventing contact activities like beach volleyball. In New Jersey, beach goers were required to purchase passes to enable the state to limit the number of people on the beach. In California, beaches are reopening to swimming and running, but patrons are encouraged to wear a mask. In Los Angeles county, sunbathing and picnicking will not be allowed. In Southern states such as South Carolina and Florida, local officials say they don’t have too many ways to limit the number of people on the beach, so they will be enforcing one thing they do have control over - parking lots to public beaches. Law enforcement will be aggressively ticketing parking violations, as well as enforcing rules about glass and alcohol being prohibited on beaches. If you decide you need some beachtime, we recommend that you check with your local beach to determine what rules and regulations might be in place. We also encourage you to be patient with your local officials - this is the first major holiday weekend of the pandemic, and there are sure to be hiccups as they try to keep people safe. What about the pool? Memorial Day weekend is also typically the opening weekend for public pools. Based on the phased reopening of each individual state, pools are slowly opening for business around the country. According to the CDC, there is no evidence that the COVID-19 virus can spread to people through pools and hot tubs. In fact, properly maintained pools should have chemicals such as chlorine that will inactivate the virus. That said, there is still a risk of spreading the virus as in any public place. The CDC recently released guidelines about how to safely operate a pool during the pandemic. These guidelines include: Encouraging staff and swimmers to wash their hands often Face coverings when not in the water Staying home if they feel sick Posting signs and having regular messages about preventing the spread Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces regularly Regularly laundering towels and clothing Ensuring ventilation of indoor pools are operating properly Modifying pool layouts so that people can stay 6 feet apart, by separating things like deck chairs, and providing physical barriers to limit the concentration of people in a space Discourage use of shared items like goggles, toys and food Prevent large gatherings Camping Camping is a favorite activity of Budget Travel readers, but COVID-19 restrictions caused the closure of campgrounds all over the USA for most of the spring. As states begin to reopen, campgrounds are in various stages of reopening. Check with your individual state to see if campgrounds have reopened. For example, in Colorado, one of the country’s largest outdoor recreation states, camping resumed for Colorado residents last weekend, but people must make a reservation ahead of time. Colorado residents are encouraged to stay within 10 miles of their home, and the state does NOT want people who are not Colorado residents to cross the state line. People who plan on camping over the holiday weekend should plan well ahead to ensure they have all the supplies that are needed and that they are able to safely avoid other campers. When using public restrooms and showers, make sure you wash your hands and use ample hand sanitizer. National Parks National Parks are slowly reopening, but visitors should be prepared for limited services, including closed visitor’s centers, restrooms and popular trailheads. Make sure you check out the National Park Service website for information on the specific park you’re looking for.
How some endangered species are benefiting from reduced human activity
There are more endangered species now than ever before in modern history. According to the 2019 IPBES report, one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction—many within decades, thanks to unsustainable human activity. Thanks to new regulations amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, some endangered animals are benefiting from reduced human activity. Due to a lack of travel, there’s been a reduction of carbon emissions and pollution around the globe. Seismologists have also reported lower vibrations from “cultural noise”. These factors create safer environments for endangered species. “It’s too soon to tell if specific endangered species have experienced a real rebound in terms of overall population numbers due to shifts in human activity. We’ll only be able to tell this over time. The species taking advantage of things like stay at home orders generally are not endangered species, but rather wildlife that already coexists with humans,” says Rolf Skar, Greenpeace USA Deputy Campaigns Director. While the long-term impact of reduced human activity amid COVID-19 on endangered species is unknown, there have been a few examples of behavioral changes and the introduction of legislation that may benefit certain animals. Sea turtles in Thailand Vulnerable leatherback sea turtles are coming ashore to lay eggs on the beaches in the typically overrun tourist destination Phuket, Thailand. Leatherbacks were classified as protected species under Thailand’s Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act in 1992 and were elevated to the more critical status of preserved in 2019. During the COVID-19 lockdown, Thailand has seen the largest number of nests of leatherback sea turtles in two decades. Sharks in Indonesia There are 470 known shark species, 25 of which are listed as endangered. In Indonesia, endangered sharks are benefitting from the cessation of the fishing industry due to COVID-19. Indonesia has the world’s highest diversity of sharks including endangered scalloped hammerhead, sawfish, whale shark, oceanic white-tip shark, and the vulnerable bigeye thresher shark. West Nusa Tenggara, the leader of the country’s shark fishing industry, reported a 68 percent trade drop in the first quarter of 2020. Pangolins in China Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal which has made them endangered. There are four types of the species in Asia, three are endangered and one is critically endangered. After the outbreak of COVID-19, China banned the trade and consumption of pangolins for food on February 24th which resulted in wild animal markets across the country being shut down. It’s too soon to measure the impact the ban will have on pangolins but it’s likely they’ll be less threatened by humans due to the new legislation. Bees in The United Kingdom The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists 16 species of bees as vulnerable, 18 as endangered, and 9 as critically endangered globally. Bees in the United Kingdom are benefitting from the reduction of grass being mowed in public and private landscaping areas resulting in more wildflowers blooming which is great for pollinators such as bees. Lions in South Africa Kruger National Park has been closed since March 25th and vulnerable lions are enjoying the empty park and reduction of human activity by lazing around on paved roads. Kruger Park's Skukuza Golf Course has also been a hotspot for lion hangouts. Kruger National Park continues to monitor security, emergency services, and wildlife crime operations to protect species within the park such as lions. COVID-19 Isn’t a respite for all endangered species The benefit of reduced human activity isn’t evenly distributed across the animal kingdom. Many rely on humans for protection, conservation, and preservation. At African wildlife reserves, many endangered animals such as elephants and rhinos are at-risk without having rangers to protect them from poachers. Governments are focused on public health thus leaving gaps in law enforcement in protected areas. To continue to protect endangered species you can pick up trash and dispose of it properly on daily walks if they’re allowed in your area. Never buy anything made from an endangered species such as coral, ivory, and turtle shell products. Tweet your representatives about the importance of the Endangered Species Act when bills are being considered that may negatively impact local fauna. Educate yourself by taking a complimentary online National Geographic Exploring Conservation course on ocean conservation, illegal wildlife trade, and more. Skar recommends advocating for bans against the trade of endangered species and wildlife and for stricter enforcement of the bans.
6 Ways You Can Travel From Home This Summer
Did COVID-19 postpone or cancel your summer travel or study abroad plans? As someone who had 2020 branded as her ‘Year of Travel” for the past 3 years—I feel you. When or if international travel will return to “normal” is undetermined as of yet. But, life goes on! So instead of dwelling on what could have been, here are some ideas on how to keep your travel spirit of mind alive while at home. 1.) Decorate your space. If you’re indoors all day for something reason, be sure to surround yourself with images of you traveling in the past, where you want to go in the future, and things you’d like to manifest into your life. Printed off your favorite Instagram travel photos and pin them up, or change the background of your computer and your cellphone. Your bedroom, your office, your kitchen. Inundate yourself with inspiration, positive memories, colorful photos, quotes, and everything else travels related that puts you in that global state of mind. 2. Adventure, virtually! Go on Google Flights (ah, these cheap prices!) and pretend to book something. Now go on Airbnb or Booking.com and decide where you want to stay. The budget is no worry because this is, of course, imaginary. You’ve landed. Yay! What do you want to do? Depending on where you’ve decided to mentally venture, you might go on a virtual museum tour like that of The Louvre in Paris or Tate’s Modern in London. Sip some wine, close your eyes, put on a “grass” or “summer breeze” candle, and imagine yourself exploring that city, going back to that stunning Airbnb with a jacuzzi and a view, and planning for the future. 3.) Explore locally… distantly. While international travel might be one huge question mark, it’s no question that American cities are slowly beginning to dip their toes into reopening (some, more quickly than others…) When your region’s lock-down orders are lifting, try to find ways to see your local community in a new light. Drive through that neighbor with beautiful houses you can't afford. Drive through the wilderness with a friend or family member, take a socially distanced sunset hike. No matter where you live, there’s a high chance you haven’t seen every there is to see within walking or driving distance of you. Look into it! 4.) Become part of your bucket list—start your own Airbnb experience! If you’re the #1 expert on everything about your home town, a certain topic, or you have an extraordinary, teachable skill—share it with the world! Invite people from across the globe into your passions and your home via an interactive online experience. It will help you feel like you’re traveling because you can consistently be meeting new people, asking people what interests them about your destination or topic, researching, and most importantly, entertaining and connecting with beautiful cultures and personalities. And of course, the best part is actually making money doing this! Win, win! 5.) Create the ambiance in your own home! Flights to Paris might be on pause, but you can bring a little je ne sais quoi into your own home with a little creativity and planning. Create an ambiance for whatever country you’re trying to embody. For a Latin night in Puerto Rico turn on some salsa music, make some homemade salsa and guacamole, and YouTube some dance moves. For a night in Paris create your own charcuterie board, try a new wine, and watch Amelie. I highly suggest checking out the tourism board’s website for whichever country you’re trying to channel, because now more than ever they’ll have exciting, education, virtual resources available to you. 6.) Join online travel communities If you’re seriously short on time and funds you can get your travel fix completely online! Join one of the many travel Facebook groups, follow some awesome travel bloggers on Instagram, and join in on #TravelTuesday Twitter threads. Just get involved in the travel talk! This way when you finally are free to travel as you want you’ll be chock full of ideas and maybe have some new travel buds.