Viking Country 2: Strange Sleeps

I try to save money when traveling by booking affordable accommodation, but I’ve also been burned more than once looking for the best price. These days, I’m a bit more discriminating about things like online reviews and photos, but it still happens that sometimes I get more than I bargained for. Sweden had one of the best and worst surprises for me with my accommodation back to back. And because I’m telling leg of the trip in more or less chronological order within Sweden, you also get to see the roadside attractions I visited between them.


Bed Behind Bars?

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I drove the rest of the way to Stockholm and found my hostel a bit after dark. I chose my Stockholm accommodations based almost exclusively on the fact they had free parking. Taking a car is absolutely necessary if you want to see the small towns and wilderness of Sweden, but inside the big cities, cars are not so welcome. Parking in Stockholm can be upwards of 20$ a day! I found so many cool hostels at good prices that were either “street parking only” or charged an arm and a leg more for a parking spot. When I found a place that had a good rating and free parking, I didn’t look too much harder. That’s how I ended up in Långholmen Prison.

It was dark when I arrived, and I was tired from a full day of being a tourist, so I didn’t quite absorb what I’d gotten myself into. My 2 person dorm room was inside an old prison cell and although the beds were comfy, it was a very unexpected experience. While I was checking in at the front desk, I met a little old lady who’s father had been a prisoner at the Lanholmen back when it was operational and she and her cousins had come to stay at the now-hotel to celebrate his memory. She spoke unashamedly about his crimes, and of her own escape from a girls reform school in Soderskopping where I had just loaded up on ice cream. I stood at the check in counter agape listening to the wonderful and terrible adventures of this lady’s life and looking at photos of her art. She had been through so much and was still thirsty for life and adventures. I want to be like her when I grow up.

A Lazy Day & An Accidental Tour in my Pajamas 

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I woke up much earlier than I would have liked because of some nearby construction, but I headed down to the hotel’s breakfast buffet and was bowled over by the abundance and variety of food laid out. I had thought that I was staying in a hostel, but it turned out that the dormitory style rooms were only one small part, and that it was actually quite a luxurious hotel, museum, and beach resort. Surprise!

Stuffed full of amazing smoked meats, breads, fishes, jams, and cheeses, nothing on my list of things to do seemed half so enticing as the comfortable sofas on the patio. I wrapped up in one of the blankets provided and used the hotel WiFi to watch Netflix while basking in the sunshine and cool morning air. Although I’d had plenty of down days during July, I felt like most of those were forced on me for health reasons. It was so nice to choose to relax in total wellness.

I had not even gotten dressed to go to breakfast. Not realizing it was a fancy restaurant, I’d gone in my PJs, and was still in my PJs when I intercepted a tour group. My bedroom was in the museum wing of the hotel and now that it was operating hours, there was a guide and a group gathered in the hallway examining the items on display and listening to the history of the prison. I thought to myself “free tour” and tagged along. The museum part is not big, but it’s so full of stuff so it actually took a while to get through all of it. When we got to the end of the hall where my room was, some of the tourists had started to realize that the people walking around in pajamas and slippers going to and from the bathrooms were guests. I heard one wonder aloud what the rooms were like, so I opened up my room to show them.

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The Museum included a nice history of crime and punishment in Sweden, focusing mainly of course on the role of Langholmen. Some pretty vivid descriptions of historic punishments were presented in order to provide a context and contrast to the more modern styles of criminal justice. In most of human history, criminal punishments were basically torture such as cutting off body parts, breaking bones, permanent mutilation and disabling, or burning at the stake. The last part of the history reads:

The death penalty was eventually replaced by incarceration as a punishment for many different types of crimes. The justice system began to be based on fines or prison sentences and it was no longer regarded as the state’s job to realize the wrath of God. Fifteen prisoners were executed from 1865 to 1921… The death penalty was officially abolished in 1973.

Now, the goal of the criminal justice system in Sweden is considered to be reform and reintegration into society. The prison population in Sweden is only 66 per 100,000 (compared to 737 in the US, 615 in Russia, 118 in China, and 148 in the UK). Clearly they’re doing something right.

The prison on Langholmen started out in 1724 as a work house known as “the Spin House” where “degenerate men and fallen women” were sentenced to work. The Spin House produced and dyed yarn and cloth for use in the clothing factories. As the industry grew, the demand for more cloth grew and the demand for more free labor grew with it. Guards were paid 6 copper coins for each new prisoner they brought in. There was no such thing as due process, so either you were rich enough to stay out of trouble or you were nabbed. It may have started by sentencing thieves and prostitutes, but it soon expanded to anyone poor and in the wrong place.

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Workers worked from 5am until 9pm in harsh conditions doing back breaking labor with minimal nutrition and no concern for their health or comfort. Only Sundays did they get a slight break from labor when it was time to attend services.

In the early 1800s, the Spin House was closed, and the structure became The Southern Correctional Institution, officially a prison. In 1840, Crown Prince Oscar got very interested in criminal justice reform, particularly by studying the systems used in the United States known as the Philadelphia System and the Auburn System. The Philadelphia system advocated for prisoners to stay inside their cells at all times (or at least as much as possible) while the Auburn System advocated that prisoners only sleep in the cells and spend the rest of the time in groups performing useful work… work which was of course to be carried out in strictest discipline and silence. No one had heard of basic human rights yet.

By 1880, the prison now called Central Prison was a mixture of the two with 208 Philadelphia and 300 Auburn cells in different buildings around the island. One of the rooms in the museum hallway was a recreated cell rather than a modern dorm room. Inside, visitors could see the entire set up including some very early folding / multi purpose furniture like the desk that turned into a bed, a washstand, a small stool, and a cupboard.

In 1945, a new law was passed to change Sweden’s prison system forever.

“Punishment would no longer be carried out as a warning to society in general. Rather than being ‘made an example of’, the prisoner should be treated firmly and seriously and with concern for his dignity as a human being.”

The material upshot of this was a relaxing of the draconian treatments and the addition of cupboards in the cells where prisoners could store a few personal items.

Prisoners still had to be productive, but it became a part of the reform process. In the 1960s the prison had a machine shop, a print shop, and areas for book binding, carpentry, tailoring, mattress fabrication, and envelope production. When prisons finally did away with mandatory work requirements, prisoners were able to spend their time studying or receiving therapy. The prison closed in 1975 and lay in a state of deterioration for many years before the hotel opened in 1989. (photos: then and now)

When the tour group and I parted ways at last, I donned my bathing suit and headed to the nearby beach for some sun and sand. The weather was still a bit cool, but pleasantly so. There were plenty of locals enjoying a swim, so I decided to try it too. The water was brisk, but fun. I also noticed that people didn’t seem in any way fussed about body shape or modesty the way I’m used to in America or Asia (outside a gender segregated spa, anyway). No one was sunbathing nude, but people changed out of wet swimming gear with only a draping towel for minimum modesty and small children often didn’t bother with swimwear at all. It’s really nice to be in a place where people are comfortable with non-sexualized bodies.

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When the sun got low enough to be just a little too chilly for swimming, I headed back up to the hotel and changed for dinner. Despite my attempts to keep to a budget on this trip, I decided to spoil myself with a meal in the fancy restaurant. After all, I hadn’t spent any money all day on my museum tour and beach visit, so why not? I’m so glad I did. I ordered a simple (hah!) seafood chowder that was such a rich creamy blend of so many delicious ocean treats with wonderfully cooked tender potatoes, and for dessert a dense chocolate torte with … well, I can say “cream and cherries” and it simply cannot conjure the flavor of these dark red cherries soaked in liquor and partially candied, and the rich buttery drizzles of cream that tied it all together. Heaven!

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I never expected to be staying at a fancy resort OR a former prison, and I got both! I can’t recommend this place enough.

Stockholm & Gripsholm

On my way out of town the next day I got to find my friends one last time. We’d spent about a week together in Paris and Copenhagen, but I thought I’d seen the last of them when they headed off to their cruise ship in Denmark. It turned out, their cruise stopped off in Stockholm for my last day there. Originally, I’d planned to leave the hostel fairly early and get on the road, but instead, I took advantage of the free parking and took a bus into the city to meet them at a local street festival we thought would be good fun for the kids.

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I tried to go see the Vasa Museum because everyplace online was like “so cool! must go!”, but it turned out that every other tourist had the same idea and the line wrapped around the whole park. Instead, I took the chance to check out some of the metro stations which are quite rightly described as being another must see for the city of Stockholm. I also wandered through some random gardens and the very beginning of what looked like an interesting festival before finally finding the festival I was actually looking for. Summer fun!

I had a good conversation with a man I bought a latte from because he was friendly. He was an immigrant to Sweden and we talked about what that was like and why he’d chosen to come, comparing our home country economic situations and the shared desire to live in a place with less corruption and more opportunity. I wished him luck and joined my friends when they arrived. We had a food truck picnic on the bridge and then set off to play with the festivals various creative stands. The young boy became instantly entranced by an interactive art piece made of kids playing with yarn, and I joined a 10 minute painting workshop where we all made a fast and furious painting of a Swedish fjord.

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When it was time for them to catch the tour bus back to the cruise ship, I headed back to my rental car and hit the road. I have to say that I left Stockholm rather later than my original itinerary called for, so most of the things on my “to do” for that stretch of road were all closed up by the time I arrived and I got an interesting, somewhat confusing, exterior only experience.

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My first stop was Gripsholm Castle where I found an actual runestone. This one was from the 11th century, and the poem was translated on a sign nearby.

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They fared like men, far after gold
and in the East, gave the eagle food
They died soutward [sic], in Serkland

I also stopped at a place called Rademachersmedjorna in Eskilstuna (yeah, Swedish words are fun). It was billed as an interactive historical village? When I was a kid living in Maryland, we sometimes went to these kinds of places that imitated life in colonial America, and I visited some in California as well meant to re-create the Wild West. I was interested to see what a Swedish one might be, however all the people were gone and the buildings closed up when I arrived.

Nonetheless, I wandered around for a little bit looking in windows and reading signs. The town was filled with signs showing people in period dress and very vivid descriptions of the people and their lives. At first I thought it was just “flavor” but I began to realize the stories were connected and finally that there was some kind of crime to be solved by connecting all the clues from the various characters. I wondered if there are actors who play them during regular operating hours, but there was no time for me to back track the next day.

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According to yet more signs, the town was founded as a place to make cutlery by a Latvian businessman and a bunch of German blacksmiths.

Not A Murder House At All

Around 8:30pm that night,  I pulled up to where my GPS said my “bed and breakfast” was only to find myself driving around a farm. Although it was before sunset, it was still darkish because of the rain clouds. The pictures were taken the next day on my way out. After a couple times circling the farm, I finally found a little house that looked like the picture on Booking.com and pulled up next to a blue parking sign under an apple tree, running over dozens of fallen apples. Some friendly Swedes said Hej  (pronounced “hey”, it means “hello”) as they got in their car and drove away.

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I tried my code on the door but it wasn’t working. I was tried and hungry and not feeling especially comfortable about this building being in the middle of nowhere with no staff persons or anything around. Then a random middle aged, very large man opened the door. He turned out to be another guest, and didn’t know why my code didn’t work or where my room was. I messaged the property through Booking.com and tried to fight down my panic when another man arrived at the front door.

There’s me, alone, at a farm house, close to dark, in the middle of nowhere, with two strange men… freaking out. I went outside, thinking of just getting back in the car and driving away when the owner (a woman) showed up. I had to remind myself that this place was on Booking.com, with lots of previous customers who were definitely still alive and not murdered at all and had even given it high reviews. It had to be safe. My amygdala was not having it, and even though I followed her back inside to find my room, the bathroom and the WiFi password, I was barely under control.

When the owner left, I had to drive 8 miles back up the highway to find the nearest grocery store in order to get food for dinner and breakfast. I had a good solid breakdown in the car. I managed to calm down enough to convince myself to sleep there, but was not reassured when I got up to use the bathroom and saw padlocks on the outside of every bedroom door. Not locked at that time but there.

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If you are reading this and think I’m over-reacting, I envy your safe safe life. Please believe me when I say that women raised in American cities are taught NEVER to be in this kind of situation because we’re most likely going to be murdered, raped, and maybe eaten… in no certain order.

Nothing happened. It was not a murder house. But it really made me think about my life and culture that a situation like this made me freak out on a lizard brain level and yet was so normal to other people that no one even thought to mention these details in the reviews online.


Stockholm is about the halfway point of my driving tour of Sweden. I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful and friendly country as much as I did. Thanks for reading!

 

Back in the USSR? This time with a visa!

I am falling right behind on my goal of 1 blog post a week. In a desperate effort to get moving, I went and found the most complete draft on file, also the only one I wrote AFTER vacation instead of quick notes on a bus this summer. Maybe there’s a reason Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wrote such long novels. I was also inspired toward verbosity by my brief visit to mother Russia and I have had to split up the story into 2 parts. In part one: explore the bureaucracy of communism, the truth behind the soviet stereotypes, and an encounter at the Metropol Hotel.


Airports Are Ugly

I have flown through the Moscow SVO airport before. It’s not especially exciting, but their primary state run airline is dirt cheap so I find myself having layovers lasting on average 3-4 hours there. This time I had a 20 hour layover on the return flight. I can’t imagine many airports I would willingly spend 20 hours inside. As Douglas Adams once famously wrote, “There is a reason why no language on earth has ever produced the phrase ‘as pretty as an airport’.” Since the first time I read this I have had the singular experience to be in some of the best and worst airports in the world, and I can say with certainty that the Moscow International Airport is not a place to linger.

There are few places you can sleep inside the airport, like hourly rental sleeping pods, or even the airport’s very own hotel (the one Snowden hid out in). I looked into these and discovered that the prices are almost as much as the plane tickets. Even if you’re willing to camp out on the crowded and uncomfortable airport seats, there is no way to get WiFi unless you have a Russian phone number, so be prepared to be both uncomfortable and bored. In order to take advantage of any less expensive hotel (or WiFi) option, you have leave the airport, but unless you are from a very narrow list of close Russian allied countries, you can’t leave the airport without a visa. And you can’t get a visa at the door, you have to apply for and pay for that visa well in advance of your arrival.

You Need a Visa To Get In

Tourist visas to Russia require a letter of invitation. These are usually arranged by tour guides which seems like a giant scam, but that’s a whole other rant. Transit visas can bypass the letter requirement if you have proof of your ongoing flight. The transit visa can be used for up to 3 days if you’re flying and 10 if you are travelling by train.

Thus, my trip to Moscow actually started in June with the Russian Consulate in Busan, South Korea. Since they weren’t open on my day off, I got up very early in the morning on a Friday and bused into Busan to file my paperwork. I was able to fill out and download the application online and print it at my office, however the application took several hours to fill out because in addition to all the normal information, they wanted the exact dates of all my international travel for the last 10 years. They also wanted complete information on all my secondary education, and on my parents, and to know if I had any education whatsoever about nuclear weapons (I do!). I felt like I was filling out a background check for the CIA.

I nervously handed over the painstakingly researched application form and paid the 100$ fee, hoping that nothing would disqualify me from going and returned to my home to wait a week for the results. I shouldn’t have been worried. Communism loves bureaucracy and to make people jump the hoops and I have become an expert form filler. A week later I made the trek back to the consulate and my passport was returned to me with a shiny new 1 day visa inside. I booked a hostel and an airport shuttle and more or less forgot about it for 2 months.

Midnight Arrival

When I landed in Moscow, it was just after midnight and amid a flood of Chinese tourists, but it didn’t actually take all that long to go through customs and immigration. Since I was technically on a layover with a connecting flight, I had checked one bag through and was only carrying my day pack and a basic change of clothes with me. My visa was scrutinized intensely. This guy busted out a jeweler’s lens to stare at it in minute detail. Eventually, finding nothing wrong, they allowed me to pass out of the international terminal and onto Russian soil.

There is an oddity about the Moscow airport in that the WiFi requires you to give a phone number where they will send you a code to log on. It’s “free WiFi” but you can’t access it if you don’t have a Russian phone number. It’s frustrated me every time I’ve flown through, and I’ve never been able to get it to work. Really, it’s free if you’re Russian, but it’s a taunting WiFi dream to international travelers. Knowing this, while still in Norway, I had downloaded the offline version of the Moscow map in Google maps (which is a lie), and the Russian language on Google translate (which I never actually used) as well as information about my hostel, just in case.

I got some money changed to Rubles, and I found my driver. If my flight had landed during the day, I might have tried out the public transit, but at midnight thirty I was happy to see a man holding a sign with my name on it and ready to take me directly to the hostel, even if the ride did cost more than the room. It was a long and empty ride through Moscow. I’m not sure if it was just the late hour but the roads were empty. And they were huge! City roads, with business and sidewalks, not like highways, just roads that were 10 lanes across, 5 lanes in each direction. I stared at them wondering how people crossed the roads on foot and even more if these behemoths aided in the flow of traffic. Do enough people in Moscow own cars for this to be actually useful or is it just for show?

Hostile Hostel?

Checking into the hostel was another long rigmarole of paperwork: fill this out, sign this, make a copy of my passport and visa, etc. I chose a cheapish hostel thinking since I only was going to get maybe 6 hours of sleep, I didn’t need much but I also carefully selected one that was highly rated with plenty of good reviews and a location that would make it easy to get to Red Square in the morning.

One day… the lesson is going to stick. When travelling in less affluent countries: spend the money on a private room! The hostel bed was around 10$ and a private room would have been about 30$. It’s a big difference and at the time I was thinking about every little penny because I wanted to keep my budget down and Moscow was already costing me 100$ just for stepping out of the airport. I had spent a single night in Paris in a dorm and slept pretty well, but that was Paris.

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The hostel itself did not live up to my expectations based on ratings and photos. Looking back I can see those are real photos, but they were clearly taken when the interiors were brand new or at least recently deep cleaned. In reality the place was much more dark, dank, cramped and dirty than the photos represent. Even by the light of day. Now, I’m not saying it was a shithole… it did meet my minimum standards of clean and the staff were very polite in a cold sort of way, but I did not rest well.

Like many hostels in Europe, I was expected to make my own bed. The staff do not consider it their responsibility to put sheets on the bed, nor to remove them. I struggled with this as it was almost 1am and I had a top bunk and everyone else was asleep, so I couldn’t turn on the light. Also, the bedroom door seemed to have no lock at all. The bathrooms were very tiny and when you’re sharing a single bathroom with all the other women in a large hostel, that’s a challenge.  One of my roomies snored so loudly that it made my bed actually vibrate. I could feel her snores. I put in earplugs, headphones, and squashed pillows, blankets and towels around my ears to no avail. When I got up to get dressed, there was no place private to do so.

The hostel included WiFi, which did work well, yay, and a free “breakfast”. In the morning I discovered this meant a choice of two sugar cereals, luke-warm milk, watery coffee, and packets of what I really think were yogurt powder. I couldn’t read the Russian labels and I didn’t try to eat it, but they were packets filled with what felt like a powder with pictures of bowls of yogurt and fruit on the front. And somehow this breakfast is rated 7.7 on Booking.com. In fairness, that is the lowest internal rating and every other criteria is rated 8.4 or higher. I don’t know what your life has to be like for this to be a 7.7/10 breakfast, but I never want to live it.
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Just, please, if you see me talking about booking a hostel dorm in a developing country or a current/previous communist country STOP ME. I’m not trying to be a snob, but sleeping properly is so important to my well-being and my ability to enjoy waking activities and I just can’t sleep properly in those conditions. I envy the people who can.

Metro Mishaps

Despite these setbacks and the severe lack of sleep, I was still determined to make the most of my day in Moscow. I had a detailed and timed itinerary that I hoped would allow me to see everything I wanted to before it was time to go back to the airport. The first thing I discovered is that the Google Map of Moscow isn’t great, and the offline function doesn’t really do anything. Here’s a pretty building I found while searching for the metro.

20180821_091840It took me ages to find the Metro station that was meant to be a 5 minute walk from my hostel in part because Google, and in other part because the Metro stations in Moscow don’t have any helpful signs with pictures or symbols to identify them. Maybe they say the name of the station on the outside, but I was looking for a big “M” or an icon of a subway train which has been a constant in every other metro system I’ve used. This is actually the logo for the Moscow metro and it was not on any of the buildings or any signs nearby.Image result for moscow metro

When I finally realized that the big square beige building was the metro station, I had walked past it at least 7 times because I thought it was a government building like a post office or police station. It was much easier every other time because at least they all look the same. Of course I didn’t take a picture at the time, and now looking at stock photos of the building I see that it clearly has a big red M on top and a sign out front, so I can’t explain why it eluded me so. I blame sleep deprivation.

Once I found the entrance, I was happy to learn that the metro system itself is actually very easy to use, and cheap too. Rather than go through the hassle of buying a ticket for every trip, I just bought a 24hr pass for about 3$ US. That’s a whole day pass for less than the cost of a single trip in most EU countries, by the way, and goes a long way to explaining the powdered yogurt situation.

On top of its ease of use and affordability, the Moscow metro is famous for it’s unique and beautiful (on the inside) metro stations . At some point in the soviet era, it was a gift to the people to make each public transit station a work of public art. No one could visit them all in one day, but I tried to get some pictures inside the ones I did use. They are very very Soviet, but amazing works of art nonetheless.

Red Square Obscured

When I emerged from the station at Red Square I was instantly lost. I had expected the world’s largest public square to be visible from the metro station that shared it’s name, silly me. I adopted the time honored method of picking a direction and watching where my GPS dot went on the map. The first landmarks I ran across were actually the Metropol Hotel and the Statue of Marx. I recognized them from my plans as places I had intended to go later in the day, but it did help orient me to find Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral which was the top of my list for the day.

20180821_100129Sadly, I still don’t know what Red Square looks like, since there were about a million white tents set up and a large area blocked off and converted into a stadium for an upcoming festival. I walked slowly and perused the kiosks selling a narrow but colorful array of Russian souvenirs. I didn’t stop to buy, however because it looked mostly mass produced.

I also walked past the line to Lenin’s tomb, where he is preserved and laid out in a rather grotesque honorarium. Entrance to the monument is free, but there is no way to reserve an entry time, so people queue for hours for a chance to gawk at the dead body. I told myself it would be interesting if the line was short enough, but by the time I arrived around 10am, it was already all the way down the block and didn’t seem to be moving very fast.

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Tourist Stuff

St. Basil’s did not disappoint. It was crowded as heck, but it is a fun building. Everyone has seen at least one picture of the iconic colorful onion turrets and it was definitely a treat to see it in person. I wandered around trying to find the best angle for a photo, but since large swaths of the surrounding area were blocked off for the upcoming festival, it was a little challenging.

20180821_101349It’s possible to go inside for a fee, but online reviews all agreed that the cool part is on the outside. Bonus, there was a marching band practicing in the temporary stadium field nearby, so I got to watch a little bit of counter-marching through the fence and experience some serious cognitive dissonance as they played the 1812 Overture (for non-Americans, that’s because it’s a staple of our own Independence Day celebrations).

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Checking the clock, I realized it was time to head over to the gardens and try to find the entrance to the Kremlin. Only, because the entire breadth of Red Square was fenced off with a giant temporary stadium and lots of souvenir booths, I couldn’t follow my pre-planned route and Google maps was turning out to be f*ing useless. Once more I adopted the “pick a direction and walk” method, which resulted in me walking nearly all the way around the Kremlin, which is not a small building. In the middle of my walk, the sky went from a bit overcast to “wrath of Neptune”.

I always have my travel umbrella but it would not have withstood the torrential downpour that issued forth from the skies. Lucky me, at that precise moment, I happened to be passing under the only cover for several blocks in either direction, a bit of scaffolding along one corner of the Kremlin’s outer wall. Even standing under the scaffold with my back to the wall, I could feel the spray from the force of the rain around me. I sat there as other pedestrians scurried to the shelter and wondered if my plans to explore outdoors would be totally rained out, and what I could possibly do instead with no working internet. But before I could even really start to work it out, the rain slowed to a drizzle and I felt confident in resuming my walk armed with my little umbrella.

When I did reach the entrance, I found another huge line for the people who already had tickets, and I continued on through the gardens in search of the ticket office.

What’s With All These Lines?

I know there is a stereotype about lines in Russia. Or at least there was when I grew up in the cold war in America. We were told about how people had to just stand in long lines for hours to get bread, or sometimes not even knowing what was being passed out at the head of the line or if there would still be any by the time you got to the front of the line. They were communism horror stories told to show us how terrible the USSR was and how great America and capitalism were by contrast. I know it was propaganda, but I’m not sure it was untrue. I had already seen the huge line for Lenin’s tomb, but I knew that was a free event, and no way to buy tickets in advance.

Looking at the line to buy tickets to stand in the line to get in at the Kremiln was just insane. I freely admit that I ignored my note to myself in my calendar to book those tickets online in advance. Everything else in Europe I booked before I even left Korea, but Russia only takes reservations for the Kremlin 2 weeks in advance. While I was in Sweden. I made a note to do it, and I saw the note, and I ignored the note. My own fault. However, looking at the lines, I am not sure I would have made it through the “advance ticket line” even with enough time to really see anything.

I am a bit sad I didn’t get to see the Kremlin and especially the museum with the historical art and artifacts of pre-communist Russia. However, if I do make it back to Moscow, I will dedicate a whole day to the Kremiln alone, knowing what I know now.

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Fun With Costumes

Instead of sulking about it, I decided to move on and see what other fun things I could find. I was not disappointed. Shortly past the ticket office, the scenery livens up and I found some more public gardens, statues, fountains, and a quite charming pair of street entertainers dressed up in “historical” costumes and posing with tourists for tips. They made me smile and so I probably gave them more money than I should have, even though it was less than they asked for.

Continuing on I managed to find a slightly more accurate historical costume depiction where it seemed like a professional group was showing off the history of Russia and perhaps it’s trade partners with booths showing different herbs and spices, old astronomical tools and charts, paints and dyes, and other medieval type crafts and pursuits. It was all in Russian, though, so I wasn’t able to glean much from the informative talks the costumed historians were giving to the other folks in the park.

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Thwarted at Every Turn

After a quick gander at the statue of Karl Marx and the Bolshoi ballet because I was standing right there,

 
I headed up to the Metropol Hotel to see what I could find in the way of a fancy lunch. I had found a few places on line that seemed to indicate there was a high tea available, and while the website of the hotel still had it displayed in some places, the actual “high tea” page was not working. Still, I had seen the restaurant menu and knew it would be ok even if I just had lunch.

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The very first thing I saw was a bunch of construction and a sign saying the restaurant was CLOSED for repairs and upgrades. My optimism and adventurousness was wearing thin at the edges around now. So far, all of the things I’d set out to do with my very limited time in Moscow had either been harder than expected or totally impossible. I was also VERY hungry since the last meal I ate was a deli sandwich I got in Oslo the night before. I am not counting the bowl of sugar coated flakes at the hostel as a “meal”.

Clinging to the very last shreds of my “lets have a good time anyway” thoughts, I found the main entrance to the hotel to see if they were serving anything anywhere because I really didn’t know what else to do or where else I could go for a much needed lunch.

Although the staff at the hotel bar had no idea what tea ceremony I was talking about, (even though it’s on their website!) they were happy to seat me at a comfy chair in the lobby and bring me a menu. I ordered a “Stranger in Moscow” to drink, and salmon blinis for lunch.

The WiFi Is a Lie

When I went to explore the WiFi options, I discovered that the special nature of the Moscow airport WiFi was actually the rule of thumb for all Russian WiFi. I asked the staff if there was any way to log on, but without a room number or Russian phone number it was impossible. They didn’t even have a guest account available for customers of the bar or restaurant.

The more places I went, the more I realized this is just the way it works. Even Starbucks, a place famous for it’s free WiFi was inaccessible to anyone without a Russian phone number. So, if someone tells you not to bother with a SIM card because there’s plenty of free WiFi, well, they are both right and wrong. The WiFi is free, but you can’t use it without that SIM + Russian phone number. If I had known, I would have made the SIM a higher priority since it seems they are not too hard to find, but by the time I realized that WiFi was going to be impossible, I was more than halfway through my day and had no way to look up where to buy a SIM!

This obstacle was suddenly one straw too many in a morning full of them and I slowly began to leak from the eyes. I try really hard not to sink into despair or self pity when things don’t go my way on a trip, but everyone has a wall, and it gets closer with things like lack of sleep and low blood sugar, both of which I was suffering from at the time. It’s likely that I would have recovered after a some food and a rest, but that day I didn’t have to do it alone. A very kind fellow solo-female traveler sitting one chair over asked if I was ok and invited me to join her. She let me vent a little about my morning and then we quickly moved on to talking about our travels and experiences.

Lunch is Saved!

It did so much to lift my spirits and we chatted all through a leisurely lunch. The blinis were nice, a little sweeter than I was expecting for a seafood pairing, but not really much different from crepes.. maybe a little more oily? but not unpleasantly so. Out of curiosity I looked up the difference, and it’s yeast. Blinis have it, crepes don’t. The smoked salmon was delicious, and even though I had eaten lots of it in Sweden, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. Plus it was served with sour cream and salmon caviar so there was a nice blend of textures and flavors.20180821_122655

The Stranger in Moscow was a vodka drink made with Campari, ginger, and blackberry syrup. The presentation was stunning. The drink was quite different from the cocktails I have had before. It was more bitter than sweet which is usually a good thing for me and I attribute that to a healthy portion of the Campari, but there was a slight “cough syrup” aftertaste that I associate with Jagermeister or almost any cherry liquor. My best guess is that the type of blackberry syrup they used carried that flavor, which many people find appealing in drinks. It was also served with a tiny bowl of dark chocolate chips which made an excellent compliment to the drink. Quite a unique cocktail experience overall.

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My lunch companion told me about the book “Gentleman in Moscow” which is set in the Metropol Hotel and I am now on the wait list to check that out of the library. In case you’re curious, a standard room at the Metropol runs close to 150$ US/night, but my drink and lunch were a much more reasonable yet still high for Russia $27 US together. I still wish I could have found that tea ceremony, but I am happy with the experience I had, especially with company to make it better.


Here’s a little slideshow with more photos from the first half of my day in Moscow. Please pardon the lack of music. I’ve been using YouTube Editor, and recently it’s decided to delete everything good and useful from it’s online service and I haven’t found a replacement yet. Stay tuned for part 2 where I go “off the beaten path”.

How to Plan a Holiday

My last week got overrun by more vacation planning and I didn’t really have time to do much writing. However, since I’ve turned my gaze once more to the fun fun prospect of organizing my next international adventure, it seemed like a great time to share my process with you.


Related imagePlan? That sounds like WORK! Isn’t a holiday supposed to be FUN? Yes, but if you want to maximize your vacation time and money, taking the time and effort to plan ahead makes a world of difference. Unless you’re rich enough to just hire someone to plan the trip for you (and even then, finding the right tour company is important too!) you need to commit to planning. The time-money-quality triangle applies to everything, even holidays. The more time you put into the plan, the less money you need for high quality results. 

Step 1: Find Your Holiday Mission Statement

Planning a trip doesn’t start with booking a hotel and flight. There are some pre-trip questions you should really think about before any web searches or bookings take place.

How do you want to feel?

One of my friends loves laying on the beach with a book for days on end, but that sounds boring as heck to me after about 3 hours. Neither of us is right or wrong, but we want different things from our holiday. It’s important to know what your goals are, it’s kind of your vacation mission statement. From then on, any time you’re faced with an option or choice you can check to see if it matches your mission statement. Much like for a business, a vacation mission statement works best when it’s as specific as possible, while still being brief.

What you want from your holiday? Leisure? Adventure? Food? Shopping? Change of scenery? Nightlife? Art? History? Be pampered? Get dirty? 

What do you want to see?

Decide if you’re having a destination holiday or an experience holiday.

Destination holidays are those where you want to see a specific place like Rome or the Pyramids. There are awesome things everywhere in the world, but there’s only one Rome. Destination driven holidays should be more focused on off-season travel to maximize savings and also to avoid the high-season crowds. 

Destination driven holidays also need to think about weather as well as expenses. My favorite Thai island is closed 6 months of the year. Last fall, I had to find a different magical island getaway. My friend wants to go to Egypt and for a minute she thought she’d go in the summer break until I showed her the weather reports that include regular temps in the 40s (C). Now we’re going in February.

Experience holidays are ones in which you first consider your time off, and then see what’s having an off season sale that you might be interested in at that time. Sometimes, you can’t help but go to the popular place at the popular time. Work and school schedules are not always cooperative, but it is worth considering what else is available.

How long do you want to go?

Long weekend? 10 days? A month? There are vacations for nearly every length of time. Bear in mind shorter times should focus on one or two main activities in a single place with minimal travel. 

The less time you have in one place, the more detailed the planning needs to be. You might be fine spending an afternoon getting lost in town or just sitting at a cafe people watching if you have several days to spare, but if you get lost on your only day to do/see THE THING you’ll be really sad.

How much do you want to spend?

There are places in the developing world where you can book a luxury resort for 300$ a week (I did that in Egypt), places where you can eat amazing gourmet food for 25$ a meal or less (China and the Philippines for sure), there are places where a beer is 0.50 cents (Prague!) and places where a beer is 8-12$, places you can get a private room for 5$ a night with breakfast included, and others where a room in a dorm (sheets not included) costs 40$.

Don’t worry about the cost of individual things at this point, just think about how much you are willing to spend per day on average (take your total trip budget, subtract airfare, divide by the number of days you want to travel)Once you know your budget, you can check it against other travelers’ experiences to see if it’s enough for the place you’re dreaming of. I find that a lot of the blogs for backpackers are decently accurate for minimal daily expenses, and that the cost of living websites are more accurate for “family vacation” style spending. Most of SE Asia is 30-40$ a day for good times and EU is 80-100$ a day if you’re frugal.

Who are you going with?

Discuss the practical things – I almost forgot this one because I’m so used to travelling alone, but it is important. Not only do you have to ask all the previous questions of your travel buddies, you also have to think about room sharing (my mother snores so loud I’m not sure how that’s going to work when we travel together), as well as age or ability limitations (meeting my friend with a 3 yr old last summer, I had to think about 3yr old human needs). Travel buddies can be great company and help save money on things like renting a car or a room when you can share, but it’s a compromise on location and activities.

Be upfront about your goals and expectations – If possible, try to pick travel buddies who share your travel goals and habits. If you can’t do that, discuss them in advance so you have a way to handle when you want different things. It is so easy for a holiday to turn into resentment when people are tired, sunburnt, hungry and didn’t get to see/do the thing they wanted. If you are travelling with people who don’t share your goals, make sure you’re both ok splitting up sometimes so that no one’s feelings are hurt when you want to do something different.

Make time for each other – I don’t just mean plan with them, I mean that they need to have a place on your itinerary. What will you share together other than the hotel room? It’s almost impossible to make another person your top priority when you’re going on a (probably expensive and unique) travel experience, but it will help if part of every day is focused on each other more than the sites, even if it’s just one of your meals or a drink before bed. This applies to anyone, not just a romantic interest or spouse, but family, friends, and acquaintances. 

Step 2: Accommodation and Transit

Wait! All that was Step 1??? Yes, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Step one is mostly thinking, and a little bit of research to help you get the answers to those questions. Don’t skip it, though, because you’ll use those answers to shape everything that comes next.

The Flight

The flight is the biggest purchase you’re going to make and it defines the rest of your holiday. I think of it as the spine of the vacation.

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For a destination trip (or once you’ve decided your experience locations):
The flight search matrix used by Google is a great way to be able to see all available flights between to airports. Websites like Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, and Kayak ALL use the matrix to search. It’s faster to go directly to the matrix instead of comparing 20 websites.

For experience vacations (or to narrow a list of potentials in a specific area):
You can look at a website like Kiwi.com to search “Anywhere” and see the cheapest flights during your holiday time, or you can search by country, or you can use the map function to just scroll around the globe and see where cheap prices are. I love this for wanderlusties who find themselves with time and money restraints because there’s always something awesome at the other end and discovering can be fun.

My trip to the EU was I’d say 40% destination 60% experience. I wanted to go to north Europe, I was less picky about the specifics.  I looked around at prices and noticed that CDG is cheap and convenient to fly into. I could have opted for round trip, but it would have meant making my route a circle or doing a long backtrack and I wanted to get at least one Nordic country in on this trip. I did a quick check on some sample bus prices (like Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Oslo) and decided I could do it. Thus my return flight airport was decided, and I went over to the Matrix to find the cheapest flight. I got a ticket with Russian airline Aeroflot through Moscow for under 1000$. The cheapest options on flight booking websites were 500-700 more.

Conversely, my winter holiday is far more destination driven. It’s going to be much harder to find such a great deal. I originally wanted to do Morocco, Israel, Jordan and Egypt (my friend is joining me for Jordan and Egypt). I haven’t found the perfect ticket yet. Kiwi thinks it will be around $2000 to fly Korea to Morocco to Jordan to Egypt and back to Korea. It IS a lot of flights, but I hold out hope that several hours of testing options on the flight matrix will save me a few hundred dollars.

Search nearby airports – Flying one airport and then taking a bus or train out to a cheaper destination could save you hundreds of dollars. It’s worth comparing airports, and checking the price and timing of the ground transit before you buy, just to be sure. I don’t recommend this for short holidays (less than 3 days), but the longer your holiday is, the more worthwhile this becomes. In New Zealand, I flew in and out of Auckland even though I didn’t want to do anything in that city. In the Philippines, I had to fly into Manila, sleep in a little airport hostel, then fly to Bohol the next morning.

Choosing Your City/Cities

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Destination vacation people will have done this step before buying plane tickets.

Experience vacation –  “I’ll just see what’s there when I land” is not a reliable recipe for a great holiday. It’s a little like the lottery. Stack the odds in your favor and read up. Even if you think you know where you’re going, it doesn’t hurt to read about your destination on something other than Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet.

In the winter of 2016/17 my destination was “the Malay peninsula”. It looks small on a map, but it is big on the ground. I almost ended up missing out on Koh Lipe because Langkawi has been famous longer. Reading more sources gave me more options, and better information to make my decision with.

Read the blogs – Find some bloggers who share your holiday mission statement. It doesn’t do me any good to read bloggers who love to bike across Europe because I will not be doing that. Ever. I found a blog that talked about running tours of cities and nearly fainted from thinking about it.  Find unique bloggers who share real details. Mainstream bloggers like Nomadic Matt are fine for finding out the basic details and some run off the mill travelling advice, but for my taste, when I’m trying to decide where to go, I need the atmosphere, the mood, and the experiences of someone like me.

Check the local transport options – In addition to attractions, hotels and ground transit can shape your city choices. If you’re going to places with good public transit, it’s easy to land in one place for a bit and then move to another hub. If rental cars are cheap, you might consider driving around some of the rural parts of your chosen holiday spot. 

Move at least once a week – Happiness experts say that the shiny new vacation smell wears off after about 7 days in the same place. I like to change cities at least once a week, but if you want to spend your whole summer in the Maldives laying on the beach, it’s still a good idea to break it up by moving to a hotel on the other side of the island or taking a weekend to explore the mainland. After 7 days, things become a “routine” and the mental mood boosting benefits of vacationing begin to taper off sharply. Relaxing holidays will tend to move less, while exploring holidays will need to move more. How much more often than every 7-8 days you move will depend on your goal.

Finding Accomodation

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Don’t stay anywhere you don’t feel safe or can’t get good sleep. It’s not worth saving money if you’re stressed or too tired to enjoy the next day’s activities.

Do try to minimize your accommodation costs unless the resort itself is the center of your holiday (which is fine, private beaches are dreamy).

Shop around – It’s good to have a range of search options to keep your prices down. I like Airbnb and Booking.com the best, but I’ve been known to poke around Hostelworld. Sometimes I’ve just made email arrangements because I’m traveling to the back end of nowhere. Most of these places give discounts to non-cancellable reservations, but if you want to maintain flexibility, its a good idea to book places you can change later in case you find something better or change your plan altogether.

Beware hidden costs – Things to think about besides the room price: are any meals included? Do you need parking? Do you need a shuttle service? Will you need laundry service? Is it close to public transit? A great room price can be ruined if you have to pay 20$ a night for parking, if you have to walk a mile to the bus stop, or if there’s no place to eat nearby (this happened to me once in Korea and my hostess, bless her heart, fed us, but it was embarrassing!)

Location, location, location – When booking my rooms, I’m typically going back and forth between the booking site, a map of the region, and some travel blogs. Sometimes the map will show me something interesting because Google does that now. Sometimes the hotel will mention famous nearby sights to check out, and always travel bloggers will tell you about their own experiences there.  I spend ages staring at maps, reading blogs, and looking at the map function of Airbnb. It can show you the prices of a large geographical region. Sometimes I find great prices and realize I don’t really want to GO to that place so it’s useless.

Quality is subjective – Reading reviews of accommodation is tricky. If the person leaving the review has a different set of values and expectations than you, their review may not be helpful. Don’t just look at stars. Look at how many people reviewed something. A 4 star rating from 200 reviews is better than a 5 star rating from only 10 reviews. Read the things people liked, but also read what they didn’t like. Are those things important to you? Can you sleep in a room where you might see a rat to save $$? Do you HAVE to have A/C? Do you want to meet other guests or have more privacy? What is the standard in that country? I found that a 2-3 star (of 5) rating in developed countries is equivalent to a 4 or 5 star place in developing nations.

Prioritize – For me, feeling safe is #1. I don’t like to stay in co-ed dorms if I can avoid it but female only dorms are often more expensive. I also won’t stay in an Airbnb with all men (one or many, I don’t do it unless there’s a female in the house).  I’ve learned I can sleep just about anywhere for one night, but I prefer a single room, or a women only dorm in a clean place in a non-party part of town (I do not like hearing people throwing up from being drunk while I’m trying to sleep). I also look for transportation options (parking if I have a car, bus stop if I don’t).

Things like lux decorations, pools, spas, and services are less important to me, but you need to know your own priorities. If you want to party all night, stay in the party zone. If you can’t enjoy yourself unless you’re staying in the Marriott, then increase your budget or pick cheaper parts of the world where those resorts are affordable. Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt is great for that. You can stay in fancy beach resorts for a fraction of the cost of other countries.

Local Transportation

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Minimize travel time – I’ve seen tourists travel for hours to reach someplace and look for 15 minutes, take a few pics, and then get back on the bus. I don’t understand this method of travel. I think transit should be minimized. I don’t like to spend more than 4 hours a day in transit (except the flights in and out). It’s not always possible, but it is important. The comfort level of your transit is also important, as I learned in Thailand. A 3 hr bus ride in a plush comfy air conditioned seat is much more tolerable than a 3 hr ride in a cramped, hot, minivan.

Travel in your down time – In EU this summer, I traveled on Saturday so I wouldn’t have to fight weekend crowds at popular venues, and I used them as rest days where I could just relax and travel from one place to another. On shorter trips, I like to do intercity transit early in the morning or last thing at night. If you have to go a long way, it might be worth looking into sleeper cars. When we were in China (a huge landscape) we did that a couple times and skipped out on hotels for the 8-10 hour train rides overnight.

Research the details – If you’re going in the off season, you can probably buy tickets the day of your travel, but in the high season it’s best to make reservations. Look at the time tables and make sure you can get to the bus/train station on time. Compare the bus and train costs. I found that taking the bus around France and Holland was great, but that in Germany the train was cheaper.  I took a bus from Singapore to KL, but a train from KL to Ipoh.

Look at alternative travel options – Sometimes local flights can be more efficient and cheaper than bus or train. Sometimes there are even boats. Which I love. I took a ferry from Jordan to Egypt last time I was there. It was not any cheaper than flying, but it was a much cooler experience. I also had to take a boat to get to Koh Lipe and back since there are no airports on the tiny little island. Now that I’ve been, I know I probably could have bought my ticket when I got to the port, but at the time I had no idea how full it would be so I made sure to book online.

Check the reviews – In some cases you won’t have choices, but when you do it’s best to check and see if you can find a picture of the fleet that is NOT on the company website. I thought the boat to Koh Lipe would be like the ferries I’m used to where we could go up on deck and with that in mind, I was looking into a 3 hr boat ride. When I read more and realized that the Thai ferries in the region are all very restrictive and make passengers stay seated below decks, I opted for the shortest possible ride instead.

When in Rome – Not literally, but when it comes to getting around, it’s a good idea to see what locals do. I did so much research on inter-city transit to get from one place to another, I neglected to pre-research city buses to learn how to get around once I was there! It turns out, every one is different and it was a huge source of stress for me last summer.  How do you use the bus/tram/metro system? Do you need a bus pass? Where do you buy tickets? Does it cost more to buy one at a time or get a pass? Is the tourist pass worth it? Don’t assume it will be easy to figure out when you get there… it won’t be.

Step 3: The Details

Now you have your cities chosen, your hotels booked, and a solid idea of how you’ll get around. Time to narrow your focus and figure out what you’ll do in each location. Show up and see what happens is not a strategy that works for most people. It seems very romantic, but most people find they end up sitting around on Google trying to do the research they should have done before they arrived.

Brainstorm

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Write a list – Just make a list of names of all the places you can find where you’re going. Websites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet come in handy at this stage. They are great resources for building a basic list of things to see. They are a bit limited to the most popular tourist attractions, however, so try adding something like Atlas Obscura to your search.

Dig deeper For more unique travel opportunities, check travel blogs and Facebook pages and other types of social media from smaller voices to see what isn’t being seen by the big famous travel sites. I found a magical heated waterfall in NZ this way. I’ve learned about unique food in tiny restaurants, and the less famous but just as beautiful temple or church next to the one full of tourists. You get beautiful memories and you often get the place mostly or even all the way to yourself. I can’t provide links because each blogger focuses on different places and experiences, but if you type the name of the place + “blog” or “travel blog” you should get some decent results.

Check the map– Once you get a list written down, you can start searching for what’s near them geographically. Pull up the Google Map and see what pops up next to your famous site or on the route from your hotel to that site. Read more blogs about people who went to a famous site and see if they did any side trips. I had a side trip for buffalo ice cream on my way back from a famous site in Bohol. Local water-buffalo being milked for ice cream… that’s a unique holiday experience.

Expand your search – If your’e staying in one hotel more than 3 days (it hardly ever takes longer to see the highlights of one city, although of course you could explore a single city for years and not see everything, many people on holiday like to maximize experiences), you can look at day trips from the city you’re in. Can you do a tour to a nearby natural reserve for hiking, kayaking, fishing, etc? Can you get a bus to a neighboring city and see their sights? I found an amazing spa in Aachen Germany about 2 hours away from my hotel in Lanaken Belgium.

Read until your eyes blur – Keep adding things to your list.  Make your list as long as you like, don’t worry about all the details of each place yet, this is the brainstorm phase. Anything that sounds interesting, put it on the list.

Edit the List

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Location, Location, Location – things that are close together can be done on the same day, while things that are far away, not on the public transit line, or not near anything else cool might be cut from the list. I had the Tower of Eben-Ezer on my list, but when I realized how far out it was and that it would take me hours each way without a car, I reluctantly took it off the list. Other times I’ve gone to a place I was only semi-interested in because it was 5 minutes walk from my primary stop and had a great experience.

Timing is everything –  Check the days and hours of operation, and the price. If it’s not open when you’re there, if it conflicts with something you want more, if it costs too much, cross it off the list. Do you need to book in advance or can you buy tickets at the door? How long is the line? Many attractions have “skip the line” tickets that let you save time. When we went to the Catecombs in Paris, the line was 3 hours long. We had skip the line tickets and got in with only about 5 minutes wait. I completely failed to buy my Kremlin tickets ahead of time, and had to choose between standing in line and seeing the Kremlin or doing literally anything else in Moscow that day.

Read the reviews – Read reviews, look at pictures, visit the website. Look beyond rating and see what people are saying. Are the things they talk about important to you? Does this seem like something you’ll like? More than once I’ve declined to visit a city’s most popular tourist destination because it just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

PrioritizeYour list should be divided into “must see” and “see if there’s time”, with a side of “bad weather options”. Make sure you have no more than 50% of your list as “must see”. Even after editing out all the places you can’t get to, can’t afford, aren’t open, or aren’t interesting, the list should still be huge, and contain more things that you can actually do in the time you have because you might need to change something based on weather, unexpected closures, illness, or random acts of gods.

Step 4: The Schedule

It’s a good idea to have a schedule, as long as you know that it will change. I don’t want to spend my precious vacation time thinking about what to do each day. Sometimes I write detailed schedules down to the half hour, other times I make “day itineraries” grouping nearby activities together so I can wake up and say, ok today I’ll do itinerary 3.eu trip plan

Booking in Advance

Use your priority list and start with things on your “must see” list that require (or strongly suggest) advance reservations. Once those are filled in, you can start adding things that have variable times and things from your “see if there’s time” list.

Visit the website – Almost all of them have an English page and will tell you how important it is to buy tickets in advance. Some places don’t even sell tickets at the door. 

Don’t Over-schedule

The temptation to squeeze sightseeing into every moment of the day is strong. Avoid it. A single event or a bike/walking tour that lasts 2-3 hours is a “half day” event (2 per day). Anything more than 5 hours is an “all day” event (1 per day). I can’t make you slow down, but thousands of travelers over several decades agree that seeing fewer things, but experiencing them more fully is a more satisfying experience.

Make time for meals! Oh man, the number of times I’ve ended up not getting food because I’ve been so busy looking around. It’s a tragedy especially if you’re travelling anywhere with good food… soooo basically everywhere. Street food is awesome and should be tried, but you need to sit down and rest too.

Organize by geography – When I was in the Philippines, I had itineraries that could be done on any day, as long as the items were done as a group because they were all close together. You can sneak tiny things into a day this way. If there’s something that will take less than an hour quite close to one of your half or all-day events you can work that in without killing yourself.

Time is a Gift – You look at an itinerary like this and you think, OH we’re wasting so much time, but you are not. You are giving yourself a precious gift. Now you have time to get lost, to explore, to check out that cool thing on the way you didn’t know about, to stop for an ice cream or coffee, to meet people along the way.

Be Prepared to chuck the plan – If you travel with an open eye and open mind, you’ll also find new and interesting things along the way. Sometimes it’s meeting people who invite you along, sometimes the concierge or Airbnb host tells you about a local secret, sometimes you just walk into a wine festival in the park (true story, happened to me in Prague). You want to be able to make time for these things, and in order to do that you need things you can move around in your itinerary.

Step 5: Organize Your Documents

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Gone are the days of having to print our whole holiday itinerary and carry them around in waterproof document cases! Yes, people did that. Sometimes I still see older couples doing it. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, and if you’re not going to be around computers or the internet, it’s VITAL, but now that we can store everything in the cloud, we can access schedules, booking details, and vouchers with our phones!

At a Glance – There are countless apps you can use to organize your itinerary, but be sure you get one that is easy to read at a glance. You’ve seen my color coded spreadsheet that shows a calendar where I put the things I’ve scheduled and bought tickets for, but I also use something like a Word.doc for the list of things I can do more or less whenever that includes addresses, websites and phone numbers I may need, and any itinerary groupings.

On the Cloud – I make a dedicated folder in my cloud storage for all vouchers and receipts for everything I bought online from hotel reservations to museum tickets for each trip. I filter all my emails related to the holiday into a dedicated email folder for easy reference. I also keep photos of my critical documents. I know not everyone is comfortable with this, but if you lose your passport or ID, it will be easier to show your Embassy a picture of your missing credentials so they can help you faster.

Offline – If you won’t have data or internet when you arrive you can also download the documents you need to the phone’s storage. Some strange places in the world are still requiring printed vouchers/ tickets, so double check when you make reservations if you can use the pdf or email as proof or not.


What is all this for?

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Planning a holiday can certainly be fun and help you build anticipation for your upcoming adventure. However, it can also be a lot of work and there are days when you’ll want to throw the towel in and just wing it when you get there. Trust me. Don’t. 

All of this painstaking work helps make sure you get to see the best your holiday destination has to offer you.

  • make sure you don’t show up to a venue that is closed or sold out.
  • minimize transit time by grouping your events together.
  • maximize your bucket list by prioritizing only one or two things a day. 
  • have enough time to do everything and a way to stop and rest as needed. 
  • alleviate the stress of where to go and how to get there while you’re jet-lagged and culture-shocked.
  • explore organically by leaving a little extra time every day that could be filled or changed as needed.

I hope your next adventure is everything you dream.

Happy Travels!

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Malay Peninsula 15: “The Worst Day” or “How I Lost My Cool”

Sometimes vacations go awry. Sometimes it’s not fun anymore. And sometimes it gets so bad you feel like that toddler in the grocery store who just can’t take it anymore and has a critical meltdown in the aisle. For me, it was the second half of my 11th day. The combination of physical exertion, dehydration, low blood sugar, frustration, culture shock, and physical discomfort from overheating and actual injuries came together in a perfect storm. The story of how things went wrong is one I hope I can look back on with humor someday, but it is also one I know I can learn from. Not only can I see where my limits are so as to better respect them in the future, I can see where my resilience is strongest and nurture that in times of strife.


When last we saw our intrepid traveler, she was crammed in the back of yet another Thai “bus” (overstuffed minivan) on her way back to her hotel in Krabi, running only an hour or more behind schedule in hopes of catching the last bus out of town across the peninsula to Surat Thani. In addition to the delay in schedule, our heroine is suffering from a wounded foot, the result of a coral scrape now chaffed by sandal straps, beaten by sunshine, splashed with mangrove water and stepped in bat guano. This is where it gets bad. If you want to preserve the illusion that my travels are all magical adventures, skip the rest of this day.

Thai “Taxi”

Luckily, it seemed my guide had mentioned my predicament to the driver, because even though I was jammed in the back of the van, they stopped at my hotel first. With about an hour to catch the bus, I collected my luggage from the storage room and asked if they hotel could call a taxi to take me to the bus station. They could, of course, but were planning to charge an outrageous fee. Taking in my disheveled state and lone backpack as luggage, I think the clerk realized I was not a luxury tourist and kindly gave me directions to the nearest taxi stand where I could catch a local taxi for much less.

My foot had not fared well that day. Despite the sunscreen, I picked up my only sunburn of the holiday (mild pink, not serious). The area around my coral scrape was red and inflamed and I was sure it was getting infected. The brackish water and barefoot cave mud could not have helped (hopefully my mother skips this blog entry, I haven’t told her how dumb I was about that cut). I managed to arrange my shoe so that it dragged less on the skin, but I had to shuffle walk.

The taxi stand was a couple blocks away and around a corner, near a landmark hotel. I found the corner and the hotel, but nothing that looked like a taxi or a stand. Thailand has a serious problem translating transportation devices into English. First “bus”, and now “taxi”. As I stood there looking white, lost, and confused, searching for anything that looked like a taxi and wishing I’d taken some time to learn the Thai alphabet, an old man approached me and with the universal sign language of charades, inquired as to my dilemma. This took a moment, because we then said “what” at each other about 4 times before I finally said I wanted to go to the bus station, in English, because I did not know what else to try. It worked however, because he nodded and gestured for me to follow him… back to a little truck, the bed of which had been kitted out with benches and a sort of hard awning top.

There comes a moment in an adventure where you are so far out of your element you can’t see it with a telescope. Trusting in the goodness of humans, I hopped in the back of the truck. As we drove along, we picked up more passengers, and dropped off a couple too, who would stop by the cab window to pay the driver. I watched one passenger push a little button on the roof I hadn’t noticed before and realized it was like the bus stop button to let the driver know to pull over. It turns out “taxi” in Thai is like a tiny truck bus/ rideshare thing that doesn’t have a set route or fare. I watched my GPS and saw we were indeed headed to the bus station, and when we arrived, about half the passengers disembarked with me, so I had some time to find my money. The trip cost me less than 1$. I accidentally tried to hand the money to the passenger in the cab before realizing he was a monk! I guess ride-sharing taxis is efficient, but it sure was confusing for a newcomer.

I made it to the bus station with a little time to spare and headed over to the ticket counters to secure passage. I bought my ticket, hit the bathroom, and bought some water before sitting down next to the number where I was told my bus would arrive. I watched large buses come and go, unsurprised that my bus was not on time. I should have known not to expect anything so comfortable as a real bus. Shortly, a battered gray minivan pulled up and an old man hopped out and gestured for myself and the other lady waiting in the seats there to get in. There were no markings, not even a sign in the window. He did not ask for our tickets. The inside of the van was crammed as full as can be. I think they may have actually installed an extra row of seats. I perched on the edge (all of what was left) of one bench next to a rather large man, struggling to stuff my bag in the tiny space between my seat and the seat in front, my legs out in the space that would be called an aisle.

In this cramped and hot conveyance, I sat for nearly 3 hours to get to Surat Thani. All the research I did on Surat Thani was basically a litany of warnings: don’t go here it is not a tourist town it has no attractions. I couldn’t imagine that. In my experience, most towns have something, but regardless, I wasn’t planning to see Surat Thani, I had come because it was supposed to be the easier route to Khao Sok and because my plane back to Korea would depart from the Surat Thani airport.

Rip Off

When the van arrived, I was shuffled over to a travel agency where absolutely no one was interested in talking to me about my need to get out to Khao Sok the next day. I did manage to get someone to call me a taxi that wanted to charge me 150 Baht to take me to my hotel (for comparison, the taxi in Krabi had been 30 Baht and my minivan from Krabi clear across the peninsula to Surat Thani was 180). I felt massively exploited – white person just arrived in town, let’s rip her off – so I threw a bit of a fit. They told me it was because the hotel was so far away, and I pulled up Google Maps to show them it was less than 3km. I could have walked if my foot were not throbbing and raw from the coral injury. I finally agreed to 100 Baht, and sat with bad grace in the back of another truck taxi while the driver picked up and dropped off other passengers along the way.

The hotel may have only been 3km away, but it was quite isolated. When I selected it based on the map location, it seemed so close to the city center, however that was without any context for the city of Surat Thani. The many internet articles that advised how not-tourist friendly this town is were not kidding. The city is not pedestrian friendly, and lacks sufficient taxis, so if you want to get around, be prepared to pay an arm an a leg or rent a motorbike. But I was tired, hungry, hot, dirty. I had spent the beginning of my day in cramped minivans and the end of my day in cramped minivans, and however lovely the kayaking in the middle was, I had a seriously long day and was ready for a shower and a bed.

ST street view 1

the isolated side street where my hotel was, via Google street view

Travel Arrangements

My plans for the next day were to go to a family farm near to but not actually in Khao Sok, where a retired trekking elephant was cared for and had visits from the public by appointment. I had done lots of research on ethical elephant interaction in Thailand and discovered that there isn’t much of it in the south. There was a well regarded luxury elephant resort, but it was going to run about 450$ for two days and one night. The other place I found was this family farm, which seemed to be legit and well reviewed. I had been in contact with them via email and they seemed to think it would be very easy for me to get from Surat Thani to their farm on any of the vans going to Khao Sok. All I had to do was give their phone number to the driver to get directions. Since the farm was literally on the road to the park, the vans would pass it on the way.

While checking in, I noticed that the hotel offered rides to Khao Sok so I tried to ask about what it would take to get dropped off at my destination. This proved challenging as there was only one person on staff who spoke English, and he kept leaving. Protip: not everyone who advertises on Booking.com as speaking English actually does.

At first the hotel said they could not drop me off. Then they made some calls, had me call the farm itself so they could talk to them about the location and finally said ok. Wouldn’t it be a nice story if this were the end?

Cash Only

The hotel didn’t accept credit cards, and I was running low on cash. I hadn’t seen an ATM anywhere. I didn’t worry about it when I first arrived in Surat Thani because I figured there would be one near my hotel. It turned out the nearest ATM was about 1km up the rural road where it intersected the main road. I had no choice but to walk…reversing 1km of the 3km I had overpaid to be driven down… and back again, on my torn up foot. That’s right. I paid 100 baht to avoid walking 3km and ended up having to walk 2 anyway.

The heat of the day had thankfully faded, and I was allowed to leave my bag in the lobby. It was not possible for me to walk quickly. Even when not injured, my feet swell in heat and during long rides, but the coral scrape had become increasingly red and painful throughout the day. I set out on dusty road, passing half a dozen stray dogs, heaps of garbage and flies, derelict buildings filled with so much rubbish they may have well been dumping grounds. The whole thing belied the beautiful photos of the hotel, strategically taken to show none of the surrounding area. I passed the bloated corpse of a dog on the side of the road and tried hard to bite down on my disgust and judgement, reflecting that my pain, hunger and weariness were making me less tolerant, but it was hard going. I didn’t have the energy to take pics of trash and dog corpses, so these are from Google street view. They’re from February of 2016 and look a bit cleaner than the day I was there.

I made it up to the main road. The distance was not so great, but anyone whose had to walk on a foot injury knows how little that matters, and walking through trash and decay did not make the experience any easier. I found the ATM and got some money, then looked around for any sign of a restaurant, finding none. Again, I had expected a hotel to be near amenities and was sadly mistaken. I couldn’t bear to wander aimlessly around anymore, so I went into a corner store and picked up some food there: yogurt, a sandwich, a banana and a candy bar. I limped my way back to the hotel in the dark, and back to the desk to finally check in.

Change of Plans

While paying for my room and van ride, the girl at the desk who spoke only a few words of English, started giving me different information about the van ride than what I’d agreed to before going to the ATM. Something had changed in my absence, but she couldn’t explain it, so the English speaker had to be summoned once more. They weren’t going to take me to the farm, but instead their driver would take me to a travel agent in town where I would wait around for an hour or more then be taken maybe to another place where I might need to wait some more, and I could get to my location at like 10-11am. But still wake up and leave the hotel at 6am. To get to a place that was an hour away.

This was me summoning every moment I’ve ever worked in service to remind myself not to yell at anyone. I took deep breaths and tears came to the corner of my eyes. I can’t do that, I told them. My appointment is at 9am, so if you can’t take me to the farm, just take me to the park entrance where everyone else is dropped off and I’ll get farm folks to pick me up. This sounds simple, but it was more than 20 minutes of broken English, confused explanations, and me walking away to count backwards from 10 repeatedly.

Emotional Overload

I got to my room and cried. I cried about every difficult thing that I’d encountered on the holiday. I cried about every obstacle, every pain, every disappointment. Then I had a shower and ate some food and talked to a friend online. I didn’t really feel better, but I hoped that sleep would help and I was determined to make the most of my final day on holiday and visit the elephant ethically. I fell asleep around 8pm.

At about 10:30pm I was woken up by barking. Frantic get out of my house barking. I tried turning up the volume on my headphones. I tried folding the pillow over my ears to muffle the sounds. I hoped that whatever was bothering the dog would go away, but it didn’t stop. The hotel was made of shipping containers. The insides were quite adorable and well constructed, but not especially soundproof. On top of this, my window faced the street. I looked out the window and saw that a dog in one of the fenced in yards was barking it’s head off at the dogs on the street who did not give a shit. The barking dog’s owners just as clearly didn’t give a shit because he’d been barking for about half an hour by this time.

ST street view 4

This photo is also from Google street view, hence the daylight. I stayed in one of these container rooms. The dogs are not “cute” to me anymore.


I snapped.

Yes, somewhere in the world, there are people who have had it worse. I’m not looking for pity or comparing my experience to yours or, for example, a soldier’s or refugee’s. But I was on holiday. I hadn’t slept well for several nights, and hadn’t eaten well for all but maybe 2 of the 11 days. I had a foot injury that was starting to look infected, and I had trudged in this state passed heaps of trash and a dead dog carcass. I was so far out of spoons that I had sobbed my eyes out before falling asleep, and now after a mere 2 hours of rest, I was woken up with no sign of being able to sleep again and an alarm set for 6 am.

I Snapped

I packed my things and dressed, heading to the lobby to see if I could get a different room, away from the dogs, but the only person there was not the English speaker. She understood that my issue was with the dogs, but she tried to explain she couldn’t do anything about it because they didn’t belong to the hotel.

This conversation was nearly impossible. I was so tired I could barely express myself and she barely spoke English. I know she could tell I was upset, because I started crying again, but there was nothing we could do. Eventually I decided to change hotels.
“I’ll check out”, I said, “Call me a taxi”. But she said I couldn’t check out until I cancelled on the booking.com website. Using my phone and slow data, I managed to cancel my reservation and to book myself a room in the fanciest hotel in Surat Thani (less than 2km away).

She hadn’t called a taxi. I asked again. “What hotel?”, she asked. “Wangtai”, I said. She looked totally perplexed. Bear in mind, this is the biggest, poshest hotel in the city, and she’s looking like she’s never heard of it. I showed her the name in Thai and a look of instant recognition crosses her face. Oh, Wangtai, of course. We went through the rigmarole of refunds. I had quite honestly expected to pay for one night since I had occupied the room, but they refunded my entire amount, including the now cancelled ride to Khao Sok in the morning. It sounds simple, but everything had to be done in exaggerated sign language and triplicate forms, so it took over an hour from the time I came in with my bags to the time I got my refund. “A taxi?”, I repeated and she finally called, but by that time the taxis were “closed”.

Nuclear Meltdown

I may have turned into the worst kind of tourist here. Even writing it, it’s hard for me to convey the situation and it seems like I’m overreacting. I mean, I wasn’t quite at the awful tourist level of yelling at a coffee shop for not having a flat white, but I was loosing my mind from pain, exhaustion, culture shock and serious struggles. I’m fairly sure I raised my voice and uttered unflattering things about the city of Surat Thani and it’s taxis. I cried. I stomped. I huffed. I cursed. And while I tried to direct my rage at anyplace other than the girl behind the counter who was doing her best to help me, I am ashamed to say, I was not a nice person.

I could not bear the notion of trying to return to my room. I could hear the dogs from the lobby, though not as loudly, enough to know they were still at it. Plus, I’d already checked out. I thought about walking the distance on my burning foot with all my things. I turned once more to Google to see if there was any option, perhaps to have the other hotel come and fetch me or any kind of private transportation service.

Redemption

Suddenly, the girl at the desk said that her friend would drive me there on her motorbike. I almost collapsed in gratitude. I tried my best to apologize for my outbursts and to thank them for helping me. It’s still hard for me to believe how much they did to try and help me despite the fact that I was being a total brat.

 I had never ridden on a motorcycle before. I had my backpack, day bag, and bag of snacks and no time to rearrange my belongings. She didn’t have a spare helmet, and all I could think as I sat on the back of the bike, one hand on her shoulder and the other holding bag number 3, was “please don’t let my mom freak out about this”. I decided to close my eyes so I couldn’t see passing traffic. I thought of the things I’d read about being a motorcycle passenger, how to lean into turns and help the driver balance. The night air was soft and cool compared with the heat of the day and the ride was smooth and uneventful. When we arrived, I thanked her several more times before heading inside.

Spend the Money

The Wangtai is the swankiest hotel in Surat Thani. It’s in a reasonable location, and has a cafe, convenience store, and restaurant in the lobby, along with a massage parlor and spa and swimming pool (closed for renovations when I went ). The lobby was staffed with well dressed people who spoke excellent English even at midnight. I got checked in and settled in my suite with vouchers for breakfast and the sauna. And all of this was about 40$ US a night.

Thailand is cheap. In Europe and New Zealand things are pricier. I stayed in shared dorms that were almost the same price as the Wangtai. I traveled like a poor uni student on gap year, and I thought I should do the same thing in Thailand.  With very few exceptions (the hotel in Krabi) it’s just asking for suffering. My first hotel in Surat Thani was 11$ a night for a private room, while the most expensive hotel in town was only 40$ a night. The minivan from Krabi to Surat Thani was 6$ where a private car would have been about 45$. The point is, you can only choose 2: money, time, or comfort. If you have lots of time, then taking those 6$ minivans is great because you can recover in between adventures. But if you’re on a short trip to Thailand, I recommend to spend the money. Being comfortable can make all the difference between an awesome experience and an epic meltdown.


It’s now July and we’re finally almost to the end of my winter holidays 2017. Although I didn’t get to visit the elephant, I did have at least one more magical experience before leaving Thailand, so I hope you’ll come back to see the rewards of getting back on the horse after a fall.

Here in Korea, I’m working my way through the worst root canal ever, creating the materials for summer camp, getting ready for Seoul Pride and counting down to a brief return to the states. I’ll do my best to get everything online before stepping out, but if not, I hope you’ll be patient until my return. Don’t forget to see the holiday albums on Facebook and (almost) daily photo updates on Instagram! Thanks!

Malay Peninsula 13: Thailand – transportation, pharmaceuticals, and towelephants, oh my!

From Koh Lipe, my last few days of vacation were to be held back on the mainland, in that narrow part of Thaliand that extends down onto the Malay Peninsula. This post is about the smaller adventures and major learning opportunities I had spending the better part of an entire day getting from Koh Lipe to Krabi.


My final morning on Koh Lipe, I needed to be at the beach to catch the ferry back to the mainland by 10am. I was awake much earlier than that and hoped to use my extra morning hours to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the beach. I had read the ferry confirmation email several times, but made a critical error in judgement. The first instruction was the location of the office and the check in time. I did the unforgivable sin of making an assumption that I would need to check in at the office. I headed out on foot, one sandal awkwardly secured so as to minimize contact with the reddening skin around the coral scrape, toward Sunrise beach, the third major beach on Koh Lipe and the only one I hadn’t yet seen. Great! I could see another beach and have breakfast with a new view and still have plenty of time to board the ferry.

My walk from the campsite to Sunrise beach took me past a wooded temple compound. I didn’t have time to go in and explore, sadly, but I did see even more of the tiny houses on posts along with offerings of food, sweets, and liquor bottles. I still know next to nothing about Thai Buddhism. I never saw anything like this in temples of China, Japan, Korea and Singapore, so they really caught my eye.

Sunrise Beach & The Fine Print

Sunrise beach is beautiful, especially as it’s name implies, in the morning. It was larger than Sunset beach but less crowded than Pataya. There were several much nicer looking bungalows than mine in grassy glades along the beach and I resolved then and there that the next time I came to Koh Lipe, I would absolutely put up the extra money and stay here. I got very near the location of the office as shown on the map and sat down at a restaurant to order breakfast.

I double checked the itinerary one more time because I am paranoid like that and suddenly realized, like Wile E Coyote reading the fine print  my eyes glued to the phrases “Please check in on board…the Tigerline Ferry is parking at the Pataya Bay”. 

On the other side of the island!


Seriously look at this thing. The instructions are massively confusing. The ALL CAPS sentence is about the office on Sunrise Beach. Specific directions are given to the office. Pataya beach is huge and there’s no office or meeting point mentioned, just “check in on the ferry”, which you have to take a longtail boat to get to. I’m not saying I didn’t make a user error here, but wow. 

This shows the basic route from my camping zone, over to Wapi Resort (closest landmark to the defunct ferry office) and back to Pattaya. lipe walking

Unexpected Pancake 
I canceled my breakfast order and set off again for the far side of the island. I did find the office, by the way. It was empty and looked like it had been abandoned for some time. On my quick shuffle back to Pattaya beach, I turned back into the main street of the island and paused for a much quicker breakfast of the famous Thai pancake. This is not a pancake like we have in the West, not even like a crepe. It came first from the roti style bread of India and was later adapted to Thai tastes and then back to western. I had a banana nutella pancake (and another Thai iced coffee, because yum). The dough was a both chewy and flaky with warm soft banana filling and a generous smear of nutella on top. Even though I’d entirely messed up my morning plans, it wasn’t too shabby to visit a beautiful beach and have one of the most famous foods on the island, after all.

Farewell Koh Lipe

When I got to Pattaya, I began looking around the immigration building to see if I could find any sign of which boat to get on. Fortunately, there was a young man at a folding table who was checking in travelers for the outgoing ferries. The sign and company name were not at all my company, but he was the only one in sight and I figured he’d at least know where I was supposed to go. Proving the adage, “always ask”, it turned out that he was the guy I was supposed to check in with! Despite the total lack of signs. I got my sticker, identifying me as allowed to board the boat and was told which longtail to take to the ferry.

Unlike the ferry we arrived on, which docked with a floating pontoon pier thing, the boat taking us north was just hanging out in the water and we had to do a direct boat to boat transfer. Koh Lipe is not for folks who are afraid of boats. The seating was much less formal than the ferry from Langkawi, and I was able to head up to the main deck. Many passengers headed outside to soak up more sun (the crispy and the melanin blessed), but I had not slathered myself in sunscreen that morning, so I opted to stay in the shade (and air conditioning) and enjoy the view from the window. Even though the bench I sat on was plain wood (breaking in some parts), it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep. I think I slept through most of the voyage and woke up later on in time to get some beautiful views of the towering limestone cliff islands off the coast.

The Bus That Wasn’t

We pulled into a tiny dock called Hat Yao Pier near Trang where we were bustled off the boat and into a nice shady little convenience store where I was able to find a restroom and a snack while waiting for the next leg of my journey, the overland ride to Krabi.

Side note about transportation in Thailand: It is terrible. Unless you have booked with a lux upscale tour company on one of the main tourism routes with the big limousine buses, prepare for cramped misery. Tigerline ferries, with whom I booked my transportation, advertised a bus ride to Krabi. As a native English speaker, I have some preconceived notions about the word ‘bus’. I expect you do too. If you need help, I suggest doing a google image search and looking at the things we think of as ‘buses’. In Thailand, I believe that ‘bus’ simply means anything bigger than a car, or possibly anything that holds more than 4 people. This 17 seat minivan (18 if you count the driver) was common, although none were as clean or new as the advert here. Note the impressive absence of leg room.

One of the main reasons I like to understand my transport options is because I have shredded knees. Other people might have long legs, or bad backs or a thousand other reasons to have strong preferences in transport. Mine comes from the issue that if I sit with my knees bent for too long (more than 45 minutes), it starts to feel like someone has inserted red-hot steel rods into them. I can usually avoid this by simply straitening the leg for a moment to stretch it out. I can do this on airplanes, boats, buses, cars, so it’s hardly ever an issue unless someone takes away ALL thee leg room (cause I’m short and don’t need much). Which is exactly what happened in Trang. The “bus” that arrived for us was a little silver minivan with seats so close together that leg room was imaginary. I finally had to resort to simply standing up and hunching my back regardless of how awkward it was with the other passengers. Unfortunately, I know of no way to discern the type of vehicle in advance in Thailand which could make future journeys problematic.

Towlephants

The good news is that the Tigerline company had agreed to drop me off directly at my hotel in Krabi (the Lada Krabi Residence, highly recommend), so I didn’t have to try and arrange yet more rides. This hotel pick up and drop off is crucial to any experience in Thailand unless you’re in walking distance of your hotel or are driving yourself. I cannot stress enough how hard transportation in Thailand is compared to nearly everywhere else I’ve been. It’s not just me, all my friends in Korea who traveled around Thailand this winter had similar experiences with the exception of those who stayed in a major city, or booked an all inclusive tour.

When I got to my room, I nearly cried with joy. It was so nice and clean and big. The very helpful staff got me checked in quick and the room not only had plenty of space (soooo much space) and places to hang my wet clothes, and a separator between the shower and toilet to keep the toilet seat dry, and a mini-fridge with complimentary bottles of water, and a kettle with complimentary coffee/tea, there were even towelephants on the bed! (Towelephant™: a towel folded in the shape of an elephant. Credit: Diana). I was so dirty/sweaty/sandy/gross. Days of being cramped, damp, uncomfortable and unclean had been worth it for the amazing experiences, but I think the only other time I was so glad to see a “regular” hotel room was after a two week backpack around China.


Finding Birth Control Abroad

I had a very important goal to fulfill in Thailand, and Krabi seemed like my best chance: Depo. Yes, the shot. It’s my lifeline to sanity because it’s the only thing I can take that totally eliminates all the horrible pain of “that time of the month”. I do not disparage the women who are in tune with their cycles and flow, but as a child reading fantasy novels, I always wondered how the characters managed without once dealing with a pad or tampon the whole time they were saving the world, let alone crippling pain from cramps. So, yes, when I found a medicine that brought on that relief, I clung to it.

Up until now, I have always brought my supply from the US, and returned to the US within a year (the amount the will sell you if you prove you’re moving abroad). But I had already been in Korea a year and wasn’t planning to go back to the US soon. I was all out. I knew birth control was available in Korea, so hadn’t given it much thought until I took my last dose and was looking for a new doctor, and no one had it. However wonderful Korean medicine and even culture is in many ways, I stumbled headfirst into the backward treatment of women’s reproductive health.

In Korea, women do not go to regular check ups. My co-teacher, who I asked about finding a good doctor, said she didn’t know because she’d never been. She is married with a son, by the way. The stigma of going to a gynecologist is that a woman must be “loose” or worse, have an STD already. Birth control is not taken on a regular basis, but instead is used to stave off a period if the woman has a vacation or important event coming up. Which sort of explains why tampons aren’t popular here, since women can just take a few pills to schedule their period for a more convenient time. On the one hand, the government passed a labor law mandating that women be granted one (unpaid) day of leave per month for menstruation (not kidding). On the other hand, women never take it because they fear the perception and shame surrounding it. Depo is legal here and I’ve heard of people getting it, but given the huge number of hospitals and clinics, as well as the language barrier, the task of trying to find one that would have my medication was quite daunting.

Pharmacies Without Prescriptions?

Turning to my trusted friend, Google, I found that Thailand (of all places) sells my drug of choice over the counter! For a few dollars. And yes, I have heard every argument about buying off market drugs in countries without enough regulations, but what are you supposed to do when the country you live in doesn’t have the drug? Also, as an expat, I’ve been to doctors and pharmacies around the world because that’s where I was when I needed the medicine. Egypt, Saudi, and France were all places I had to visit pharmacists. I take other medicines here in Korea that, when I look them up, are not on the US market by the same name or even manufactured by the same company. Were I to take a job in Thailand, as people in my career do from time to time, that is the medicine I would take. Maybe the drugs are actually less well regulated or maybe the US pays too much for pharmaceuticals. Not sayin’, just sayin’.

So, I discovered that there was a pharmacy within a couple blocks of my hotel and set out on foot. Depo Pravera goes by the alter-ego name Depo Gestin in Thailand. It took a little bit of translation and pictures from the internet, but once the pharmacist realized what I wanted, they had no problem selling me a whole year’s worth along with the needles to inject myself (which I was taught to do by my doctor in the US, don’t freak out). The vials are now in my fridge at home and I suspect I’ll be taking a pilgrimage to Thailand next year even if it’s just a weekend to Bangkok because it will cost me less to fly there and buy the medicine than the medicine cost me to buy when living in the US (sans Obamacare).

The Night Market

Following a truly epic shower full of hot water, soap, and scrubbing to erase the days of sweat, sand, sun and sea from my skin and hair, I headed out to find food. The night market was just around the corner from my hotel. I got some more phad thai in a tiny stall with plastic seats and a kind older couple managing the ersatz kitchen serving fresh shrimp and other types of Thai soul food to locals and tourists alike. I took a to go plate of sticky rice and mango for later, and found even more Thai pancakes that were completely different from what I’d had on the island. These were similar to crepes, but smaller and thicker. Each little silver dollar round was dabbed with a filling, and then rolled into a tube. I got egg custard and taro flavors. They were delicious.


Looking back on this holiday, I can only surmise that I was both insane and overly ambitious. This day was day 10 of the vacation, country 3 and city 6. With 2 more days and one more city ahead of me, I had already seen enough for at least 3 vacations, and I’d spent an amazing amount of energy running around in the tropical heat, and I’d managed to get a foot injury (though, no food poisoning so that’s good). One of these days I’ll listen to my own advice and slow down. Until then, enjoy the view 🙂

Malay Peninsula 11: Koh Lipe, pt. 1

For those who have just joined my Malay adventure, be warned that this is not an idyllic tropical vacation. I didn’t book a package tour and the consequence of managing all my own transportation was an increasing series of unfortunate events that at best forced me to learn and grow as a person, and at worst made me want to drop Thailand off the edge of the galaxy (it’s a disc, it totally has an edge). Koh Lipe is a tropical paradise. It came so close to being the real blue ocean, beach bumming, umbrella drink having vacation that I’m dreaming about. Maybe next year.


The Langkawi Ferry Terminal

20170124_091315The only way to get to the small island of Koh Lipe is by boat. I booked online in advance because I didn’t want to worry about tickets selling out. The only reason I was in Langkawi in the first place was to catch this boat to Koh Lipe. After the walking fiasco of the day before, I opted to get one of the islands fixed rate taxis back to the port and arrived 2 hours before the ferry’s departure time, as I was advised to do.

The ferry terminal on Langkawi is like most transportation terminals in Malaysia in that there are a million teeny tiny travel agency booths selling tickets for all the same things. All I had to do was find the agency I booked  with and check in. After going around the entire block without spotting it, I was forced to approach another booth for directions to one of their rivals. The first people I asked tried to tell me that it had closed down.

Trying not to freak out on anyone, I pointed out that I’d already bought my tickets online and once they realized that I wasn’t looking to buy tickets (read not a prospective customer) they pointed me in the right direction. This turned out to be nowhere near the other offices and in a totally different building on the second floor “above the Baskin Robbins” (information that could have been included in the email, thanks not thanks Tigerline).

When I found the office it was not open. The email said it would be open 2 hours before and it was now 90 min before. I was told 10 minutes (this is never true, it’s a mythical number that people in developing countries have learned to say to people from first world countries because it’s short enough to keep us from complaining or going someplace else). I sat down to wait, and about 20 minutes later someone came by to have us fill out paperwork and collect our passports.

I had not had breakfast or even coffee yet, as my base plan had been to check in and get my ticket, then to eat at the terminal where I had seen many restaurants the day before. I also had to change my Malay ringits to Thai baht because we would have to pay the longtail boat fare and national park fee in cash as soon as we got to the island. However, when Tigerline told us to show up an hour before departure, they really meant show up and wait around in their tiny waiting room. The staff (when they showed up) were helpful and friendly, however, and I was able to get away when I explained my predicament with the promise I would be back at the meeting point on time. I was in such a hurry that I did things out of order, changing my money before buying food. Since most places in Malaysia only take cash, I ended up at Starbucks for a breakfast I could buy with a card. This is my sadface. Especially since I loved the Malaysian coffee so much.

Where Are You From?

When your skin color doesn’t match the local population it’s a little obvious you’re a foreigner. The “good news” (no, not really) is that white privilege exists everywhere and that the worst thing that’s likely to mean for me is getting overcharged. More often than not it results in people going out of their way to be gracious hosts and good representatives of their country to me. The question I get asked most often is “where are you from?”.

I have hated this question my whole life because my parents are military and we moved for the first time in my life before I was even a year old out of the US and to a foreign country. With my family I lived in 3 countries and six states within the US. I’m not even sure how the word “from” applies to me. Now that I live abroad it’s even more complicated. While I’m in Korea (where I live right now) it’s easy enough to tell people I’m from America, but taking vacations I’m like “uh, well, I’m American, but I don’t live there anymore”, or “I’m American, but I live in…” whichever country I happen to be calling home these days.  It’s not just about distancing myself from the negative perceptions of American tourists (although that is a part of it). It’s an attempt to give an honest answer. I may be an American and a tourist but I’m not going back to America at the end of the holiday, and I think my cultural perceptions are at least bit broader than the average tourist.

That morning in my tired, rushed state I just said, “Korea” when I was asked and then watched the look of confusion spread on the baristos face. “You don’t really look…”, he started, but was clearly unsure of how to finish the sentence without sounding offensive. I realized my mistake and came to an awkward rescue with my patented “English teacher abroad” explanation. The poor guy looked so relieved I couldn’t help but laugh.

Entering Thailand by Sea

20170124_111025There are no piers on the island. Instead, the ferries anchor a ways out either at floating piers or just in open water. The one I arrived on docked with a patch of floating platform where we could transfer ourselves and our luggage from the speedboat to the smaller longtail boats that would take us to the island. I was amazed to see people arriving with massive piles of baggage considering the situation and was once more grateful for my decision to keep my luggage under 7kg.

20170124_112040The longtails are small boats, named for the motor at the end of a long pole that juts from the stern and into the water. No more than a dozen people can board a longtail together, so the ferry passengers broke up into smaller clusters. Once the longtail arrived at on land, the local operators would hop out and drag the bow a little way up the beach and tie it to a mooring anchor there. The only way for us to get out was to take a splash in the sea. I quickly shed my socks and shoes and tied the laces to my bag, then rolled up my pants and took my first steps into Thailand through the sparkling turquoise water.

The immigration and national park offices are on Pataya beach, and I trod barefoot through the pale sand to join the queue. Best immigration line ever.

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Getting Settled In

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Koh Lipe is 2km long and 1km wide. There are no cars, although it does boast a fair number of scooters which are the only taxis and freight transit around. The bright blue pavement of the main street, nicknamed “walking street”, is perfectly friendly to bare feet and most of people walking around were wearing some version of swimwear plus a light cover. Even outside the rainy season, SE Asia is subject to plenty of rain. I had arrived in sparkling sunshine, but shortly after I began to explore there was a brief but intense shower. It was strange that so many people dressed in swimsuits still ran for cover from the warm rain. I was still carrying my backpack and didn’t want every piece of clothing inside to wind up wet, so I huddled under my umbrella.

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Getting a SIM card on Koh Lipe was so easy and cheap I only mention it so anyone looking for advice won’t be worried. Just follow the blue street till you see a sign for SIM cards and inquire within. After getting back online, I stopped in at a cute restaurant for my first pad thai in Thailand (but not my last, I love that stuff). The rain came and went a couple more times while I was eating but finally dried up enough for me to feel safe heading out to try and find my cabin.

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Lipe Camping Zone

Google maps is not the most functional thing on a roadless island. It doesn’t do walking trails. Following the paved roads toward my cabin’s GPS co-ordinates took me the long way around the island. Eventually, I ran out of paved road and walked cautiously down a muddy path that had deep chasms cut by the rainwater making the walk a little more like a hike. Finally I found the campground deep in the jungle. Ok, you can’t get that deep on a 2x1km island, but it was halfway between two popular beaches on a muddy path surrounded by trees. It
felt deep in the jungle. As I stopped moving a cloud of mosquitoes descended on my sweaty ankles.

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20170124_144512The hostess was wonderful and kind. She brought out some repellent for me even before we finished checking in and got me settled into my cabin. Walking past the tents on the ground, I was extra glad I hadn’t made that choice given the rain. There were no real walkways in the campsite, so I was picking my way carefully down steep slopes and muddy banks. The cabin was equipped with a sort of futon on the floor, a mosquito net, and a fan. While I settled down to check the dryness of my bag and sort out my belongings, the rain began again in earnest. The path in front of my cabin turned into a river. Knowing that tropical rains are often breif, I decided to wait it out. My main activity for the day was written on my itinerary as “beach bum”, so I wasn’t in a particular rush. 

Sunset Beach

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When the skies finally stopped falling, it was late afternoon and I emerged from the cabin to head over to Sunset beach and find out if there was any sunset to be had. Koh Lipe is stunning. Even in the rain it is beautiful. I followed another tiny mud path to the far side of the island where I enjoyed taking gray sky pictures of the beach and mountains until the rain drove me into the shelter of a nearby cafe/bar. As I sat there enjoying my happy hour mojito and watching the rain, I was awestruck by the trees across the bay where white clouds rose from the canopy like the breath of hidden dragons. I once saw a documentary on rain-forests that explained how the moisture from a jungle would evaporate in great plumes, but this was the first time I got to see it in action. 

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The rain eased up, but the cloud cover prevented any sunset light from reaching the shore. When it became apparent that the night was closing in, I headed through the jungle path to back to Pataya beach. I had hoped to spend the evening on sunset beach watching the famous sunset and seeing the stars come out in a low light pollution zone, but mother nature had other plans. Despite the rain, I enjoyed my first day on Koh Lipe. I liked the cozy atmosphere of the island and the ease with which I could go from a nearly empty beach to a bright nightlife spot. I have to say that while there was no sunshine, “beach bum” accurately describes me for the day, since I spent as much time as I could in site of the shore or with my feet in the surf. I finished off at a fancy restaurant which made me really appreciate the contrast between my own accommodations and what else was available on the island.

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About the Accommodation

SE Asia is so cheap. So. Cheap. My cheapest room was in Ipoh and was less than 5$ (US). My average price was about 13$ per night. The cheapest thing I found on Koh Lipe (besides a tent) was cabin for 25$ a night. I looked at other places that were 5-10 times what I was paying elsewhere on the trip and went “oh no!” because somehow I lost perspective. Learn from my mistake. Spend the money. Hostels can be great, and I don’t mind shared bathroom facilities if it’s a clean place. I’ve been camping before. I’m usually ok with it. This is because I had never done so in a humid jungle before.

Did I mention I love Koh Lipe? I had a nice time in many other places on this trip, but Koh Lipe is a place I’m plotting how to get back to. One of the things I’m plotting is biting the bullet and paying for some lux accommodation. Why?

  1. Bathrooms. Most of Koh Lipe not only can’t handle paper (ok no problem. I’m used to putting my paper in the bin from China and Korea) but doesn’t even flush. Next to the toilet is a big tub of water and a ladle or small bowl that you use to transfer water from the tub into the toilet allowing gravity to swish away the waste with the added water. It’s not unusable, but getting to use the fancy toilet in the restaurant made me appreciate real plumbing. Plus, campsites or cabins with detached toilet facilities mean you have to get up and walk through mud and mosquitoes if you have to pee in the middle of the night.
  2. Mosquitoes. My cabin gave me a net, but by night two there were mosquitoes inside the net. There are fewer of the critters on the beach than the jungle, but fewer still in a solid room than a bamboo cabin.
  3. Sand. It sticks to you. You bring it home with you, and if there’s no way to rinse it off before you get in bed, or if your room is so small that bed covers ¾ of the floor, then you have a sandy bed. Ugh.
  4. Wet. It’s humid and it rains. By night two, everything in my room was damp and sandy. Having a separate space for changing out of sandy clothes and an air conditioner which dehumidifies the room are crucial to comfort.
  5. Soundproofing. Not only did I get to hear every word of the conversation my neighbors in the next cabin were having, I got to hear the guy on the other side hoarking up everything he drank that day.

Spend. The. Money. The most expensive luxury hotel on Koh Lipe is still only about 200$ a night. When you think about it like a 20$ a day backpacker, it’s impossible, but if you think of this in comparison with, say, Hawaii, it’s amazingly cheap.

Avoid the inland accommodations unless you just like jungles. They are cheaper than the beach front, but there’s reasons for that. I imagine with the right accommodation, Koh Lipe would be a 2km wide slice of heaven. Even with my cabin, it was quite possibly my favorite stop on this trip.

Cabin in the Woods: Night 2

My second night in the cabin was even worse. I had an amazing day full of snorkeling (which I will tell you all about in the next chapter) and finished off with dessert in the fancy restaurant again. When the whole day of exertion and excitement finally caught up with me, I meandered back inland to my tiny jungle hut. I couldn’t put on my shoes without the sandal straps rubbing the tender area on the top of my foot that had scraped some coral earlier in the day. My cabin had not dried out in the slightest during the day, resulting in a muggy, damp experience. While fighting to reassemble the mosquito net, I managed to spread more sand around the damp and lumpy mattress.

I also found a tiny frog and had to chase him around the bed for a while before he took off. I’m not scared of frogs, but I didn’t want to roll over on him in my sleep and hurt him. The campground shower was just enough to rinse most of the seawater out of my hair. I struggled to clean my injuries with inadequate facilities, tried unsuccessfully to sweep the sand off the damp mattress, sprayed for the mosquitoes that made it inside the net, and fantasized about staying in just about any other hotel on the island. Indeed, if I had stayed any longer on Koh Lipe, I would have booked a new place, but I decided I could rough it one more night and lulled myself to sleep with the memories of my amazing day.


The moral of this story is that Koh Lipe is a magical place, but I am not rough-it enough for jungle camping. Fortunately, there are other options for next time. And if the dour tone of the last few posts has got you down, stay tuned for Koh Lipe part 2, where I share the wonderful 4 island snorkeling trip and my first experience with glowing plankton!

Hotels and Hostels, Spring of 2015

So, I meant to do this before I went on my second spring break, also known as the “Royal Decree Holiday”, but I’m clearly not motivated to write every day, which is probably why I’m still not getting paid for my words. Alas. So without further ado, let me tell you all about the places that I stayed during the two (separate) weeks of holiday in the Middle East this spring. Although this is mainly a “review” post to help other people decide where to stay, I still hope some of you will enjoy the stories.


Al Ula ARAC Resort, Saudi Arabia

This was my hotel in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia when I decided to go see Madain Saleh. Al Ula is a very small town and has only 2 hotels. (Booking.com swears now there is a “tent camp” option, ooo.) I scoured the internet for reviews, but neither one was well spoken of. It seems that since they basically know that they have a monopoly on a world heritage site that they don’t actually have to provide service and can charge whatever they like.

I will admit, the resort was very pretty. The grounds had well cared for trees and lawns (actual grass!) and even some flowers trying to bloom. The view was stunning, but I get the impression that would be true nearly anywhere in Al Ula since it is surrounded by great sweeping cliff-like mountains. And the room was clean, which has not always been my experience in travelling. However, my positive things to say basically end there.

When I arrived with my guide who had picked me up from the airport, the receptionist was unable to find my reservation, even though I had printed out a copy of the website’s receipt and confirmation number. After keeping me standing around in the lobby for a while (this is after my all day travel and 7 hour layover stuck inside the Madinah airport), my guide told them to just find a room for me and sort it out later. So they did. However, the room had not been prepared? I guess, since the hot water tank was switched off when I arrived so I had no hot water to bathe with, and would have to wait several hours for the tank to heat up.

I also avoided the restaurant entirely because of the price gouging. My guide took me by a local restaurant where I got a very tasty dinner for much cheaper. The prices are rather insane and the quality of the food, from what I gather from others, is nothing to write home about.

Having to bathe cold, I was somewhat grateful for the blankets, but had to put both bed’s blankets on me to get warm, since the room lacked heat as well. I know it’s Saudi, but February in the desert at night is NOT warm.

At breakfast, I went into the lobby to get some coffee from the little shop there whose sign proclaimed it to open at 8am, however it was completely dark and the receptionist told me they didn’t open until 2pm… which would have been less of an issue if they had bothered to update the rather large sign in front of the counter. So I slunk into the restaurant which only served buffet style breakfast (90 SAR) and had no a la carte options. There I purloined a cup of the “American” coffee, but since there was no staff anywhere to ask the price, I gave up and went back out to the courtyard to enjoy my leftovers and coffee with the stunning mountain view.

As if all of this weren’t disappointing enough, a couple weeks after my holiday, I got an email from booking.com telling me that since I hadn’t stayed in the room or cancelled that I would be charged anyway. Whut? The fine folks at Al Ula ARAC who couldn’t find my booking registration at check in apparently found it later and filed a claim for payment, despite having been paid when I checked out. And this is why, even though I pay a foreign transaction fee, I like to use my MasterCard to pay for big items like hotel rooms. Papertrail.

After a couple more weeks of sending the original receipt, a print screen of my bank statement and a photo of the room I stayed in, booking.com finally agreed that yes, I really had stayed there and they would inform the hotel.

And the rub? I don’t think I can in good conscience recommend the other hotel any better, because it has even lower ratings and more complaints. So, if you’re going to Madain Saleh (which you should if you get the chance cause it’s quite cool), just resign yourself to a cold shower and an overpriced dining experience with unhelpful staff, then get out and enjoy the city where there are cool people, nice restaurants and excellent things to see.

The Jordan Tower Hotel, Amman

My next stop was in Amman, Jordan. I really wasn’t planning on staying there long, just one night before heading out to Petra, so my criteria in booking were primarily about cost. I booked a bed in the all female dorm at the Jordan Tower because it was going to cost all of 7$ (5JD) and included breakfast. I wasn’t expecting too much, but boy was I surprised.

A staff member contacted me shortly after I made my reservation and introduced himself and what services the hotel offered, asking if there was anything else they could do to help. We exchanged a few emails about my plans in Jordan and he gave me tons of information about transportation options and ideas for what else to do. I ended up using their driver service to pick me up from the airport, which was nice since it was about 3am when I came in and was saved all the trouble of looking for or haggling with a taxi.

The manager decided not to bother with the official check in that night and simply showed me to the room so I could go to sleep. My one and only complaint of this whole place is that the dorm was listed as 4 bed and turned out to be 4 bunk beds, so 8 people. I think in the end that didn’t matter too much because all the ladies were super polite and I didn’t even hear them when they got up a few hours after I came in to go on their own adventures, but it still would have been nice to know.

Picture 101Breakfast was really nice, bread and cake with lebnah and jam, also fresh egg and veggies and bottomless hot coffee or tea. I sat by the window enjoying the downdown view as I soaked upt the good food and coffee. During breakfast the staff helped me feel out my options for getting to Petra, looking up prices for rental cars and private drivers as well as bus station information. They really were awesome. When I checked out that morning, heading off to see the Roman Theater and then on to Petra, I didn’t really expect to see them again.

The next day, when I returned to Amman from my overnight in Petra, I had several hours to kill between when the bus arrived and when I needed to be at the airport. I had sort of considered heading back to the hotel simply because it was familiar and I knew they would help me find a place to eat and possibly something to do. I headed off the bus considering how best to flag down a taxi, but to my surprise there was a driver there with my name on a sign!

The Jordan Tower had sent their driver to pick me up at the bus stop based on our emails of my plans, even though I had not made any specific arrangements. I suppose if I hadn’t wanted a lift, I could have just said no thank you, but it was dark and cold by then, and I loved the idea of a car waiting to take me somewhere warm. The driver had thought he was taking me to the airport, but I explained that I still had a long time yet and would he mind taking me back to the hotel instead?

There I got a huge bowl of steaming soup, some kind of flavorful broth with what seemed like giant couscous and a heaping plate of bread. I also met a fellow traveler, who you can read a little more about in Spring Break Vol. 6. We hung out in the lobby chatting and drinking coffee until it was time to go and were also able to split the cost of the car back to the airport.

I cannot recommend this place enough. It’s small, and up a flight of stairs behind some kind of junk shop, but it’s amazing. Best service, really above and beyond, plus clean rooms, good food and nice fellow guests. If you are ever in Amman, go check them out.

The Rocky Mountain Hotel, Wadi Musa (Petra)

Picture 150This place also turned out to be pretty amazing. I decided I needed 2 days in Petra, so I booked an overnight room in the nearby town of Wadi Musa (nearby meaning a few minutes drive from the park entrance, if you felt like adding another 20 minutes of walking to your hours of park exploring, you could even walk there). My bus dropped me off right at the door, and they got me checked in pretty fast, since I wanted to get up to the park quickly. I had planned to get to Petra earlier, but as events transpired it was already after 3pm. When I couldn’t find a taxi to take me down to the park entrance, Jane (the owner) said she had to run down to the market anyway, and gave me a ride the short way.

When I got back to the hotel after dark, I waited briefly with some other guests in the lobby for our ride over to her husband’s property, an outdoorsy tent hotel (heated tents, and a generator for wi-fi) up in the mountains, where we had a Bedouin dinner. The dinner was pretty standard for me, but would probably be a cool experience for someone who doesn’t live in a half Bedouin town already. And the setting was astonishly beautiful. Far from town we had a great view of the stars, and they had set up paper lanterns on one of the nearby rock faces.

Sadly, my one complaint about the Rocky Mountain is the timing of their hot water. I understand the need to conserve both water and electricity where they are, so hot water is only on for a few hours each morning and evening. In theory, I have no issue with this, but since her husband’s hotel’s dinner didn’t get us back to our hotel until after hot water time, it seemed like poor planning. I know a lot of people prefer to shower in the morning, but I like a hot shower before bed, especially when I’ve been travelling all day and want to wash the road dust off before climbing in clean sheets. This was the 3rd hotel in a row with no pre-bed hot shower for me, so it was a little disappointing.

Picture 152Everything else was great. Although the heater in the room was off until I got back (did I mention Petra is cold at night in February?), it worked really quickly and I was soon warm and slept comfortably. Breakfast was again included on the rooftop restaurant where we had a stunning view of the valley with our traditional Jordanian breakfast (eggs, fresh veggies, bread, lebnah and jam).

The hotel also provides a shuttle service to the Petra gate 2 times each morning and each evening, so I got another ride back to the park. I was also able to request a packed lunch for my day, since there’s only a few places to eat inside Petra and all are expensive. I got a simple sandwich with some snack cakes, a candy bar, a juice box and come “all natural” corn puffs. It sounds like a lot of junk food, but when you’re hiking all day, high sugar and carbs is actually pretty welcome. There was enough food for my lunch in the park, a snack on the way out of the park, and a dinner on the bus back to Amman for 8JD.

Jane was also really helpful with information about the area. I asked her several questions about the locals I had met on my first day including safety, general expectations and trustworthiness as tour guides as well as what I should expect to pay for certain tour services. She also helped me figure out the bus schedules to make sure I wouldn’t miss the only bus out of town that afternoon, and kept my bag for me after I’d checked out until I was ready to leave town.

Maybe there’s a better place in Wadi Musa (there is a Movenpick after all), but I can’t imagine you’ll get a better deal for the price than the Rocky Mountain, plus you’ll be supporting small business so it’s really win-win.

Tamani Marina Hotel, Dubai

IMG_1476This was the last stop on my February trip. I had planned to spend 3 days in Dubai, and after being highly disappointed in the quality and price of hostels there, I went into fantasy mode and just started randomly checking the prices of hotels near the beach. Most of them were way outside of my price range, but then suddenly my cursor hovered over one that popped up a really reasonable rate! I checked about 4 more times incase there was a catch, but since booking.com has free cancellation, I decided to go ahead and book it, then do more research. If it turned out to have a horrible reputation later, I could always cancel and find something else. However as I continued to research the hotel, it looked like it was a pretty nice place, and moreover that I had something close to a 60% discount on their normal rate.

And thank goodness I did. Because if I had paid full price for that, I would have almost certainly been outraged. As it was, I was just a little miffed.

When I first arrived I had quite a wait while another guest harangued the girl behind the counter about having to show his passport again. I kind of thought he was being a douche and felt bad for her, so I tried to just relax in the lobby and wait it out rather than complain and add to her problems. When they finally did get someone to me, I was chastised for “checking in late”. I had arrived at the hotel around 2pm, which is standard check in start time for most hotels in the world. I flew into Dubai around 9am and knew I wanted to do some shopping, but wasn’t sure how long it would take. Apparently because I had told them I might arrive early, that meant I was now late. And they had given my room away.

The clerk said they were all out of singles now, but I could have a larger suite for just the increase in city tax. I guess I could have stuck to my guns, but I really wanted a bath and a bed after so much travelling, and the tax wasn’t all that much so I agreed. The room was insanely huge. I think two families could have stayed there comfortably. Picture 173There were two furnished bedrooms, plus what seemed like another empty room, four bathrooms, a giant living room, dining room and expansive kitchen. There was also a washer/dryer combo unit, so I dumped in my clothes and went off to bathe. The baths win all the stars. I also took a short nap. But even after all of this, my clothes weren’t done. I managed to pull out everything but two lightweight items so they dried faster, but this left me with a pile of wet laundry.

Why not just leave it running while I went out for the evening? Well, it seems even in luxury hotels, you have to put the key card in the wall to turn on the power, so as soon as I took the key to leave, the machine would stop running, leaving my wet laundry to get stinky. So I called down to ask for another key. This shouldn’t be hard, and it really shouldn’t be a negotiation or an argument, but it took a really long time to explain the situation and make it clear that I was not going to be held hostage in my room by their stupid electricity issues, so they needed to bring me a key.

The next day, I tried to ask their tourism desk, the people whose job it is to know what tourists staying at their hotel can do, where the Big Red Bus stop near their hotel was. I should point out that it’s less than a block away, and one of the largest tour bus operators in Dubai. They actually knew the company, but insisted that there was no stop near them, pulling out an outdated map to try and prove it to me. I had to cut and run, since debating the issue with them was just going to make me miss the bus they knew nothing about. Later on, when I brought them an updated map for their records to help future guests, they treated me like I was something on the bottom of their shoes.

Housekeeping managed to steal or throw away some of the groceries that I’d bought at the Carrefour next door, while at the same time leaving trash and dishes that needed cleaning. One evening I decided to order food in because I was just too tired to go anywhere, but there wasn’t a room service menu in the room. I called down to ask for one and they told me, rather annoyed, that it was in the binder next to the television. Now, the suite is the size of a large house, so not being able to find something right away isn’t all that odd, but there was no menu in the binder. So I called back, and had to argue with them, again. I feel like if I was asking for something odd or unreasonable that the staff might need to disagree, but if you’re asking for something like an extra key, a menu or a towel, there shouldn’t need to be a discussion. The guest says ‘please bring me x’ and the hotel staff say ‘sure no problem’. Even when someone finally showed up with a menu, I had to show them the menuless binder before they would hand it over! At least the food was tasty.

Also, on the day I needed to take a taxi instead of the bus, one of the hotel staff stepped up to me as I headed for the line of taxis and asked if I needed one. I replied that yes I did. This didn’t seem odd at the time since I’ve seen lots of places have deals with drivers or queues and try to make sure that guests get into waiting taxis in order. The guy told me they had metered hotel taxis, stressing the meter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a standard meter and ran almost double the city taxi rate. The car may have been nicer, but I felt lied to. They could easily have been upfront about offering “luxury” or “private” cars at a higher rate, that’s what Uber does and it works just fine. And I might even expect local drivers to try to claim they’re homemade meter is just as good as a taxi. But I was pretty upset about having been deceived by the hotel staff where I was a paying guest.

By the time I was ready to leave, I had more sympathy for the guest I’d seen on the first day than the staff. After several days of being treated this way in a supposedly luxury hotel, it was about all I could do not to loose my cool with the staff too. The only thing that really made it bearable was my discount, but this place is no way worth it’s normal price tag. The best thing about it? Walking distance from the Barasti Beach Bar and Carrefour.


Thus concludes the Spring Break portion of my accommodation reviews. During the Royal Decree Holiday I stayed in 2 more places.

Bedouin Garden Hotel, Aqaba

I have a lot of good things to say about this place. However, when I first arrived I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. I came in after dark, having driven from Tabuk after school Thursday and planning to leave for Egypt on the next day. Aqaba was just meant to be a resting spot in my journey from Tabuk to Sharm el Sheikh. When I was shown my “single” it had three beds crammed in, and there was no TV or (far more important) wi-fi, despite the fact that both of these had been advertised on the website. There were also several large flies in my room.

wpid-20150320_162111.jpgReminding myself that it was just one night, I gritted my teeth and decided to bear it. I got some dinner (which was quite generous and delicious), chatted with the Filapina server and went to bed. My ferry to Egypt didn’t leave until around 6:30 the next evening, but the hostel looked much better in the light. wpid-20150320_094947.jpgThere were flowers in bloom and lots of “Bedouin tent” style outdoor seating areas. I figured I could just enjoy the weather and read my book until it was time to go. Breakfast was simple but good and I got to chat with some Pakistani guests who were also out of Saudi for the holiday and heading to Petra.

There was a dive shop there, but since I don’t have my license, I kind of ignored it. I bid good travels to my breakfast companions and took my coffee over to some cushions in the shade to relax and read. The full story of my Friday adventure will be told in another post, but my plans of quiet reading were fully and enjoyably foiled. I had a great day at the Bedouin Gardens, and as it turned out accidentally ran off with their key, so I came back again the following Friday as I was making the reverse journey and spent several more hours there.

So, yeah, the rooms aren’t much. You’re not going to watch movies on satellite TV in your room or surf the web from your laptop, but if you give it a chance, you won’t miss those things at all and you’ll only be in your room to shower or sleep. Wonderful people, amazing place, beautiful beaches. I recommend it to anyone who wants to get out of the city and see the beach in Aqaba.

Park Inn by Radisson at Sharm el Sheikh

This was another one of the luxury deals that I found online. Not quite as big a discount as Tamani, but Sharm is so insanely cheap because the Egyptian Pound is very weak and business are dropping prices to attract tourists back after two revolutions destabilized the country. I should mention, I felt totally safe the whole time.

wpid-20150321_071427.jpgThe resort is insanely huge. Buildings and buildings full of rooms, two swimming pools, two restaurants, 5 bars, a private beach across the road, a water park on the premises, and a gym + spa. It took me about 45 minutes to walk around the whole thing. Plus there were shops and bars outside too.

My very low price tag included 3 meals a day (but really more, because poolside snacks were served all day) and free local booze, which amounted to pretty low end stuff, but free and unlimited goes a long way to making up for quality. It was a really beautiful place, the staff were if anything too friendly, the food was decent, although not 4 star. In terms of value for money I can’t say enough.

I had a few issues, since nothing is ever perfect. I had some trouble with overly flirty staff pushing me for a phone number or to come out with them after work to some local bars. I think if I had been with a group, that might have been fun, going out with the locals and seeing local bars, but since I was alone it just made me uncomfortable, especially coming from people I would see every day in the dining room or bar. The good news is that the one time I felt something went to far, I commented that I thought it was not appropriate and he stopped instantly, so I think they have just found that more often than not, guests respond well to the attention and so do it to everyone.

I also got food poisoning. Normally this might be enough to turn one off of a restaurant, but I know that it’s a normal hazard of international travel. Honestly, considering everywhere I’ve gone in the last few months, I’m surprised this is the only time it’s happened. I’m less upset about the illness than how the hotel handled it. I know I was already getting a cheap deal, but it would have been appropriate for them to offer some kind of recompense, especially since I had to delay my trip to Cairo at extra expense. Instead they just awkwardly tried to change the subject when I brought it up.

wpid-20150325_095331.jpgHousekeeping was adorable, if overly persistent. If I forgot to put up the do not disturb sign when I went to take a nap, they would just knock and knock and knock. Once they even had reception call me to ask me to let them in. But, to be fair, any time I had that sign up, they were quiet as mice. They also would shape my new towels into various animals on the bed and bring fresh flowers into the room.

I also noticed there was plenty of kid specific entertainment, as well as nightly activities on site like karaoke or dance performances, and daily poolside activities like yoga and water aerobics. I myself was mostly a bum, sitting poolside with a gin and tonic in hand, but there seemed to be a lot to choose from.

wpid-20150321_163956.jpgOverall, I still would recommend this place. It’s a really nice resort with lots to do and it’s easy to see many places around Egypt on day trips from Sharm. It’s less pricey than some of the swankier places, but it’s still more than nice enough to make you feel like you’re on a pampered lux vacation and you can easily spend a week or two there without breaking the bank.


So what have we learned? Well, I can tell you for sure that all my best vacation experiences are shaping up to be at tiny hole in the wall mom and pop stop type places, while the big fancy resorts are somewhere between just ok and a let down. I’m still planning to drag friends and family to some of the resorts because I think they’ll be more fun in groups and easier to do with kids than my solo traveler preferences, but it is sort of a relief to know that I not only don’t have expensive tastes, but might actually enjoy myself more at the cheaper options!

Thanks for reading, I hope it was entertaining or maybe even helpful. Check out all the adventures surrounding these hotels in any of the Spring Break 2015 posts or the soon to be published Royal Decree Holiday posts! 🙂

The Accommodation: A Week In Jeddah

Several people recommended the Park Hyatt to me, but since I’m not really up for paying hundreds of dollars a night for a hotel yet, I checked out the area to find a better price in the same location. I found the Pearl Corniche Jeddah Hotel, which seemed like a great option, being only about a block away from the Park Hyatt and about a quarter the price.

This is kind of a personal decision, so you may want the super lux hotels, but I had not planned to be in the hotel except to sleep and bathe, and you can always wander over to the luxury hotels for a meal or even just to sit in the lounge with a cup of coffee. The advantage of being white is the assumption that you are valid customer in any luxury establishment here. And the advantage of the abaya is that you never have to worry about the fancy dress code requirements.

The Pearl was a little shabby, but the room was clean and there was wi-fi. For some reason, I don’t know if it was the quality of the AC there or the incredible humidity, even when the room was cool bordering on cold, it was still damp. Nothing dried out, which was kind of annoying since I would come back soaked in sweat or beach every night.

Additionally, there isn’t much to do in Jeddah (or anywhere in Saudi) until after Asr (the late afternoon prayer) so I found myself spending a bit more daytime in the hotel than I really wanted until I figured out what was in walking distance and indoors that would kill the hours (since I didn’t want to take taxis more than I had to, see the section on taxis).

I think that the hotel had services available for ordering food and arranging taxis, but the front desk people didn’t always speak much English, so I didn’t actually try to use the hotel services while I was there. Once they charged me for water, another time they said it was complimentary. I had trouble getting towels. There was soap and shampoo but no conditioner. Additionally, their credit card machine was broken on the way out, which turned out just to be the phone line unplugged, and made me late on the way to the airport.

I walked into the Intercontinental one night because I couldn’t seem to communicate directions with a taxi driver and he knew the name of that hotel which was next to mine, so I gave up trying. The thing is, he dropped me at the front door and I decided it was best to just go on in. I was looking for dinner anyway and thought it wouldn’t hurt to check out the restaurant.

Oh my goodness. The lobby seemed larger than my whole hotel, all glittering marble and chandeliers. I walked on through to the restaurant area, but it was very large and very empty, so I began to feel a bit uncomfortable surrounded by so much over the top glamour, I decided to hike it away to a slightly less palatial dining place.

Another evening I walked into the Hyatt on purpose to go to their restaurant. Beautiful place, excellent restaurant (although I didn’t get to try them all), and apparently a spa too. If you have the money, its probably a great place.

All in all, I think its a good decision to opt for a cheap hotel in a good neighborhood, and save the money to spend on food and attractions, but make sure that you know where you can go to kill time while you’re waiting for the nightlife to get going.

My First Week in Saudi

Well, I made it. Wheels touched down in Riyadh one week ago. You all got to read about the incredible journey, so now lets take a look at the first week of life in the Magic Kingdom.

If you want to see more pictures about this week, please visit and like my facebook page, and check out the album, This Week in Tabuk.

THE JOB

This of course takes up most of my time. My first day of work was Sunday, by the way. I landed in Tabuk on Saturday, and started work on Sunday. No break at all. Oh, and also no training. The supposed online training site I was supposed to have access to all summer where I could watch videos and fill out worksheets for feedback (which was a seriously appealing prospect and part of the reason I took the job) was broken all summer, or maybe is just wishful thinking that hasn’t ever worked. Like the toilets… (more later). And the pre-term training that was supposed to start in late August, I couldn’t attend because they took so darn long getting me a visa and a plane ticket that I actually arrived in the second week of school.

IMG_0034So, Sunday morning at 6:40 am, I come downstairs to the van-pool and head to the school. I have an hour before class starts, which is nice, I can check my email, look over my plan for the day, drink my coffee, etc. But on this first day, I did none of this. I stared in confusion at the perfectly symmetrical, identical geometric patterns of the building wondering how I would ever find anything. I talked to the site director about what I should do and got shown a huge amount of paperwork. I collected my students and invented a lesson entirely on the fly.

As it turns out — the internet didn’t work, the a/c was barely working, the toilets didn’t flush, and there was no copy machine because there was “no toner in all of Tabuk”.

Additionally, although the school administered placement tests for the students, someone decided that they should not have a level A-0 class and so split the three groups into A-1, A-1+, and A-2. This might not be a big deal if the teaching method I was sold in the job interview was true, but alas, like so many other things, it was not. I won’t say they meant to lie, but it seems there was a new policy implemented just this school year, so at very least it is no longer true.

See, there’s a book, but we don’t use the book, and the students don’t have the book. The book is a guideline of skills the students should learn and be tested on in each level. Normally, and A-0 is considered someone who has zero English. But they decided A-0 would be learning the material in chapters 1-8. The problem being that this doesn’t start with the alphabet and “Hello, my name is” which is how zero English speakers have to start. It starts with a basic assumption that you have the letters and a small vocabulary, along with a basic understanding of the S.V.O. sentence structure/word order of English.

Ok. So this is fine, I don’t really care what you call them, I care what they know coming to my class, and what I’m expected to help them learn. But A-1’s are supposed to be chapters 9-16, so if they haven’t really got a grip on 1-8, this is not gonna fly.

By the end of the week we have marginally better A/C, some toner for the copy machine (so I can make handouts!), and I’ve convinced them to take my best students up to the A-1+ class, let me take her remedial ones and actually teach to their level A-0, but the toilets still don’t flush…

THE STUDENTS & STAFF

On the plus side, the students are really sweet. Not just mine, but even the random ones I run into in the halls. Its easy for them to see I’m not Saudi, so they like to try out their English on me. Some girls in the elevator struck up a basic conversation, hello, what’s your name, nice to meet you. Of course I responded like a cheerful textbook, but they were so happy. As I left on my floor they waved goodbye and told me I was very nice.

Others don’t speak English but are still curious. One group asked if I spoke Arabic. I replied ‘not very well’, but as we pressed our floor buttons,  I pressed 2, and one of the girls said ‘two’ in English, so I said ‘ithnaan’, which is 2 in Arabic. The girls exploded into giggles and began to compliment my Arabic. I couldn’t help but laugh with them, since the whole thing was so silly, and as I was leaving, I added, ‘shukran’ which means thank you, and sent them into fresh peals of giggling.

These girls show up to school looking like a flock of crows, black abayas, hijabs and niqabs covering everything but their eyes. But once inside, they transform into peacocks. Security checks their outfits at the door, so everyone must have at least calf length skirts and 3/4 length sleeves, no cleavage. But they definitely color it up, add a lot of bling, enough make-up to make any 5 Mary Kay ladies’ yearly commission, and hairspray that has time traveled from the 80’s.

They have a habit of bleaching all or part of the natural eyebrow and drawing a preferred shape back in.  Now, American girls pluck all the time, despite the great pioneering work of Ingrid Bergman in Cassablanca. However, the preferred American drawn on eyebrow is generally thin, high and well separated and looks something like this.

american eyebrow

Whereas the preferred Saudi eyebrow is thick, dark, and creeping together in the middle, giving the impression of a scowl all the time. Now, the picture here is even a little sedate compared to some of the students and staff at the school, so just try to imagine it even thicker towards the bridge of the nose.

saudi eyebrow

And the HAIR. I have to imagine they get to school hours early because there is no way those up-dos could ever go under a hijab. Honestly, I’m not even sure how they got them to stay up. I’ve seen less complicated and more mobile hairstyles in anime. There is also a lot of bleach and henna around. Less than half of them have kept their natural black.

But basically, they’re college girls. I think this may be the only place outside their homes that they can dress and talk with any freedom and no fear of being heard or seen by a man. It really is nice to be able to see them like this.

The expat staff are nearly all nice. My SD is very friendly, patient and supportive. The other two teachers have been with the company longer, even though they only moved to Tabuk this year, so the wonder has worn off, and now they’re just frustrated they can’t do their jobs properly. For [redacted], this seems like a fairly mild kind of oh-well-I-guess-I’ll-cope frustration, but [redacted] is really a very angry, miserable lady. Honestly, I have no idea why she’s still working at this company if it makes her so unhappy, so I think she may just be a chronically unhappy person. I will try not to let it get me down, while trying to keep my optimism to myself as much as possible.

The Saudi staff are also lovely ladies. They always smile when they see me, which makes me smile. One morning, the lady at the student check in desk ran out to us with date cookies. And I got my first real Saudi greeting from [redacted], who keeps all our attendance (teachers and students) and liaises with us if we need copies or supplies other than what our SD provides, or if we have any trouble communicating non-lesson related (clerical or schedule change) information to the students. After our first couple days of the more distant Western handshake, she leaned in and we exchanged two air kisses, Saudi style.

THE HOTEL

In case you didn’t hear, I’m living in a hotel. Not temporarily housed until we find me something else, but living for the year in this hotel. Don’t be fooled by the pictures they’ve posted, those are the deluxe suites. Mine is much smaller. Oh, I could upgrade, and maybe eventually I will, but its more expensive and its not like I need that much space being just me.

It took me a little while to learn how to use everything. There aren’t enough outlets for the appliances, so if you want to use the electric kettle, you have to unplug the range. And if you want to use the microwave, you have to unplug the refrigerator. I got a small washer brought to my room because I didn’t think I wanted to have to take all my clothes down to the cleaners (even though I’m told its quite cheap). I guess I like the autonomy of laundry. This may change.

It has two sides. On one side you fill it with water (in my case from the bidet hose, because its the only water source I don’t have to carry in) and add soap then it agitates it for you. The soap takes forever to rinse out. I’m trying to remember, but I think that when I had a machine like this in China, I just stopped using soap on my underthings because I didn’t want the risk of dried soap in sensitive (and sweaty) places. I’ve rinsed this load 4 times and its still sudsing.

The other side is a spinner, to spin off excess water. However, it is so tiny that it overbalances easily. If your washer at home has ever done this, you know the horrible clunk-clunk  sound it makes as the spinner tries to turn your washer into a helicopter. Usually you can fix it by redistributing the weight of the wet clothes, or at worst, taking some out and doing the spin cycle twice. Right? Not here. This spin side can only handle about one tank top or three panties worth of laundry at a time, and then only if you wring it out by hand first.

All in all, this machine is only a minor improvement over doing laundry down at the river like our great-grandmothers did, and I’m pretty sure everything but underwear is going to the laundry service from now on.

As a power saving method, the power only activates if the card key is in the slot by the door. So When I go out, and have to take the key with me, all the electricity turns off, meaning that my devices can’t charge unless I’m at home. Moreover, since my laptops second battery has gone defective, it runs only on ac power. This is a great mystery because I forgot to turn it off the first day I was here and came home to a powered down PC, but yesterday I forgot (cause I was quite sick.. more later) and came home to the PC  on and my movie even still paused where I left it.

And its a good thing I brought my country adapters. I keep bringing these things everywhere, even though most countries have started installing American style outlets, and most electronics companies now make devices and chargers that can use a world wide variety of voltage outputs. Even in Riyadh I was able to just plug my tablet charger into the wall, no adapter. But all the outlets in my hotel house look like this.IMG_0058

THE SHOPPING

The good news about this hotel thingie is that it is handy to the shops. Since I can’t drive or take a bus, if I want to go anywhere I must either walk or hire a driver. The other female teacher who lives here, apparently doesn’t like going out alone at all, but I’ve been doing it all week and haven’t had any trouble.

On our side of the street there are lots of small local shops including several restaurants, an office supply store, a computer store, the laundry, a kind of high class-ish sweets shop, a fresh juice bar and a little convenience store. At the end of a block or two on the other side of the street is a mall with a well stocked supermarket called Panda where nearly all the food labels are in both English and Arabic, which is nice.

I only explored the rest of the mall briefly last Saturday with [redacted] who decided to use greeting me as an excuse to have company to explore. The stores are mainly geared toward women, clothing, abayas, perfume, accessories, etc. There was a really nice communal play area for children in the middle. The [redacted] made a comment that he felt discriminated against because all the shops were for women and there were only tiny men’s sections way in the back. I told him it was payback for what the women had to endure everywhere else.

While we were exploring, a Saudi woman approached me and asked ‘Amrikiya?’, which I’m sure you can infer means ‘American?’, ‘Mashalla, Amrikiya in Saudi Ilhamdulilah. Doctor?’ (all these other words are praises to Allah in various forms.’ ‘La (no).’ I replied. ‘Teacher.’ ‘Mashallah. Mashalla. Welcome.’ As she walked away, [redacted] was so surprised. He had never in four years teaching in Saudi had such an experience. Maybe there are a few advantages to being a woman here after all?

I’ve been out to several of the restaurants, and one which was closed I have promised to return to on another occasion as the owners/managers made a big fuss of trying to communicate when they opened so I could come back. One restaurant I won’t go back to for two reasons: it had a women’s entrance, separate order window and seating and everything with a wall in between, and it was all horrible fried chicken fast food.

The place right next door is Shawarma, and pretty darn tasty, I might add. You can get a schawarma wrap for 7 riyals, about 2$ US, and I ordered a platter of some kind that came with what ended up being 3 meals and a snack for 20 riyals, about 6$. The other place I tried served me half a tiny but delicious roasted chicken and more saffron rice than I thought I would eat in 3 days for 13 riyals (about 4$).  The place I hope to try next has lovely pictures of vegetable dishes, which I am dying for. So much meat and rice!

I get a few strange looks when I go out, its true. But I need to buy water pretty much every day, so  I usually make a trip of it and pick up some food for dinner and lunch or a sweet snack as well. So far, no bad encounters. Some guys just move away from me, a little like they’re insulted that I’m in their space. But most simply ignore me, which being from Seattle is pretty standard for strangers on the street. One guy actually greeted me in passing, and another tried (I think) to buy me a Coke while I was in the convenience store. The shop keepers are very nice to me and I don’t feel unsafe walking between my house and the mall at least. Not quite ready to go out after full dark, and not quite ready to wander around any corners where I can’t see the hotel from, but I think once I have a working cell phone, I’ll have a little more confidence and see what else I can see.

THE SICK

And finally, I got sick.

Wednesday I was a little extra tired and noticed that I was less patient with the students than I had been the rest of the week. I put it down to the new sleep schedule, the 5am call to prayer waking me every day even though my alarm didn’t go off until 6am, and the general frustration with the things discussed above in ‘the job’ section.

But when I got home and turned the power back on (the A/C doesn’t run unless I’m there) it wasn’t too long before I started to feel cold. This wasn’t entirely new. Bear in mind that since the A/C at school isn’t great, I sweat rather a lot, and so I peel off the abaya and sweaty clothes as soon as I get in, and rinse off while the A/C catches up. I’d been playing with the A/C settings since I got here trying to manage settings when there is no automatic temperature sensor to turn off the air when it gets to 70 and turn it back on at 75, I could only fiddle with the knobs until the room stayed comfortable for more than a couple hours at a time. So I turned the cold to a less cold setting.

But I was almost shivering! So I turned the A/C off, then found my yoga pants and hoodie to wear. Indoors, during the day, in Saudi, with the A/C off. Still couldn’t get warm. So I made some tea. Still shivering, now I’m achy, too. My hand brushed one of my steel earrings and I noticed how warm the metal was. I touched my face and my skin was on fire! Did I have a fever?

I rummaged in my medical kit for a thermometer (yes I travel with a medical kit, size depends on length of stay), and had a 100.6 degree temperature. So, I emailed my SD and sent in the lesson plan for Thursday’s class so someone else could take it. I only realized later that she asked me to call [redacted] to pass off my office key and so they could let the driver know not to wait for me. It wouldn’t have mattered because the temp cell phone they gave me (I can’t get my own until I have the coveted Iqama) isn’t working or at least, in my fevered state on Friday I couldn’t figure it out.

Friday morning, [redacted] comes knocking on my door asking if I’ve overslept because my SD didn’t tell anyone else (to be fair, she thought I had a working phone), so I explained I was sick and handed over my office keys and went back to bed. One one of my many awakenings to visit the toilet and get more water, I saw another email from my SD insisting that I go to a doctor that day, because otherwise it would be an unpaid sick day.

Honestly, with my temperature climbing to 101.5, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I didn’t really care about the money. I decided to go to the doctor to keep her happy, however, and agreed to have the driver pick me up when he dropped the others off from school. The other teacher kindly lent me her phone on my way out so I would have some way of calling the driver back to the clinic when I was done.

At the clinic.

The clinic was nice and clean, if not particularly modern. Although the receptionist didn’t speak any English, he found a nurse to translate and they got me into a doctor right away. The doctor was Egyptian and spoke reasonably good English. He listened to my complaints and asked some questions, but when he realized I’d only been in the country a week, he was pretty sure it was “traveller’s diarhea”. He did a little exam anyway, which was odd because I was wearing the abaya and hijab, then prescribed some antibiotics and ibuprofin. I was to get an injection in the clinic, then some pills from the pharmacy for the next few days.

The injection process was strange. The nice Filipina nurse chatted with me while she worked. I thought she must be used to fussy Saudi women because she seemed so worried when she had to inject a needle. First they did a skin test to make sure I wouldn’t have any reaction to the injected medicine. Next there was a sort of manual IV, where the nurse put an IV needle in my hand attached to a tube that was attached to a large syringe instead of an IV bag. Then she sat patiently beside me while she slowly depressed the plunger and released the medicine into my hand.

We asked all the regular questions, where are you from, how long have you been here, where is your family, etc. Her husband works in another town, but its only 90 minutes away, so they get to spend weekends together.

The whole visit cost 145 riyals, 40 for the doctor and 105 for the medicine. That comes in under 40$ without insurance, by the way. And the school will reimburse me. The pharmacy bill came to about  15$, same deal.

The After Clinic Challenge

Here’s where it gets challenging.  The whole reason I went (although, now I’m glad I did, cause the fever is all gone!) was to make the school happy. To be happy, the school needs a doctors note. I asked the doctor for this, of course, and he told me to send my driver back in 4 hours to pick it up after it had been signed by the clinic manager.

Ok. Just one problem, [redacted], the driver, doesn’t speak English. Actually, I’m starting to think that he uses this as an excuse not to do any “extra work” even though he is paid for many more hours of driving a day than he actually does. So we get home and I have at least managed to communicate that I have something else to say, so he comes inside in the hopes that the hotel clerk can help with the translation.

[redacted] is a nice young man [redacted] who mans the front desk in the afternoon. His English is pretty good and I enjoy talking to him. He was very helpful in getting my washer set up, and fixing the two non-working outlets in my room. I explain to him that I need [redacted] to drive back to the hospital after 4 hours to get the note. This does not work.

At this point, [redacted] and [redacted] come into the lobby because they need to go back out with [redacted] on another errand. Quickly they too are roped into helping in the translation effort. We’re using Google Translate, hand gestures, and a live interpreter (whose first language is Egyptian, by the way, very different from Saudi Arabic) to try to explain that all he has to do is go back to the clinic and pick up a note.

We finally believe we have communicated this, and move on to the pharmacy issue. See, the pharmacy was closed for prayer when I left the clinic so we couldn’t go right away, and all I wanted to do was go back to bed at this point, still sick and feverish as I was. This at least was a task the driver understood, so I handed over the prescription and some money agreeing that he could call my room when he returned.

Around 6:30 pm, my doorbell rings. Its [redacted]. He says the driver has called him from the lobby and keeps asking for me. Its still an hour before the doctor said the note would be ready, so I’m really surprised. I’m also exhausted,  but there’s nothing for it but to throw on my abaya again, wrap my hair up under the hijab and head downstairs.

Where ensued the worst multi-lingual comedy of errors ever. I was sick and it still made me laugh. Or maybe I just laughed to keep from crying.

Good news, he’d gone to the pharmacy, so I wasn’t called down for nothing. I knew I needed the receipt for the school to reimburse me, so I asked for it. [redacted] knew the Arabic and repeated the one word request. After about 5 minutes of gestures and Google Translate, I finally got the receipt, whereupon the driver realized he had to turn over the change as well. I’m not sure he would have given it to me if I hadn’t been insisting on the receipt so much, which is pretty obnoxious since I sent him with 200 riyals and the meds were only 60.

Then we’re back to the doctor’s note. Its too early to go yet, because the doctor said 4 hours. The driver insists the clinic will be closed by that time, and wants to get it on Sunday instead (remember the weekend here is Friday/Saturday). I’m not convinced, since the doctor told me to send the driver in four hours, not the next day, and that would be odd if the clinic were closing before that time. And on top of that, Sunday is too late, since I need to give everything to the school on Sunday when I come back to work.

Finally, we get across that Saturday is the latest it can be done, and the driver knows there is a big teacher dinner he has to drive us to on Saturday, so he indicates that he will take the others to the dinner, and me to the clinic. NO! we all say together. He simply refuses to go alongside the idea that I don’t have to go with him to get this stupid note.

On top of this, he asked for and subsequently kept my receipt for the doctors visit. I’m sure this conversation was just as frustrating for him as the other was for me, because after the pharmacy receipt issue he started asking me for the doctor receipt, but I couldn’t imagine why he would want it, so I thought perhaps he was asking if that was the paper I needed from the clinic.

When I finally produced the receipt from my bag, he was clearly expressing the Arabic for something like ‘finally!’, and he took it with him.

So, another email to the SD explaining that the note is still at the clinic and the driver has one of my receipts. Hopefully we’ll get it resolved in the next few days.

*****

In the mean time, either the medicine is working or it was the shortest flu ever, because I’ve been up since 5am making up for all the time I missed while passed out Wed and Thurs. My fever is gone and my brain is working again, so things are looking more manageable. I got my syllabus for the rest of the term outlined, and wrote my lesson plans for next week. In a little bit, I’ll go for my afternoon stroll out for food and water and tmorrow, hopefully I’ll enjoy a nice evening out with the staff at whatever fancy restaurant they’ve arranged to take us to.