In which I get hit by a car

When people found out that I was going to Ireland, they would always ask one thing:

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The answer was always,

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And our town was, indeed, a bit remote. For two months, my fellow students and I stayed in a little town called Ballyvaughan. And when I say little, I mean tiny. I’ve stayed in countryside villages before. Back when I lived in Germany, my little town of Monzelfeld had about 1,000 people. Heck, 1,000 was the size of my high school graduating class. To me, Monzelfeld seemed small.

Ballyvaughan boasts a population of almost 300 people.

So we got to experience, truly, the small-town country life. One of the first things we noticed? The roads.

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Out in the Burren, the roads are long, narrow, and curvy. Unfortunately, the only way to get from Ballyvaughan to the college we were studying at was via one of these roads.

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A van would drive us to and from the school at 9AM and 5PM every day. If we wanted to get to and from the school on our own time, though, we had to walk.

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The speed limit around the area was 100 km/hr, about 60 miles per hour or so. Cars drive fast. To keep themselves safe and visible to drivers, people wear these when they walk anywhere:

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Photo courtesy of one of our lovely member’s selfie stick!

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Walking to school made me pretty nervous at first. It would be better if we could walk along, say, the side of the road on the grass or something. But no, both sides of the road to school were lined with stone walls, nettles, and thorn bushes.

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After a while, I got used to it. Irish drivers– swift as they are– know what they’re doing. They’ll drive around pedestrians. If a car’s coming from the opposite direction, they’ll stop and make room. Some kids didn’t even bother wearing their vests in the daytime. Not me, though– I’m a bit too paranoid for that.

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In fact, by by the 6th or 7th week, I wasn’t nervous at all. I wore my vest, but walked along with confidence.

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And of course it’s when you let your guard down, that it happens.

post 201 image 13My friend and I decided to walk to the local aviary for a bird show. We were told that, when walking along the road, you should always walk against traffic. When going around a bend in the road, however, you should always be on the outside. Otherwise, cars won’t be able to see you.

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So, at a bend, I crossed the road to be visible. I made it safely to the other side. My friend was about to follow suit when it happened.

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It came from behind me, so I didn’t see it coming: something hitting me, at great speed, knocking me clean to the ground.

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It seemed like an instant, and yet, a long time. One moment I was happily walking, the next moment I was on the ground.

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The impact swept me into the air and sent me rolling on the road for a couple feet.

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And my shocked brain could only muster one reaction.

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My friend ran over to me, shocked. A passing car stopped, the driver sprinting out to make sure I wasn’t dead. I didn’t see the car that hit me.

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Whoa, give me a second, lady. I need to think about this.

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It seemed that, in the split-second of collision, my brain had the good sense to scream:

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I insinctively reached for something– anything– to prevent me from cracking my head on the pavement. The only thing within reach? Those goddamn thorn bushes along the side of the road, of course.

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A cycling group passing by noticed me on the ground. They stopped, too, to make sure that the little Asian girl bleeding on the street was okay.

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My biology-trained brain flashed back to middle school science class.

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After a minute or so, the cyclists helped me to my feet and walked me to the kind passerby’s car. She started to clean up my cuts when I see a man sheepishly walk up. Turns out that he was the guy who hit me– and the first thing out of his mouth was an excuse:

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The cyclists were on him in an instant.

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The man just kept repeating himself. I don’t usually drive here! I’m in a rental car! I just moved to Ireland, I’m actually from Italy! It was between hitting the girl, and hitting the other car…and I was driving a rental car… so it would have been more expensive to hit the car…

It wasn’t until I spoke up that he finally agreed to give out his information.

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One of the Irish cyclists came over to me.

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Oh, man. I wasn’t exactly anticipating this. I rooted through my backpack with my non-bleeding hand.

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So, I got the man’s name, address, number, and license plate. As soon as I did, he rushed to his car and drove away. One of the cyclists turned to me.

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I replied,

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My friend called our professor– but, of course, our fine professor gave her cell phone to her au pair instead of carrying it with her. We had to contact our art college instead. Luckily, one of the program coordinators there volunteered to drive me over an hour away to the nearest hospital. Irish locals are kind like that– seriously, I’ve never met such a generous community in my life.

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By the time we finally got to the hospital, the shock had worn off and I was feeling better. Still, I entered the ER. At the time of the accident, my right elbow was really sore and inflamed. The swelling had gone down since, but still. It’s definitely better to be safe than sorry. Especially after getting hit by a car.

A nurse disinfected my cuts and brought me to the doctor. The doctor proceeded to do a physical check-up.

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By some miracle, I was actually alright. I was sore, bruised and a bit cut up– but all my bones were intact. Nothing was broken. All’s well that ends well, right?

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Requiescat in pace, my dear friend.

So, a few hours after the accident, my sister received this phone call.

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Alright, alright. As torn up as I am about my now-deceased camera, I have to say: I am, indeed, one lucky bastard.

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In which I learn why Ireland is so green

When you Google Image “Ireland,” this is the kind of thing you get:

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There are two things in common with these three photos:

  1. The scenery is very green, as Ireland is famous for.
  2. The weather is beautiful and sunny.

So I always imagined Ireland as a beautifully warm and sunny country with bright rolling hills and lush grass. I wasn’t totally off: it’s got those rolling hills, that lush grass. As for the warm and sunny part…

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…I was dead wrong.

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Honestly, I should have known.

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And my group was living in a particularly harsh part of Ireland. We were right on the west coast, in a place known as the Burren.

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The Burren, as you can see, has a very distinctive landscape. It’s composed of crumbling limestone, the remains of an ancient seabed. The rocky hills can get quite tall, with many of them reaching over 200 meters high. And since the Burren is by the west coast– where those Atlantic sea winds come blowing in– the weather can be… unpredictable. 

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Let me give you an example.

During our first week in Ireland, my group was scheduled to go on a hike on Blackhead Mountain. Blackhead Mountain is located right along the coast and promised impressive views of both the sea and the land. What’s more, we had a local Irish farmer to guide us on the hike. I was excited.

post 199 image 14We took a bus to the starting point. The weather looked warm and sunny when we were indoors, but as soon as we stepped out of the van…

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Windy as hell. You could open an umbrella and fly away, Mary Poppins style.

But it wasn’t raining, so we went on our way. Despite the wind, I was really enjoying the walk. The Burren has a beautiful and unique landscape. For instance, the rocks are full of huge gaps called “grikes.” If you’re not careful, you could step in a grike– and considering that these gaps can be as deep as your waist, that would not be good.

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The Burren is also home to a distinct mix of flora. Back in the Ice Age, an iceberg dumped a mix of Arctic and Mediterranean seeds in the area. Today, they still flourish due to the Burren’s year-round temperate climate. I never expected to see orchids outside of a rainforest!

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So, in spite of the chilly wind, I was enjoying the hike. Our hiking guide was incredibly informative and walked at a nice pace, stopping frequently to explain this rose bush or that ancient fossil. About 30 minutes in, we paused so he could even give us a bit of Irish history.

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He paused.

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Of course, I looked behind me.

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There was a HUGE rainstorm blowing right at us.

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It didn’t.

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The storm arrived within a matter of minutes. It came out of nowhere! And it wasn’t just rain. IT WAS HAIL.

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Horizontal hail, due to the wind.

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There was nothing we could do but continue our hike. Our guide kept going with the tour as usual. But the wind and hail were so fierce that, even when he shouted, we could barely hear what he said.

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Oh, the joy.

We continued up the mountain, battling winds that threatened to knock us over. Our guide led us to a structure known as the Caherdooneerish Fort. Here, we huddled against one of the ancient stone walls and waited out the storm.

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We love hiking

We love hiking

After about 20 minutes of soaking misery, the clouds finally cleared.

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We continued our hike in the beautiful, beautiful sunlight.

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Mind you, it was still windy as all get-out. The wind was so strong that it almost tipped me over with every step. And you don’t want to misstep in the Burren: remember, those grikes can swallow your leg whole. Alternatively, you could slip and knock your head on some lovely limestone.

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Seriously, I thought I was going to die with each step I took.

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It was insane. Incredible landscapes. Outrageous weather. Kids stumbling down the mountain, defying death with every step.

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It was one of the best hikes I’ve ever been on.

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Because nothing gets your adrenaline pumping better than thinking you’re going to fall off a mountain…for an hour straight.

In fact, I wasn’t even mad when another rain cloud rolled in.

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And when it started hailing on us.

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Again.

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Luckily, our guide was prepared this time.

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Apparently, 13 people could fit under this guy’s tarp. Barely.

Three hours later, our bus picked 13 wet, freezing kids off the side of the road. I had worn two pairs of pants. Both got completely soaked.

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As you can imagine, we were all glad to get back home. We could take warm showers. Heat up some soup. Huddle under dry sheets and thick blankets, thinking about the windiest three hours of our lives.

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Maybe I am. But hey, nothing wrong with a little crazy, am I right?

In which a grown man rolls around in the snow

So, like I said before, my long-distance boyfriend is currently on exchange in the US.

Not just the US, but in Boston. At my school, Northeastern University.

How rad is that?!

It’s rad for me, but I think it’s been even more rad for him. The Northeast US is very different from what he’s used to. This boy is tropical, born and raised. His hometown has two seasons: hot, and hot and wet. His university, in Sydney, experiences 300 days of sunshine per year. This summer, he experienced temperatures in excess of 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

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As a result, he’s never seen snow. Not in person, anyway. Everyone’s seen it on TV– in those Christmas specials and the Harry Potter films– but he (and most Australians) has never seen snow.

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Thus, whenever I sent him snapchats all like

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He’d always respond

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When we finally found out that he was coming to the US, he was excited. I’m sure you can figure out why.

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Clearly, he didn’t understand just how horrendous the cold could be. How could he know? He’s never experienced it before. At my urging, and his mom’s insistence, he went out and got winter clothes for the first time.

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Finally, he arrived in the US. In the middle of December. I greeted him in the airport, where it was heated and warm and indicated nothing of what was to come.
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Then, we went outside.
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His face was priceless.
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He tried to laugh it off.
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I had to explain to him that, just because it’s below freezing, it doesn’t mean that it’s snowing. He looked like a wounded puppy.
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But he perked up real fast.
Back in Philly, however, it doesn’t snow all that often. Not as much as it does in Boston, that’s for sure. We’ll get snow a couple times a year, maybe. The boyfriend got over the novelty of the cold real fast, and waited eagerly for his first snow.
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Then, finally:
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That night, I went to bed. I’m not sure if he did, as excited as he was. The next morning, I was forcefully awakened.
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As it turned out, the snow had arrived, and the boyfriend had already gone out to play. As I sleepily ate breakfast, he shared his observations with me.
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He even took videos.
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By now, I had come to view snow mostly as a nuisance. It’s a pain to walk through. It’s even worse to drive in. I commute to school by bicycle, and nothing screws up your trip more than icy roads and snow in your face.
But seeing the boyfriend all throughout that day…
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…reminded me that snow is, actually, kind of nice.
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And that, as boring as I find my hometown, other people find it fascinating. It’s strange, being on the other side of a foreign exchange. Usually I’m the one freaking out, you know?
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Finally, the boyfriend and I went up to Boston. I figured he might like it. It snows a lot more here, so he’d get to see it more often!
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Maybe a little too often.
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I, as the good girlfriend, comforted him about the unfortunate weather.
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Looks like he’s adjusting well.
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By the way, the boyfriend is making a USA video blog! Here’s one he made about his first snow. I even cameo in it!

Getting attacked by squirrels in Central Park.

I was sad when I left Sydney. During my time there, I had made some really good friends. One in particular was my running buddy. Despite our cultural differences– she’s from Denmark, I’m from the US– we got along really well. It was one of those friendships that would last a lifetime.

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She wasn’t kidding. Several months ago, her family planned a trip to New York City this October. New York City isn’t too far from Boston, so I made a vow:

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And I, too, was serious. My friend gave me the dates that her family would be in New York. I booked the bus tickets. I could only visit her for two days, because school– but it was better than nothing.

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So that’s how I, Vy, was adopted by my friend’s Danish family for the weekend.

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And it was an interesting experience for all of us. I’m used to traveling out of the US and having to adjust to new cultures. Now, the roles were reversed. I’ve been to New York countless times since I was young. My friend has never been to the States before.

Watching someone from a different country react to the US with is highly amusing. In the hopes of sharing my amusement, I present to you…

MY DANISH FRIEND GOES TO NYC

And gets surprised by a bunch of things

 

1. Copious amounts of sugar.

Americans, for some reason, like to put extra sugar in just about everything. Other countries are not used to this. My friends were no exception.

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2. Jamba Juice.

Some foods weren’t as disappointing, though. When I met up with my friend, she enthusiastically told me about a great breakfast place her family went to.

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Sometimes I forget how many fast-food chains are only common in the US. I was expecting her to name some fancy, NYC-exclusive froyo shop, but no. It was Jamba Juice.

3. Times Square.

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4. Everything is tall.

My friend hails from Denmark and has traveled much of Europe. She’s seen a lot of cities. She’s even been to Sydney. But they don’t really compare to the skyscrapers of NYC.

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The scale of everything in NYC is simply bigger. She excitedly described to me some of the stores her family visited.

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I, the United States native, wanted to impress her even further. At the Rockefeller Center, I pointed out one of my favorite childhood stores.

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5. Everything is cheap (in comparison to Denmark).

By my standards, shopping in Manhattan isn’t cheap. I’m used to being in the ‘burbs, where the strip malls are plenty and the sales are season-round. In Denmark, though, consumer prices are sky-high. America seemed like a bargain basement to my friend and her family.

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They knew this would be the case, and came prepared.

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We all felt a bit bad for the men of the group, since shopping isn’t their thing.

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But, how often would these gals get to shop in the US? They took advantage of the opportunity.

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6. And finally, the squirrels.

My Danish friend and her family visited Central Park. Do you know that Pixar movie, Up? And the one character, Dug?

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It was kind of like hanging out with six Dug’s.

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I didn’t get it.

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My friend and her family even tried to unload their ultra-sweet Dunkin’ Donuts on the squirrels.

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But those cute little guys are feistier than they appear.

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Yep, it was a fantastic weekend. It was refreshing to see a foreigner visit my home country, rather than the other way around. Though I too had my own moments of surprise. We visited two locations in New York that I had never been to before.

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The next location was even more stunning.

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And, of  course, it was great to see my friend again. She’s the greatest! I swore to visit her.

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So, hopefully, we’ll have more of this happening in the future:

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Central Park!

Brooklyn Bridge!

Brooklyn Bridge!

Top of the Rock!

Top of the Rock!

Because some friendships can span continents!

Rome on drugs.

While we were in Europe, I couldn’t help but feel bad for my sister. Why? Well, she chose me as a travel companion. I think she forgot how dumb I am sometimes.

For example: Our visit to Rome. Europe, for some reason, was giving me and my sister horrendous allergies. Everywhere we went, it was a chorus of sneezing.

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On our first morning in Rome, I had the sneezes particularly bad. My sister gave me a friendly reminder.

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I checked my medicine bag, which I had hastily thrown together before we left the US.

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Uh… what was that again? I pulled out my phone. I only had limited internet, but there was enough for me to do a rudimentary Google search…

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And so my sister and I went about our day in Rome. We trekked from Trastevere to downtown Rome, passing by the Roman Forums.

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We went and bought tickets to visit the Roman Forums and Palatine Hill. It was an incredible place! As implied Palatine Hill is built on a hill. We were able to get a really beautiful view of Rome from the top.

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And the Forums! They were thousands of years old and still relatively intact. It was amazing, imagining what the ruins must have looked like when they were brand new.

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My sister knew something was wrong, but wasn’t sure what.

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She decided that I might be hungry. We ventured out in search of food.

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On the way, we ran into the Altare della Patria, a massive, marble monument built for Victor Emmanuel II. This building is enormous, and absolutely stunning.

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Though it wasn’t in our itinerary, we had to check it out. My sister and I climbed up the stairs, marveling at the beauty of the giant monument.

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At the back of the building was a huge door. My sister and I entered, finding a huge and ornate church.

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The church was completely silent. Besides me and my sister, only a few other people were there. Even the smallest footstep echoed through the entire room. And that’s when my diaphragm decided to betray me.

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In that church, as I was completely, inexplicably tired and neurotic, I was hit with the worst case of hiccups I have ever experienced in my life.

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Each hiccup bounced off the walls and reverberated through the room. As my hiccups became more and more violent, people in the church began to stare. My sister grabbed my arm.

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We ran out of the church.

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In all fairness to myself, Benadryl is an allergy medication. However, one of its side effects is overwhelming, soporific drowsiness. Which explained a lot of my behavior that day.

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And that’s how I ended up buying two espresso shots at the Altare della Patria cafe.

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But, whatever. As sleepy and loony as I was, I still had a great time in Rome.

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And I didn’t sneeze once that whole day!

The Essential Guide to Airbnb

My sister and I figured that we’d be staying in hostels during our journey in Europe. We’d share rooms with 8 strangers and sleep in rooms of dubious cleanliness. It’d be overpriced and somewhat uncomfortable.

And then we discovered Airbnb.

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Airbnb is a website where people rent out lodging. I’m not talking about those hotels and motels: people rent out their apartments, houses, even spare rooms in their own home. Often, for what you get, Airbnb can be relatively cheap. With many Airbnb listings being equal to or cheaper than hostel prices, we were definitely interested in using the site.

My sister and I did a lot of research and ended up using Airbnb for the majority of our Eurotrip. Using Airbnb can be daunting, though. With over 500,000 listings in over 190 countries, it’s tough to know what place to choose. My sister and I stressed over it quite a bit.

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After going on our trip and staying at all these apartments, we are glad to say that our Airbnb experience was positive! Though, there are some things we wish we knew before booking some of those places. It’s hard to know when you’re using Airbnb for the first time.

So, I’m going to list a few things my sister and I looked for when we booked our Airbnb apartments. Everyone’s experiences will be different, so I can’t promise anything– but hopefully these tips will help your Airbnb experience go a little smoother.

Verify your identity.

You can book places without verification, but nobody’s going to rent to you if they don’t know you’re a real person. Airbnb lets you prove your existence in a number of ways.

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The most important is to provide an offline form of identity, usually in the form of a government-issued driver’s license or passport.

Now you’re ready to start booking!

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Obviously, pick one with good reviews.

Airbnb sends out professional photographers to take verified photos for the site. These guys are pros. Some of the apartments on Airbnb look beautiful, and often, they are!

Just for a comparison, here’s the Airbnb photos of the apartment my sister and I stayed in Paris…

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…compared to the photos I took myself.

The bedroom.

The bedroom! Don’t get me wrong: this Parisian apartment was one of my favorite places we stayed in.

The other part of the bedroom, covered with our luggage. This wasn't actually pictured in the Airbnb photos.

The other part of the bedroom, covered with our luggage. This wasn’t actually pictured in the Airbnb photos, so the table and the couch were a nice bonus.

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The bathroom: it was a bathroom.

You can see that what the site tells you isn’t always exactly what you get. A good way to know for sure is to read reviews! Ideally, the apartment or house has had a lot of guests and a lot of reviews. Our Parisian apartment had a high rating, which I would totally agree with.

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Sometimes, though, you’ll discover less positive feedback.

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So read your reviews! My sister and I played it safe, going only for listings with a lot of positive reviews.

Look for a high cleanliness rating.

An Airbnb is not a hotel, so you really can’t expect hotel cleanliness. Sometimes, you might even be sharing a kitchen or a bathroom with your host.

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I’m not the cleanest person, myself, but being in someone else’s messiness always makes me a bit uncomfortable. Anything less than a 5-star cleanliness rating means the place probably isn’t spotless, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Double-check the location.

When you’re booking an apartment in an unfamiliar city, it’s hard to tell how good the location is just by staring at Google Maps.

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A nice indicator is that the farther you get from center city, the cheaper the apartments become.

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And my sister and I did book one without really looking into the location. It was our first booking, for a lovely and cheap apartment in London. Or, wait. Look at that address. Is it really in London?

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When we landed at London-Heathrow, the passport security was baffled.

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My sister and I had booked a place in the London suburbs, not London itself. Luckily, we had at least done enough research to…

Check the proximity to public transport.

Our apartment in Tooting was a 15 minute walk to the subway, and a 10-minute walk to the public buses. It took us, then, at least an hour to get all the way to London’s most famous attractions. But at least there was transport: if we hadn’t had such convenient access, getting around a big city like London would have been difficult.

Besides, it was a good excuse to spend an hour on one of London’s famous double-decker buses.

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Watch out for hidden fees.

The price listed on Airbnb is not always the final price. Sometimes, there are “cleaning fees.”

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Sometimes, the host will charge a bit extra for every extra guest you bring in. For instance, the dude below will charge you the list price for two guests. But to bring a third friend, you’d pay an extra $13, and another $13 for a fourth friend… yeah. You get it.

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Sometimes, the host will ask for a security deposit.

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My sister and I avoided listings with security deposits, so I unfortunately can’t give any advice about dealing with those. Also, since most listings were made to accommodate two people, my sister and I never had to pay that extra guest fee.

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So those extra fees never caused us any trouble– but it’s certainly something to look out for when you’re booking a place.

It’s also worth checking out the apartment’s cancellation policy. Are you a wandering soul with no strict travel plans? Check the cancellation policy of the apartment to make sure that you’ll be refunded in the event that you change your mind. Airbnb cancellation policies come in the shades of flexible, moderate, strict, super-strict, and long-term. You can read more about that here.

Privacy is really nice.

Well, depending on what style of traveler you are. Some people have plenty of time, and just love to chat it up with whoever’s around. Talking to your host can actually be great– they can give you recommendations only a native would know. And shared rooms give you the chance to hang out and chill with other travelers

My sister and I, however, had barely any time at all in each city.

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At the end of the day, we just wanted somewhere to relax and unwind. When you’re that exhausted, having your own room to just chill is really nice– no need to tiptoe around sleeping strangers.

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It all depends on you, but we found that having our own room really enhanced our trip. A little comfort goes a long way, and Airbnb helped us afford the luxury of our own room.

You get what you pay for.

That said, not all Airbnb listings are created equal. There are a huge variety of apartments you can find, the quality and price of which differ greatly.

You could rent this entire apartment for $200 a night…

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…or this girl’s couch for $57 a night.

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What a steal!

My sister and I found a really cheap place to stay in Rome. The host described it as a “beautiful bright dorm” that was part of a “big, lovely, classy and fun apartment.” With all those superlatives, it HAD to be good.

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The reviews were all positive, and the price couldn’t be beat. We were going to have to share a room with two other strangers, but we figured that we could deal with that for a few nights.

And we could. That was fine– we bunked with two lovely girls from Texas. It was the apartment itself that was a problem.

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The apartment was pretty much falling apart. It was nicely decorated, at least– it was lived-in and frequented by artsy hipsters. But, hey: it was cheap! You could tell.

The extra little conveniences go a long way.

At least, they did for my sister and I. Firstly, we were backpacking. We only brought a week’s worth of clothes for a five-week trip.

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So, whenever we had washing machines, it was a godsend.

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Before you believe that we were totally smelly, though, I’ll tell you that my sister and I washed our clothes every day! Washing machine or not! When there was no washer available, we just washed our clothes by hand. It was a process, involving us carrying around laundry detergent, scrubbing out our clothes, rinsing them out, and drying everything on my sister’s travel clothesline.

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Washing machines: I appreciate them now. And if you’re traveling light, you will too! They’re really handy if you don’t have enough clothes for the entire trip.

Since we were trying to keep our expenses down, we would often buy lots of food from the grocery store. We would usually need a place to keep this food. The second convenience to look for: Refrigerators. Under the Airbnb listing, look for a kitchen, and read the reviews and description.

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And finally, check if your place has internet! We take it for granted these days, but my family actually stayed in an apartment in Budapest without WiFi. For those two nights, my family bemoaned the fact that we couldn’t look up directions or tourist attractions.

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Airbnb has even made it easy for you. Hosts can show which amenities they do and don’t have.

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Communicate with your host.

Did you read the description, check the reviews and have finally decided on a place? Awesome! Now you can try to book for the dates that you want.

However, even if your desired dates are available, you can’t book instantly. You have to talk to your host first. Introduce yourself, tell them what you’re dropping in town for, be polite. Then, you’ll receive a confirmation message when your host accepts your booking.

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Some places can be booked instantly, though. Look for the lightning icon next to the price.

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Be a good guest!

You can leave reviews for your hosts. Reversely, your hosts can leave reviews of you once you’ve stayed in their apartment. If you rack up a string of bad reviews, people are less likely to rent to you. So be a good guest! If your host requests you to do something, like close the door gently or be quiet at night, do it. Don’t be a college freshman in a dorm.

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It’s really just common courtesy. Most importantly, remember: you’re staying in someone else’s house. Sometimes, they have maid service. But if you’re staying somewhere cheaper, the likelihood is that they clean the place themselves.

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And that’s it! Those are just my little tips on things to look out for when renting your Airbnb. It’s not an exhaustive guide, but hopefully it’ll help out some prospective travelers. I was lucky enough to have a great time. But who knows? When I travel again, my experience with Airbnb might be better. It might be worse. But at this point in time, I know this: I’ll be using Airbnb again soon.

You are what you Eataly

When I came home from my internship last June, I got a bit of a surprise.

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My sister is a naturally slim and healthy person, so I was surprised to see her dieting. I asked her what brought this on.

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Europe is a special place: there are a ton of distinct, unique cultures clustered on one continent. These cultures have had centuries to develop and refine their cuisine. My sister compiled a list of the must-try foods in every country we were visiting. The list looked kind of like this:

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This was the case for all of the countries: Too many foods, not enough time. It didn’t stop us from trying, though.

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Oliebollen: fried dough covered in powdered sugar!

Italian fried cheese and fried meat!

Italian fried cheese and fried meat!

Bitteballen: Dutch fried meat!

Bitteballen: Dutch fried meat!

You get the idea.

The bakeries were the most irresistible. Every corner of Europe seemed to have a cute, locally-owned bakery filled with tempting sweets. My sister could barely resist the allure.

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And my sister indeed tried everything she possibly could.

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As for myself? Well, I kept up with my sister at first.

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But right before going to Europe, I had been on Weight Watchers. I had trained for and completed a half-marathon. My body couldn’t take the transition from super-healthy to super-indulgent.

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I was stuffed to the brim.

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But I continued to eat.

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Yessir, my sister and I ate as much as we were physically capable of fitting into our bodies. We had to. There was too much deliciousness for us not to. By the end, even my sister agreed:

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Coming home and trying to exercise again for the first time after 5 weeks was… interesting.

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And I still don’t.

 

 

 

For the foodies: Here are some of my favorite foods that we ate during our trip!

Stroopwafels: a Dutch dessert consisting of two thin waffles with caramel in between them.

Stroopwafels: a Dutch dessert consisting of two thin waffles with caramel in between them.

Panna cotta in Rome!

Panna cotta in Rome!

Duck confit in Paris! And that side dish is aligot, mashed potatoes and melted cheese.

Duck confit in Paris! And that side dish is aligot, mashed potatoes and melted cheese.

Bratwurst and potatoes in Traben-Trarbach! German food will always have a special place in my heart.

Bratwurst and potatoes in Traben-Trarbach! German food will always have a special place in my heart.

Parisian creme brulee makes my mouth go YAY.

Parisian crème brûlée makes my mouth go YAY.

Italian gelato cafes are really popular in Germany!

Italian gelato cafes are really popular in Germany!

Just some simple penne in Rome. What you'd expect, yet somehow infinitely more delicious than any pasta I've had before!

Pasta in Rome. Looks simple, yet somehow it infinitely more delicious than any pasta I’ve had before!

 

That time I cried in Paris

Whew, I’m finally home! After five weeks of backpacking through Europe, and then another week of visiting family, it’s a relief to sleep in my own bed. And to finally have a computer again!

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Now that I have a computer, I can blog again as well. So let’s get to it!

Since my sister and I returned from Europe, we’ve been asked a lot of questions about our trip.

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Since many of you might be curious as well, I’ll answer your questions.

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My sister and I saw so many amazing sights, but we wholeheartedly agree on one as our favorite.

You see, my sister and I happened to be in Paris on Bastille Day. We hadn’t planned it that way– it was a total coincidence.

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I did some research on the Bastille Day celebrations. One caught my eye.

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Fireworks at the Eiffel Tower? That sounded like a must-see! I did some research.

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It sounded like it was going to be chaos. My sister and I still wanted to see it, though, so we headed over to the Champ de Mars around 5PM.

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It was already crowded when we arrived.

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All there was to do was to picnic and wait. Which was fine with us– after touring Paris the entire day, we were glad to rest our feet.

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My sister and I arrived at a fairly good time. Although it was crowded, there was still space farther back from the tower. We had enough space to actually spread out our towels and lay down.  As the hours passed, though, people started packing in.

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Soon, getting anywhere was a challenge.

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There was a stage right in front of the Eiffel Tower, but we were too far to see it. Luckily, the entire park was lined with giant speakers. As the sun set, a concert began.

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Opera singers, choirs, and an entire orchestra performed classic French music. Though I’m not French, I recognized quite a few of the songs.

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The Eiffel Tower began to light up and change color with each new tune.

Eiffel Sparkle

One song– the love theme from French film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg– struck my sister and I particularly hard.

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Then, after a rousing performance of the French national anthem, the fireworks began.

And it blew my mind.

I’m used to just… normal fireworks, you know? I’m already impressed by the fireworks put on by my local county during July 4th. I expected a few fireworks to shoot off behind the tower. It’d be a nice photo-op. It’s be chill.

But then the Eiffel Tower started to do this:

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And this: 

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Also this: 

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I’ve never seen fireworks form words before.

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There was only one appropriate reaction to this sight.

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Not only was it Bastille Day, but it was also the 100th year since World War I began. Because of this, the entire 40-minute-long fireworks show commemorated the war. The fireworks were timed to music, matching each phase of the war. The colors would darken and the fireworks would slow for times of peace. For times of conflict, the music and fireworks would rise and explode.

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Sometimes there were so many fireworks that it was hard to see the tower.

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It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Fireworks are awesome and lovely, but Bastille Day fireworks are something else entirelyNo GIF or video can really explain how incredible it was.

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40 minutes later, the fireworks finally concluded. I couldn’t believe thatit was already over– I could have stood there, repeatedly screaming “OH MY GODDD!!” for at least another hour.

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The Eiffel Tower still sported its Bastille Day colors, though– which is more than you might see on a normal day in Paris.

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It was almost midnight when my sister and I joined the crowds heading home.

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The streets were packed, traffic was stopped, and taking the metro was out of the question. My sister and I walked an hour and a half to make it back to our apartment. By the time we got back, we were hungry, exhausted, and in desperate need of a shower.

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The next day, we rejoined the throngs of tourists making their way around Paris. A lot of people say to not visit Paris near Bastille Day. July is peak tourist season, and the holiday makes the crowds almost unbearable. But after that night, my sister and I concluded:

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After all, that’s the only time a bunch of exploding rockets have moved me to tears.

 

Curious to see what the Bastille Day fireworks are like? Here’s a nice video I found of the entire 2014 show!

Renting a campervan in New Zealand: Tips and tricks to avoiding utter chaos

The University of Sydney, like any university, gives their students a break mid-semester. My friends and I wanted to do something with that break.

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My friends and I decided that “something” would be to travel. While we were in Sydney, why not hit up Australia’s next-door neighbor? New Zealand is world-famous for its natural beauty. The amazing scenery in all three Lord of the Rings films? All shot in New Zealand.

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Our time was limited, so we decided to travel only New Zealand’s south island. But how would we get around? The majority of New Zealand lives on the North Island. The south island, on the other hand, is sparsely populated. We decided to be extra-adventurous and rent a campervan for our trip.

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It sounded like the perfect 20-something, idyllic college adventure. Don’t get me wrong: it was an adventure. And like any adventure, not everything went as smoothly as we planned. After this trip, I came to realize that not everything about travel is smooth sailing. A little foresight would have gone a long way for those 10 days in the land of Kiwis. So for the reference of future travelers looking for a fun and exciting trip ti NZ– here are some of the things I wish I knew going:

You get what you pay for.

Campervans are popular in New Zealand and get booked out way ahead of time. Do your research early, especially if you’re on a budget.

While doing your research, keep in mind that some vans are cheaper for a reason. Check reviews of the rental company. Check how old the campervan is.

My friends and I got lucky. Though we booked our van pretty late, it wasn’t a total lemon. In fact, we were really excited when we saw our van!

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However, we found a few problems. Our campervan had a working sink and shower, connected to a water tank in the van. But when we tried to fill it up…

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Our van would leak water until the tank reached about half its capacity. This wasn’t too much of a problem for us, though since we usually stayed at campgrounds with bathrooms. However, our second problem was much worse.

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The heat in our campervan didn’t work, not even once. During that time, the weather averaged around 50-60 degrees during the day and got even colder at night.

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We found a small heater fan under the sink that staved off the worst of the shivers, but the Icebox was always a bit chilly. At least this led to great bonding time.

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Figure out how you’re going to navigate.

We rented a GPS with our company and drove off happily, thinking it would solve all our problems. Then, we turned it on.

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Our GPS was old, broken, and incapable of guiding us anywhere. My friend had the foresight of downloading an offline navigation app onto his phone. The only problem was that, though the app could navigate offline, it needed internet to locate our desired destination.

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My advice? Figure out a data plan for your phone, preferably one with a reliable navigation app, before you depart. You don’t want to get knocked with high roaming bills. Nor do you want to get lost.

 

Check the New Zealand travel website.

My friends and I were overly ambitious. Our first day of travel had us drive from Christchurch, on the east coast, all the way over to the west coast.

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The most direct road to get there was through Arthur’s Pass. Google Maps predicted that the trip would take 5 hours. As we drove, though, we found that the route was a winding, meandering mountain road.  We were forced to drive slowly to avoid hurtling off a cliff. As a result, the trip took 8 hours instead of 5.

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Late that night, we finally arrived at our campsite. We made a quick dinner and got ready for bed. My friend and I went to the campsite lodge to wash our dishes.

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The campsite caretaker visited us in the lodge, curious to see who was doing dishes at 11PM. He struck up some small-talk.

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The caretaker elaborated.

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Wait. What? The only road, closed? But we had to get to Queenstown. We had bungee jumps and skydives booked there! We were on a schedule!

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He said what I didn’t want to hear.

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Suddenly, our planned route went from this

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to this: 

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In other words, a 4 hour ride suddenly became an 11-hour one. To make it to Queenstown on time, we were going to have to drive.

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Which brings me to my next point.

 

Don’t over-plan.

We had our whole game plan outlined when we went to New Zealand. In retrospect, this wasn’t the best idea. We sacrificed the liberty to wander where we wanted.

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And, of course, there was the Haas-Pass-landslide fiasco.

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Our overplanning may have caused us to rush around. A lot.

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These long rides led to another problem.

 

Carsickness can happen.

When you’re driving down those winding, twisting mountain roads, bouncing around in the back of a bumpy campervan, you’re bound to be a little uncomfortable.

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My friends and I hoped to read, play cards, or do things while riding around. Mostly, though, we just sat back and slept. There was no other way. We took turns sitting in the front with the driver, just to help with the nausea.

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Remember that you can’t camp just anywhere.

The national law in New Zealand allows freedom camping– aka, pitching your tent wherever you want– in any public space. However, local laws have limited the areas where camping is allowed. Trying to find out where you can and can’t stay can get confusing.

And don’t forget that your campervan needs some tender love and care. You’ll need somewhere to dump your waste, fill up your water tank, and charge the van’s battery every few days. This usually means booking a campsite.

My friends and I played it safe and made sure that we had a sanctioned campsite to stay at… most nights.

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It’s a lot less stressful when you’ve got a set place to go.

You also can’t park your campervan just anywhere.

Basically, don’t do this:

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Seriously, don’t drive your van into any sort of grass until you know it’s solid. There won’t always be a group of friendly tourists willing to push your van out of the mud.

Give yourself time to take it all in.

Our trip to New Zealand was one of the craziest experiences of my life. We got lost. We got sidetracked. We raced around the entire island. We panicked and freaked out.

Our trip to New Zealand was also one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I’ve yet to visit a place that can match NZ’s natural beauty. We often in such a rush that I forgot to look around me– but when I did, it always took me by surprise. Like it did in Queenstown.

After arriving in Queenstown at 4 in the morning, we  finally found a parking lot without a “No Camping” sign. It was too dark to see exactly where we were, but were too tired to care. We parked the car, locked the doors, and went to sleep. A few hours later, I woke up and groggily crawled out of bed.

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By some miracle, we had chosen a parking lot with a public bathroom next door. I grabbed my toothbrush and headed outside.

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It was here that I brushed my teeth and greeted the morning.

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And this was only a taste of the amazing little Queenstown.

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That was just one of the many incredible things we saw. Our first day, driving to the west coast through the insane Arthur’s Pass, we also stopped for a bit. We had to. We needed a moment to appreciate what we were seeing.

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Here’s another place we needed to stop and appreciate:

Lake Ruataniwha-- the name of which I didn't know until I Googled it later.

Lake Ruataniwha, which we hadn’t heard about in any travel guide. I didn’t know its name until I Googled it later.

And another:

Nugget Point, New Zealand.

Nugget Point, New Zealand.

And another.

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Lake Pukaki, New Zealand.

The campervan allowed us to access places we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. For instance, we stayed a night at Purakaunui Bay, located in the Catlins Coast. The campground was basic: hole-in-the-ground toilets, water that needed to be boiled before drinking, and absolutely no lights. We went to sleep with the sunset…

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…and woke up with the sunrise.

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Our trip was organized chaos. Would I do it a little differently if I went back to New Zealand? Sure thing. Do I regret going? Not even a little bit. I still have trouble describing in New Zealand in words. It’s a country of unadulterated, dazzling scenery.

Future travelers, be warned: your dream trip in New Zealand might not be perfect . But hopefully, with these tips, your campervan trip will smoother than mine. Keep a rough plan and book things ahead of time. At the same time, though, give yourself time to enjoy everything to its fullest. Honestly, all the time in the world isn’t enough for New Zealand. And we only saw half of it.

Hiking to Fox Glacier on a rainy day.

Hiking to Fox Glacier on a rainy day.

Along the Hooker Valley Track, New Zealand.

Along the Hooker Valley Track.

Near Akaroa, New Zealand.

Near Akaroa.

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Good luck with your travels!

 

Edit: Hey all, I got a great comment from a New Zealand native on driving in the country. I think it’s great to know, so I’m including it here. She’s also talked about it on her blog

“Kia ora Vy.

Well done for choosing the South Island to go to. All us kiwis ask tourists when we see them – ‘Are you going to the South Island? You HAVE to see the South Island while you’re here, it’s the best of New Zealand scenery!! I’m really sorry you got a lemon camper van – this is a good thing to know, so we can advise others ourselves.

A word to tourists heading our way – there is quite a big fuss being made in New Zealand at the moment about tourist drivers. Several have caused accidents lately that have killed New Zealanders, and we’re not very happy about that. Many kiwis are calling for a special driving test for overseas tourists before they can drive on our roads. Because they ARE very windy and narrow a lot of the time, not what those who come from countries with straight roads and many lanes are used to. There are two things us locals want you to know:

PULL OVER!! If you have 3 or more cars behind you when you’re driving, pull over as soon as you can do so safely. You may be on holiday, but we’re probably trying to get to work. Not pulling over can cause people to get frustrated and do dangerous overtaking manouvres to get where they’re trying to go. Potential accident!

If you’re tired, DON’T DRIVE!! Tiredness can lead to you pulling out into wrong lanes in confusion. Potential accident!

We love having tourists here because we’re very proud of our country and want you to see it. But please don’t come over here and kill us. Thank you, and happy holidaying.

Regards, New Zealand locals. 😀 “

Drive safely, everyone! Take your time and don’t rush, no matter where you’re going. 

In Vietnam, shopping is a battlefield.

I’m not that avid of a shopper. Most of my clothes are hand-me-downs from my sister. I hate trying on clothes, and shopping for extended periods of time gives me a headache. Shopaholics, I know– I’m weird.

But when I went to Vietnam, I experienced none of the above. That’s because shopping in Vietnam is a whole different kind of experience. Whether this is a better or worse experience depends on your personality.

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For example, if you’re my sister…

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…you thrive on the constant shouting, yelling, and bartering of the Vietnamese marketplace. It’s unavoidable. People will try to scam you, and you’ll have to fight to get the correct price.

So, if you’re me…

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…you hate confronting people and will flee at the first sign of conflict.

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That’s how I was when I visited my first Vietnamese market, the famous Bến Thành Market in downtown Saigon.  Bến Thành is actually one of the more tourist-friendly markets out there. The place sells all sorts of little souvenir magnets, handicrafts, and trinkets.

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Sellers actually have a good handle on English. Tourists, then, tend to swarm the place. Myself included.

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It doesn’t help that Bến Thành, and most Vietnamese markets, are very claustrophobic places. The stands are packed together and the aisles narrow. Walking through is a squeeze.

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I had trouble just adjusting to the chaotic atmosphere of the marketplace– it’s overwhelming, especially when people selling all sorts of products are yelling at you from all directions. Thus I proceeded to buy nothing at all.

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The Bến Thành Market is quite overpriced. That’s what I told myself when I walked out empty-handed, anyway. And what would I do with all those little trinkets?

But food is a little harder to resist.

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I love fruit. Vietnam is chock-full of all sorts of exotic, tropical fruits, sold daily on the street.

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Half these fruits, I’ve never even tried!

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Yes, I would have to do it. I would have to confront a seller, bargain with them, and buy some fruit!

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So my fear of buying things continued. It got worse when my family ventured into An Dong Market, a wholesale clothing market in Saigon. We wanted to get some custom-fitted áo dài, the Vietnamese traditional dress. 

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But finally, I encountered the greatest and most spectacular type of Vietnamese market yet.

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The night market!

Many cities in Vietnam have a night market. Unlike the functional produce or wholesale markets, night markets are usually designed for pleasure shopping. Stalls will be devoted to selling trendy purses, or the latest coats, or sparkling jewelry. Teens will hang out, eating Vietnamese snack food sold by various old ladies.

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These night markets are fun. My sister and I enjoyed wandering through them together, whether it be in Ho Chi Minh City, Hội An, Hà Nội, or wherever else we could find one. And then, while visiting the night market in Đà Lạt, I saw it.

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A lady had a whole tray full of the most adorable crocheted Totoros. I have never seen a crocheted Totoro before. Perhaps I would only ever see them in Vietnam. Now was my chance!

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There’s a strategy to bartering in Vietnam. First is to speak Vietnamese if you can. English pegs you as a tourist immediately. Tourists have money.

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Second is to demand half of the selling price.

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This will almost always elicit the same reaction from the buyer, no matter how reasonable your price is. Items, especially in tourist markets, can be severely overpriced. The sellers might be making a huge profit margin even at your demanded discount. Regardless, I would always hear next:

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Third is, if the seller doesn’t accept your price, to walk away.

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Often, the seller will be willing to meet you halfway.

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Fourth is to repeat until you get the price you want.

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And then… success! I finally made my first bargained purchase!

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Now, I could face the Vietnamese markets without fear! Though, depending on the seller, this strategy doesn’t always work. Sometimes they’re unwilling to lower the price. And bargaining can be quite stressful after a while. Still, now I could venture out, knowing that I could stop myself from getting scammed!

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And for the first time in forever, I actually enjoyed shopping!

 

…though I probably would’ve saved a lot of money had I not gotten over my fear.

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