A Year In The Making

A year ago today I left Shenzhen for a 3 week holiday in India, never having even an inkling that I wouldn’t be able to go back to my home of 9 years.

So many things have happened since then – some good, some bad, and pretty much all of them emotional in some way, shape or form. Right now I’m feeling too many emotions to name and I don’t quite know what to do with myself.

It’s been months since I updated this blog (April last year was my last post) and I will probably write about everything that has happened since then in more detail – just not right now. I think I just want to write out everything that’s in my head to try and make sense of it all. Although that’s probably easier said than done!

Perhaps I should do a summary of my year…

21 January 2020: Left Shenzhen, China, where I’d lived since 2011, and went on holiday with 4 friends to India with only hand luggage.

February 2020: Told that my school was going to online teaching and my flight back to Shenzhen was cancelled. Instead flew to Kazakhstan (via Dubai and Bahrain) to stay with my then gf as there were no cases there at the time. School reopening dates kept getting moved back as cases escalated in China. Was also applying and having interviews for jobs for the next academic year.

March 2020: Had to leave Kazakhstan as my visa was only for 30 days, decided against going back to China as cases were still rising, instead went to Thailand to stay with friends. Was offered and accepted a job in Myanmar starting in August. Booked a flight back to Shenzhen for 1st April. Flight was cancelled. Booked a new flight for 27th March. Wasn’t allowed on it as the Chinese government closed the border to foreigners at midnight on 27th March, even though my flight was due to land at 11.20pm. Got stuck in Thailand. Still teaching online.

April 2020: Told by my school that I could no longer teach remotely and they would stop paying me when the children went back to school in May. Myanmar government closed their border. Couldn’t go back to China, couldn’t go forward to Myanmar. Still staying with the same (amazing) friends in Thailand. All on lockdown.

May 2020: Thailand still mostly locked down. Chinese border still closed. Students at my school in China went back into school and I stopped working after 9 years at the same place. Myanmar border still closed and the government keeps extending the closure by two weeks at a time.

June 2020: Used all my spare time as I was no longer working (or being paid) to study towards my masters in education. Chinese border still closed. Lease on my apartment in Shenzhen ended. Spent hours on video calls to my flatmate (who I’d never lived with add she moved in in March) going through everything I own to either get rid of or pack for me to be sent to Myanmar. The Myanmar government extended the border closure again, this time until the end of July which was when my Thai visa ran out. I couldn’t go back to China, I couldn’t go forward to Myanmar and on top of that I couldn’t stay in Thailand. Booked flight back to the UK.

July 2020: Arrived in the UK on 4th July. Got dumped a few days later. Went clothes shopping as I was fed up of the week’s worth of clothes I’d been wearing for the last 6 months. Decided to make the most of my time in the UK before starting my new job in Myanmar in August, and spent the time with friends and family I hadn’t seen for a year (and went on a couple of dates!). Met someone wonderful and completely unexpectedly fell head over heels. All my belongings arrived at my new school in Myanmar. Myanmar government extended the border closure.

August 2020: Started my new job in Myanmar remotely online. Because of the time difference started work at 3.15am. Went to Myanmar embassy in London and applied for my visa. Myanmar government extended the border closure.

September 2020: Spent lots of (socially distanced) time with friends and family (and my special someone). Still teaching remotely in Myanmar. Myanmar government extended the border closure.

October 2020: Still teaching remotely in Myanmar. Celebrated my Mum’s and my birthdays in the UK for the first time in 9 years. Myanmar government extended the border closure.

November 2020: Moved in with my new partner and so have a proper home of my own for the first time since January. Still teaching remotely in Myanmar. Myanmar government extended the border closure.

December 2020: Celebrated Christmas in the UK for the first time in 7 years, not quite with family as planned due to the restrictions, but lovely nonetheless. Still teaching remotely in Myanmar. School announced that we would be continuing to teach online until April. Myanmar government extended the border closure.

January 2021: Co-hosted an awesome online New Year’s Eve party celebrating New Year in every time zone in the world (I co-hosted Myanmar, Kazakhstan, Nepal and India; for anyone interested the party is still going here: thelong.party) Set up a new home office for me to teach from as I’m still teaching remotely in Myanmar, and will be until at least April. Currently trying to arrange for my belongings to be shipped from my school in Myanmar to the UK. It’s been a year since I’ve had my stuff and I’d rather not have to re-buy all the things I already own, however, it’s proving to be difficult and expensive and so is taking much longer than I’d hoped.

So that brings us all up to date. What started off as a Facebook status has turned into a bit of a long post, but evidently I needed to write it all out.

Despite – or perhaps because of – all the ups and downs, I am really happy to be at home in the UK. I’m also eternally grateful to everyone who has been there for me over the last year, in whatever form that has taken. I love you all very dearly and I know my life would be so much poorer without you in it.

Here’s to the next year and the surprises it may bring!

Pandemic Adventures Part 2: Stuck in Limbo

My last post ended with my stay at a hotel near Bangkok airport, waiting for my flight back to Shenzhen (well, back to Guangzhou, as there weren’t any flights to Shenzhen and Guangzhou is the next closest city). The night before my flight I had messages from several of my friends in Shenzhen telling me that the Chinese government had just announced they would be closing the border to foreigners as of 00:00 on Saturday 28th March (link to article here). My flight was due to land at 11.20pm on 27th March. I thought I would arrive just in time to scrape through passport control and get back home to China.

Unfortunately, this was not to be.

When queuing to check in for my flight, I and other non-Chinese in the line were approached by other foreigners who told us that they’d been turned away when they got to the check-in desk. There was no official announcement, nothing from the staff of the airline. So I continued to queue in the vain hope that I would be allowed on the flight or at least be given some useful information. Instead, I got to the front of the queue and was just told no, please go over there out of the way.

I kept asking people to try and get some official information and eventually was directed to a member of staff around whom was a growing group of foreigners. We were told that even though the plane was due to land at 11.20pm, by the time the plane got to the gate and everyone had their temperature checked it would take about two hours, and so we wouldn’t get through immigration until after midnight and therefore wouldn’t be let in the country.

And so I became stuck in Thailand.

That was on 27th March. Two months, one week and three days later and I’m still in Thailand. And there’s no news about when the Chinese border will reopen to foreigners.

Thankfully, I have two amazing friends – James and Nat – who took me in, for which I am eternally grateful.

I felt at the time that the whole situation completely sucked, and the feeling of being stuck in limbo was horrible; however, I tried to look on the bright side and be grateful that I’m healthy, I have wonderful friends, I’m safe and I have a place to stay.

Since then I’ve had many, many ups and downs.

My work informed me that as I wasn’t able to return to China, once my students returned to school I would no longer be able to teach them. My students returned to school on 11th May, so after 12 weeks of teaching online I had to stop teaching.

In the run up to this point, as well as at many times since being stuck in limbo, I was an absolute wreck. I find it really difficult to talk about such things, but writing about it is – for some reason – a little easier. I’ve had many days where I’ve just been in floods of tears. I’ve been angry, I’ve been sad, I’ve been heartbroken, I’ve been grateful, I’ve been stressed, I’ve been anxious, I’ve been depressed. I’ve pretty much been a roller coaster of emotions over the last four months.

Basically the only things getting me through all this have been my friends, my partner and my family. I honestly don’t know what I would have done, how much worse my situation would be, if it wasn’t for them. They have kept me sane, they’ve given me a place to live, they’ve called me, they’ve made me laugh, they’ve kept me company, they’ve comforted me, they’ve helped me in so so many ways I can’t even count.

I have to give a special mention here to Hela, my flatmate who I’ve never lived with because she moved into my flat after I became stuck in Thailand (which had been planned months earlier). She has spent hours on video calls with me, helping me to sort through all my things, organising and re-organising everything, selling things I wasn’t keeping, coordinating with other friends to sort out and pack my belongings, and generally being just an amazing friend. I really don’t know how I would have got all my stuff in Shenzhen sorted out and shipped if it wasn’t for her.

At this point, it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to go back to Shenzhen before starting my new job in Myanmar. I’m really upset that after nearly nine years I’m not going to have the chance to say a proper goodbye to my friends, colleagues and the kids I’ve taught. Yes, I’m hoping to go back and visit once everything reopens, but it isn’t – it won’t be – the same. I loved living in Shenzhen; I had an amazing time there, met so many great people, did so many brilliant things and visited so many fantastic places. It’s such a shame it’s all ending like this. And I’m truly heartbroken.

Despite all the emotional turmoil I’ve been experiencing, there have been good things that have come out of all this. Here’s a few of the positives I’ve been trying to keep in mind during this whole thing:

I’ve started walking on a semi-regular basis, and I’ve walked a total of 182km since 13th April. Looking at this I’ve just realised if I walk another 18km in the next seven days that’ll make it 200km I’ll have walked in two months. Not bad going for someone who hates exercise, even if I do say so myself!

I’ve gotten back in touch with and had video chats with several friends who I hadn’t spoken to in years – one of whom I think it was nearly 20 years since we had an actual conversation rather than a Facebook chat! It’s been really lovely to catch up with people and have regular chats with people who I live thousands of miles away from.

Since I’ve stopped working, I’ve been using my time to study. I’m doing a Masters in Educational Leadership and Management through the University of Bath via distance learning, and I just have my dissertation left to complete. This has actually given me the time to concentrate on this and (hopefully) I can get most of it completed before I start my new job.

Other ups and downs have included the anniversary of the passing of both my maternal grandparents, the death of a close family friend, the nine year anniversary of announcing I was moving to China, and getting a new job in Myanmar as KS2 Coordinator (overseeing classes in years 3 to 6/ages 7 to 11 for non-teachers!). I’m very much looking forward to my new job and settling into my new home; I just hope the borders open in time for me to get there and finish any quarantine that’s required before I’m due to start at the beginning of August.

Rainbow after a thunderstorm.

Pandemic Adventures

I haven’t been on social media much recently, simply because everything has been so crazy and I’ve been trying to get my head around a whole load of things. Now I’ve been in one place for a few days, here’s what’s been happening with me.

My school’s Chinese New Year holiday began on Saturday 18th January, and I flew to India on 21st January for a fantastic tour around loads of places with great friends. At the time the novel coronavirus was just starting to be a news item, but as it was a two hour flight away in Wuhan, we initially didn’t think it would affect us at all. I had a fantastic time in India; however, it was gradually overshadowed by the increasing number of cases spreading throughout China. In the third and final week of our holiday, our flights back to Shenzhen were cancelled and we were informed that our school would not be reopening on 10th February as planned.

At this point we all had to make decisions about what to do and where to go, which ended up being all different places. I continued with my original plan of visiting one of my good friends in Goa while I figured out what to do next. Autum suggested I go to stay with her in Kazakhstan, as then I wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel, so I booked a flight to Dubai and then on to Atyrau as it was about £200 cheaper to do it that way. Plus it meant I got to visit Dubai for a couple of days and go up the tallest building in the world.

However, things are never that straight forward of course. Autum’s work were concerned about me coming to visit as I live in China, even though by the time I would have arrived I would have been out of the country for nearly three weeks, and suggested I don’t come immediately. This was quite upsetting as it seemed really unreasonable at the time and left me slightly stranded. My flights then got cancelled as there was a time change which meant the connection didn’t work, but at least it meant I could get a full refund. However, I’d already booked a hotel in Dubai and tickets to watch the sunset from the 155th floor of the Burj Khalifa.

I booked a new flight to Dubai, and bid farewell to my friend in Goa. After lots of discussion and looking at options, I then flew to Bahrain for a few days. This gave me a base to work out of for a week of remote teaching which wasn’t too far from Dubai and so wasn’t too expensive to get to or stay in.

At this point we found out that school wasn’t going to reopen on 17th February, as per the first update we received, but was being pushed back again to 24th February due to requirements from the local government in Shenzhen. I had been wondering about this and hadn’t yet booked my outward flight from Bahrain, as I wasn’t sure if I would have to go straight back to China or if it would be better for me to stay out of the country for now. As it seemed that this whole situation wasn’t going to get better overnight, I booked a flight from Bahrain to Kazakhstan for the Friday of that week.

Bahrain seems like a lovely country, although I didn’t really get to see very much of it. The whole time I was there was the first week of remote teaching, and I had to do this using only my phone. When packing for India I had decided not to bring my laptop as I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be doing any work (school work or masters) during my travels. This meant that from the moment we found out that school wasn’t going to open on 10th Feb, halfway through the last week of our CNY holiday, we had to start planning for online teaching and learning. And I had to do all my planning, finding and making resources, recording and editing videos, uploading videos and resources, communicating with my year group colleagues, and checking and marking children’s work just using my phone.

All the things you have to do as a teacher take long enough as it is. Add to that: adapting everything for online learning, adapting teaching input to a series of under-5-minute videos to make sure they will actually upload, a constant stream of messages and emails about what we’re doing and how to do it, more messages about the changes happening in China, even more messages from parents concerned about their children’s education and what we’re doing about it, making lesson plans in word, making PowerPoints and pdfs for lessons and work for the children – and having to do it all using only a phone. As you may imagine, it all took rather a long time.

At this point in time many members of staff were in parts of the world and therefore time zones other than China, so staff were asked by school to be available from 2pm-8pm China time instead of the usual school day times. Bahrain is 5 hours behind China, which made it 9am-3pm for me; pretty reasonable times. However, as most of my colleagues were in China at this point I was waking up to around 200 messages every morning that first week. Once we started lessons and the children were uploading their work, I also had around 150 pieces of work to mark. Every day. Needless to say, I was working long after the time we were supposed to be available. Especially in the first couple of weeks, teaching online is so much more work than teaching in class. Everyone I have spoken to agrees with this. It’s so much easier actually being in school. On top of this some of the parents didn’t like the way we were teaching or the fact that school was closed, and started demanding that either they had a refund of the fees for semester 2 or the semester should be extended into the summer holiday. Of course, the teachers weren’t happy with this suggestion as we were all putting in more hours than we normally would be.

I managed to do a short tour of Bahrain on one day, by making my lesson videos and preparing everything the day before, and in between being constantly on my phone for work. Luckily, I was the only person on the tour so I could ask my tour guide, Ludmila, to repeat information if I missed anything she said! She was very accommodating, which was great. I saw the Tree of Life, the first oil well, Bahrain fort, the king’s camel farm, Al Fateh Grand Mosque, Bahrain National Museum, Bahrain Formula 1 track and Manama souq. It was a busy but interesting day!

On Friday 14th February, four days after school was supposed to open, I flew from Bahrain to Dubai to Almaty to Atyrau, finally arriving about 1am the next morning. Autum met me at the tiny airport with a borrowed winter coat, as I had gone from a balmy 20C to a slightly colder -5C. Atyrau in February is so cold that the river freezes over. When I visited last year we walked across the frozen Ural River and I stood on the line where Europe and Asia meet.

Week two of online teaching was considerably easier as I was able to borrow Autum’s laptop, and as the time difference was only 3 hours behind China I didn’t have quite as many work messages to wake up to. However, we had new requirements for online teaching from the Chinese Education Bureau and so had to change our timetable for that week to ensure we were meeting those requirements. This still meant making videos for every lesson, planning what we were doing, rewriting the planning into child-friendly instructions, having our Chinese Teaching Partners translate all the instructions into Chinese so the parents could read them too, making the resources and uploading everything to an online server for the parents to access. The first day of online teaching my TP had tried to email all the instructions and resources to all the parents – and her email had crashed. The school IT guy set up the online server as a solution, and that’s what we’ve been using ever since.

I felt much less stressed about the whole situation once I was staying with Autum. I’d been there before, so knew a few people as well as the place, and having a laptop to use for work made such a difference. Of course, the situation wasn’t done changing. The third week of online teaching we had another new timetable, still with video lessons as there were many staff and students still out of the country and so in different timezones.

At the end of the third week, we found out that we would be starting live online lessons the following Monday, 2nd March. This meant that I would begin teaching at 5am every day due to the time difference. The Education Bureau sent out information that the children should have a maximum of 2 hours online teaching per day in primary, with offline work also provided to follow on from the online lesson. This whole time I’d been in constant contact with my colleagues in Year 6 via WeChat, organising everything we had to do between us. (And I will say at this point that my colleagues have been awesome.) With the live lessons we were given the choice of using either a WeChat video platform or Zoom. As WeChat was only available in Chinese, we opted for Zoom!

Starting this whole process of teaching online was a complete baptism of fire. None of us had ever taken part in an online meeting system, let alone had any training. A lot of it was trial and error, at the same time as researching the best ways to do things, adapting our lessons, and trying to ensure that the students and parents were as happy as they could be, considering the difficult situation. What made the whole thing more difficult was the constant changes. Every week we were given different expectations for what and when we had to teach, and so a different timetable of lessons.

Once we started the online live lessons, it was really nice to see the kids again, have a chat with them and find out how they were doing. We got positive feedback from the parents as well, as they preferred the live lessons to video lessons, and the complaints and demands for a refund of fees stopped. For the second week of live online teaching, the number of lessons for the children increased to three per day, but as we were still limited to two hours online by the Education Bureau they had to be three 40 minute lessons back to back. Any offline work we set for the children had to then be completed after all the online lessons had finished.

On the Friday of week 4 of online teaching, and after we’d done all our planning for week 5, we were told there were more changes coming from the Education Bureau. These were supposed to start the following Monday, but as it was such short notice my school decided to keep with our then current plan of changing to three lessons each day for week 5 and start the new plan the week after on Monday 16th March. Previously, this date had been the proposed reopening date for school and all staff were encouraged to return before that date just in case. However, with the new information from the bureau it seemed that this was not to be.

Just to add to all the stress of teaching online, the constantly changing timetable, and the state of the world in general, I was only allowed to stay in Kazakhstan for 30 days and there was no way to extend my stay. This meant I had to leave by 14th March. Of course, this wasn’t going to be as straight forward as it should have been. 14th March was also the beginning of Autum’s spring break holiday, but due to the spreading virus her plans were cancelled as well. My original plan had been to fly to Thailand and stay with friends near Pattaya, so that I was closer to Shenzhen to make it easier to get back and the time difference was only an hour to make it easier for live online teaching. However, the day before I was due to fly, Thailand was added to the list of countries that meant a 14 day mandatory government quarantine upon arrival in China. So I had to decide whether to stick to my original plan and fly to Thailand regardless, fly somewhere else like Turkey or Uzbekistan that I could get a cheap or direct flight to from Atyrau and then return to Atyrau (although by many people would be there then due to the holiday) and start my 30 days again, or go from there back to China but with no guarantee that that country wouldn’t be added to the list before my return to China and therefore I’d still have to quarantine. Plus somehow making sure that I still had access to wifi and enough technology that I could teach my lessons (hence the original plan of going to stay with friends who could lend me a laptop).

After visiting a travel agent who contacted the immigration office for me to check I definitely couldn’t stay longer than 30 days in Kazakhstan, and the airline office to see if I could change or cancel my flight (I couldn’t without a fee and/or losing ask the money I’d paid for the flight), and having conversations with Autum and other friends about what to do, I decided to keep to my original plan of going to Thailand as I figured that wherever I went at that point is probably have to quarantine when I got back to China anyway, and at least that way I’d be with friends, the time difference would only be an hour and I could borrow a laptop for my lessons.

About an hour before my taxi to the airport for my flight to Bangkok, Autum decided she would come with me. Her dog was already being looked after as she was originally supposed to be away for two weeks, and she decided she didn’t want to just stay in Atyrau for the whole two weeks with very few people around. She quickly packed her backpack and we headed to the airport for the first flight to Almaty. When we arrived there and went through to the departure lounge, there was quite a while when we were the only passengers in the whole departure area – the only other people were staff. Then just to freak us out even more, the hands on the main clock on the wall started whizzing around!

The second flight and our arrival in Bangkok went without any further drama. We simply had a temperature check once in the airport and were asked to download the app for the airport to keep up to date with changes. The car I’d organised was waiting for us and a little over an hour later we arrived at my friends James and Nat’s place just outside Pattaya. Unfortunately, the laptop I was going to borrow died but as Autum had come with me I could continue borrowing hers for the time being.

The day after we arrived there was an announcement by the Kazakhstan government that they were going to close the country’s borders the next day at 8am, meaning people could leave but no-one could enter until at least 15th April. This meant Autum couldn’t go back at the end of her spring break. James and Nat had kindly said we could stay as long as we needed to; however, neither of us wanted to impose on them for longer than necessary. We just needed to figure out what to do.

My family suggested I go back to the UK, but at this point there were restrictions in place for people arriving from abroad and I’d have nowhere to quarantine. Plus my parents and sister are all in the high risk group, so I wouldn’t want to put them at risk by staying with them, and with live online teaching I’d have to teach from midnight until 8am every day, which would be horrendous. I decided I would go back to Shenzhen as now things were starting to open up again as the only cases were imported. However, it turns out that getting back to China is not as easy as I had hoped.

I wanted a direct flight to Shenzhen as it’s only about 3 hours and usually not very expensive, and this would save me the hassle of going through Hong Kong when all but one border is closed. When I looked at flights the earliest direct ones weren’t until the last couple of days of March, and the prices and times were ridiculous. The first flight which was a reasonable price and was at a time that ensured I didn’t miss any of my online classes was on 1st April, so I booked it and let my work know what I was planning on doing. A couple of days later I was checking that everything was still ok with my flight; I found out that my flight no longer existed. As I’d booked through an intermediary, it took them a couple of days to catch up, but I had already decided not to wait and looked for a new flight to Shenzhen. There weren’t any.

At the same time, Hong Kong had just announced that they would only be letting in Hong Kong residents, meaning I couldn’t fly into HK either. That left me with one option – to fly into Guangzhou, the next city to Shenzhen. I booked a flight for Friday 27th March, again so it wouldn’t affect my online teaching time.

While I was dealing with this, Autum decided she would go to Hawaii to stay with her parents until she could go back to Kazakhstan. Initially there was no rush to get back by a particular date, as she was still on holiday, but then Hawaii announced a mandatory 14 day quarantine for everyone on arrival from Thursday 26th March. In order to get back before that so she could self quarantine instead, she booked a flight for Wednesday. Just to add to the stress of flying under the circumstances, when she got to the airport the majority of flights were being cancelled. Luckily, hers was not, and she successfully boarded the plane from Bangkok to Hawaii via Tokyo.

In the meantime, the Thai government started introducing various restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. Whilst Autum was in the air, I found out that if I waited until Friday to go to Bangkok I might not make it there at all as starting Thursday people would not be allowed to travel between provinces. Thinking it wouldn’t be a good idea to get stuck and miss my flight, I booked a hotel near the airport for two nights, and a car to get me there. I finished my lessons for the day, packed, and hung out with James and Nat for a little while before getting the car to my home for the next couple of days.

So this is where I am now, watching the occasional plane land and take off as I eat a late dinner, hoping my flight on Friday will go ahead and enable me to get back to China, and wondering what awaits me when I arrive there.

Pompeii, Wine Tasting, Vesuvius and Herculaneum

The main reason my sister and I chose to stay in Naples for our holiday this year was so we could visit Pompeii. We researched lots of different options and in the end decided on a full day tour which consisted of a guided tour of Pompeii in the morning, lunch and wine tasting at a vineyard on the slopes of Vesuvius and climbing to the top of the volcano in the afternoon. It was on the expensive side (around £256 for 2 people) but well worth it, and something I would thoroughly recommend if you have the time and budget.Once we’d made our way to the pick-up point by the train station, we had a short coach ride to Pompeii for a three-hour guided tour. Our guide was very knowledgeable and made sure that our group had time to look around for ourselves as well as showing and telling us about different areas. The main thing that struck me about Pompeii was the sheer size of the place. I knew it had been a town, but I hadn’t realised it had been a sizeable city of several thousand people before Vesuvius had decimated it in 79AD. Two thirds of it have been excavated, giving a huge area that can be explored. It’s absolutely amazing. If you haven’t been there, go!At the end of our guided tour of Pompeii we had a few minutes to buy a drink and souvenirs. My sister and I got matching bracelets made of Vesuvius rock and Murano glass beads, as well as a lemon granita as it was really hot. Our group headed back to the coach and then to the vineyard on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius where we would have our lunch.The vineyard was gorgeous. We were given a short tour which included an explanation of how they use roses at the end of each row of vines to check for diseases instead of using pesticides. Lunch was held in an open room which looked out towards Vesuvius’ peak.Along with lunch we got to try six different wines produced at the vineyard. It was a really great way to do wine tasting, as it really made a difference and gave you an idea of the kinds of dishes different wines would go with. We had a sparkling rosé, a still rosé, a white, two reds and a dessert wine, all of which were delicious and went perfectly with the simple yet scrumptious food. Of course, I preferred the reds, and if I hadn’t been about to go travelling for a few weeks I may have bought some to take back with me! My sister bought one of the rooster jugs as it was really cool – the water poured out of its beak!Instead of the usual post-lunch nap, our afternoon was going to be spent walking off lunch by going to the top of Mount Vesuvius. The hike up took about 45 minutes and was quite steep most of the way, but the views were absolutely worth it. We had enough time at the top to stop for a quick cold drink, get a good look into the crater and walk most of the way around the rim. There were also souvenirs in a small kiosk, which my sister took full advantage of!After we’d admired the view sufficiently, we made our way back down the volcano, found our coach and headed back to Naples for dinner and some chill out time before an early night. It was an exhausting but awesome day, and definitely one to tick off the bucket list.The next day we visited Herculaneum or Ercolano, as it is in Italian. This was another town which was devastated by the same eruption of Vesuvius as destroyed Pompeii; however, this one was covered with lava rather than ash. This meant that many more buildings were preserved in a much better condition than those in Pompeii.When we first entered the site we were a little underwhelmed by the size of it having just been to the city of Pompeii. Once we started looking around though, we discovered just how well-preserved it was. Many buildings still had roofs, mosaics on the floors and paint on the walls. It took us nearly three hours to look at the most significant buildings and it was fascinating to see the detail in the mosaics and wall decorations.If you visit Pompeii, ensure you make time for a visit to Herculaneum as well.As a side note, there are two train stations in Ercolano and the site of Herculaneum is about a fifteen minute walk from either one, pretty much in the middle of the town. Don’t let a taxi driver talk you into believing it’s 6km away and charging you €10 to take you there via a very scenic route as we did!

No Shopping Challenge Week 12 & 13

Time certainly does fly! I’ve been so busy at work this week that I didn’t realise the date. One of my very good friends is getting married on Sunday and I’m lucky enough to be able to go. I didn’t end up packing until today (Friday), and I’m flying now! It was all fine though, and I even ended up getting to HK airport ridiculously early. I’m currently on the first plane waiting for take-off from HK to Seoul.

I had a very big (in shopping terms) dilemma earlier. I’m not usually one for brand names, however I love Kipling bags. They’re sturdy, long-lasting, functional and classy/fun. The first one I ever bought lasted me more than ten years before one of the zips went funny, so they may be a little more than I’d usually pay for things but the quality is definitely worth it. Anyway, there’s a Kipling shop in HK airport, before you go through to departures, and they had certain items on sale with 30% off. One of my bags is starting to fall apart so I’ve been thinking for a while about replacing it. I always said with this challenge that it’s fine for me to replace items that have worn out as long as I get rid of said items and don’t keep both. Of course there was a really lovely bag with 30% off and a very helpful sales assistant who let me check that my tablet fit in the bag, and I very nearly said yes, I’ll take it.

But then I thought about this challenge I’ve set myself and how the whole point is to downsize and reduce the amount I spend on things that I actually don’t really need. I really liked that bag, and I would have used it and got rid of my old bag, but I don’t really need it. So I walked away. And – much as I still really like that bag – I know that I made the right choice because my old bag still has a bit of life left in it, plus I have other bags of different sizes that I can make do with.

Now I’m sitting on a plane heading to the US for what I’m sure will be a fantastic wedding, and I have lost nothing by not buying that bag. So many times we give in to impulses – not that that’s always bad, mind you! – for things we don’t need, we just crave in the moment. If you can get past that moment you will find there’s very few things you regret buying; more often people regret what they haven’t done, not what they didn’t buy.

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Now it’s a few days later and I need to catch up on posting this so I can start on this week’s post!

Spending for week 12 consisted of food, drinks, transport, a trip to the cinema to see Pacific Uprising (not bad, bit of light entertainment), plus playing football (along with hiring the pitch) and a night out for a friend’s birthday. Yes, people who know me, I played football. Willingly. And it was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football! Total costs for week 12: 2,349rmb / £265.

Week 13 ended up being almost the same amount: 1498.6rmb + HK$604 (483rmb) + US$43.50 (274rmb) = 2255.6rmb / £255. This included a food shop, dinner out, getting my hair cut and dyed, drinks, transport, getting to HK airport, dinner at Pizza Express in HK airport, and transport from Atlanta airport. I’ve been staying in a shared house with friends and my friend’s family, which has been really lovely. This means we’ve shared the cost of groceries for the house, transport around and days out. My share of the house I paid for quite a while ago, and it was only £122 for 6 nights. I’ll write more in my next post about where we’ve been and what we’ve done as week 13 ended the day after I arrived.

Over a quarter of the year has flown by already and I’ve pretty much kept to my original challenge rules, with only one or two tweaks where necessary to ensure I could stick to it without compromising my social life. I’ve not bought any ‘stuff’, although I’ve been quite tempted on occasion, and I’ve only had takeaway once (McDonald’s when I was drunk!).

Anyone else want to take up the challenge?

No Shopping Challenge Week 11

Another week has been and gone. Time certainly flies when you’re running around at work and hanging out with your friends!

Last week was a bit of an expensive one for Shenzhen (although still cheaper than most of my recent holiday! You can check out my musings on New Orleans here, Miami here and Costa Rica here.). This was mostly due to it being a good friend’s birthday and St Patrick’s Day all rolled into one. My spending for Saturday ended up being 963rmb (£110), although this included laser tag, food, taxis to Shekou and back (about 70rmb/£8 each way), a food shop which I haven’t done for ages (muesli, yoghurt, veg and the like), and of course, lots of drinks on the pub crawl in the evening!

My total spending for the week including that was 2419rmb (£275), so 1456rmb (£165) on all food and transport the rest of the week, including eating out with friends three out of five nights (one meal, mala tang, was only 20rmb/£2.30 including a soft drink!).

One other item that hiked up my spending for the week was medication. Something I don’t talk about very often is that I suffer from depression and have done on and off for years. Currently I’m all good, which I expect is to do with the medication I’m on as much as how great my life is at the moment. This means I want to keep taking the antidepressants in order to maintain that oft-precarious balance. Of course, China doesn’t have the amazing NHS, so my work pays for health insurance for all staff. Luckily my medication is covered, but we’ve just changed insurance companies due to increased fees. Whereas before the full cost of visits to the doctor and medication were covered, now there’s a 20% co-pay, meaning I have to pay for 20% of the cost. For a one month supply of antidepressants I had to pay 399rmb (£45). Yes, £45 for 20%, meaning (in case you can’t be bothered to do the maths) £225 for the whole amount. For one month. That included seeing the doctor for about 2 minutes to get a repeat prescription, with a consultation fee of 300rmb (£34).

Some people complain about the 20p rise to £8.80 for a prescription charge on the NHS, with a free visit to the doctor included. If you didn’t appreciate the NHS before, you certainly do when living abroad! My advice would be to treasure the NHS and do whatever you can to make sure it doesn’t get privatised. Otherwise you might end up paying £225 every time you go to the doctors.

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Whilst I may have spent more than intended this week, I’ve still not bought any ‘stuff’, and my birthday presents to people are staying as treats, meals or activities, so I count that as a successful week.

If you have any thoughts or comments about anything I talk about, please let me know!

No Shopping Challenge Week 10

Back in Shenzhen and back to work after a fantastic three week holiday for Chinese New Year.

Which of course meant I was wiped out after work on Monday so the only money I spent was 2.4rmb on the bus home. Tuesday I had a bit more energy and time so I used these to catch up with friends over dinner (363rmb/£41 – more expensive than we thought it would be!) at as little Spanish place called Mambo. I also used some of my time to pay for the deposit and book accommodation for Summer School, where I will be studying for my MA Education which I’ve just started. I’m not counting the cost of the MA in my ‘no shopping challenge’ as this was already arranged before I came up with the challenge idea. I am, however, going to buy as few books as possible and instead read them online through the university library.

Wednesday was another catch-up dinner followed by the local pub quiz, which we actually won! We won 1000rmb of vouchers for The Brew between 7 of us, so 100rmb each plus a drink each next time. Not bad, even if I do say so myself! Total spending for all drinks and dinner for both of us that night was 548rmb (£62).

Usually on Thursday I go to D&D, but unfortunately I ended up going home early from work with a migraine. I guess the plus side to this was that I didn’t spend any money on dinner, instead sleeping for most of the rest of the day and then just managing toast. My only outgoings were the taxi to and from work (37.5rmb/£4.25 both ways) and 100rmb (£11.30) to top up my phone.

On Friday I had to stock up on muesli and yoghurt (67.4rmb/£7.65) as I finished the last of it for breakfast. A small group of us decided to go and see ‘Black Panther’ at the cinema after work as it was the first day of its release in China – and for 35rmb (£4) it was definitely worth it! This time I even remembered to bring my 3D glasses so I didn’t have to buy a new pair! Of course, we had to have dinner before the movie as well: shrimp quesadillas, chips and bogof cocktails for 153.6rmb (£17.45) at Blue Frog was pretty good.

My final night out for the week was on Saturday, and this time there was no alcohol involved! A friend had arranged a movie night at a private cinema for a group of us – 63rmb/£7 for 4 hours in a comfy room with a group of friends watching movies – it was great, and really nice to do something a bit different. I would definitely recommend it.

Sunday came round much too quickly as usual. I woke up quite early but stayed in bed reading for a few hours before finally deciding I was too hungry to stay in bed any longer. Once again I resisted the urge to order takeout, and raided the freezer instead for my last frozen meal from previous cooking escapades. I spent the rest of the day alternating between studying and watching ‘Legends of Tomorrow’, which meant I spent no money at all (and stayed in my pyjamas all day).

My total spending for week 10 was 1442.4rmb (£164.50) plus the accommodation and deposit for Summer School. Still no takeaway or stuff!

No Shopping Challenge Week 9

Note: This is a week late as I completely forgot to post last weekend in my jetlagged state! Week 10 will follow soon.

For most of this week I’m in Bolinas, California, staying with my aunt and uncle for the last part of my Chinese New Year holiday. Once again I’m not limiting the amount I spend on food and eating out, but I’m still sticking to not buying ‘stuff’.

Monday was a gorgeous day with bright blue skies and a cold wind. I went into San Francisco with my uncle where – after my uncle making a trip to the bank while I had a cuppa ($2.55/£1.80) in Peet’s coffee shop next door – we went to the SF Museum of Modern Art. Uncle H paid for our entry saying I could get lunch instead! We had lunch in the museum cafe ($55/£40 for both of us to have carrot and ginger soup, a pastry and a drink) then looked at the exhibits – mainly Robert Rauschenberg plus a few other artists such as Matisse, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dali and Zammit. SFMoMA is a fantastic place and well worth a look if you’re in SF. Once we’d finished we drove back to Bolinas over Mount Tamalpais and made dinner from bits and pieces in the kitchen, so no further spending there.

Tuesday I asked Uncle H to drop me into town on his way to work, where I went to the Coast Cafe for lunch ($57/£41 for three courses and two glasses of wine, including tip – not cheap, but it’s the only restaurant in town and the food is pretty good) and did a bit of reading and writing. I then took a lovely walk along the beach and circled back around into town to meet my uncle, where I found him next to the wood-fired oven that is brought out twice a week by a guy who makes great pizza, waiting for a pizza he’d ordered for us for dinner. Topped with goat’s cheese, kalamata olives, mushrooms and sundried tomatoes, it was delicious.

On Wednesday it was my uncle’s weekly trip into the city (San Francisco) to look after his goddaughter’s two children, so of course I went too. The last time I was here, the oldest was four years old and the youngest was a baby; now they’re seven and four-and-a-half – such a difference! After picking them up from school and nursery, and meeting mum back at the house, we went to the California Academy of Sciences. The first thing we did was have lunch in the cafe ($13.71/£10 for mine) as it was gone 2.30pm by then and although the oldest boy had had lunch at school the rest of us were starving. The rest of the afternoon was spent looking at the penguins in the Africa gallery, playing tag and watching all the different fish in the aquarium section. Great fun! Plus free entry because mum is a member. Once we’d had enough fun we all piled back into the car to take the boys and mum to their home, where Uncle H and I were invited for dinner. We spent a lovely evening chatting and the oldest boy drew me a picture of his favourite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants. On the way back to Bolinas we had a fantastic conversation (well, mostly Uncle H talking and me listening) about my grandparents (his parents), he and my dad (his brother) as children and various things about the rest of the family. We carried on talking about this for the rest of the evening and H showed me a few old family photos as well. To top off a really lovely evening, my Aunt C then arrived home with a delicious persimmon pudding, and I finally had a chance to have a catch up with her as she’d been working lots all week.

My last day in Bolinas came around much too quickly. After breakfast with my uncle, he went to do some jobs while I stayed in, repacked and chilled out. The afternoon was spent in Point Reyes at KWMR radio station where my uncle interviewed me on his radio show ‘Teatime Books’. It was great fun and you can listen to the archived show here. Let me know what you think!

After the show we picked up pizza and salad ($33/£24 for both) from the new restaurant in town, Eleven, and took it back to the house to enjoy with a glass of wine (for me) and a cup of tea (for H). My aunt came home early from work so we had a bit of a chat and all too soon it was time to say goodbye and drive to the airport for my flight back to HK.

I spent my last $22 (£16) on a drink for the flight and chocolate to take back with me – Ghirardelli sea salt almond chocolate is heavenly.

Friday I spent nothing as the day pretty much didn’t exist for me. I went back in time 16 hours and the little part of Friday I did get was spent on a plane, so I went straight from Thursday night to Saturday morning. The quickest and easiest way from HK airport to where I live in Shenzhen is by Skylimo – various companies run minivans between the airport and the various borders, and if you pay a little extra they’ll take you all the way to your apartment (total 200HKD/£18).

After a nap which ended up lasting most of the day I made it out for dinner with my flatmate E and another friend T. Lovely Italian food and a cocktail later (306rmb/£35) they went home and I went for a few drinks (210rmb/£24) with some other friends who I hadn’t seen for ages even before the holiday.

Sunday was mostly spent hungover and jetlagged in bed or watching tv and chilling out! The only money spent was on bread and fruit juice (52rmb/£6), both very much needed.

My total spending for week 9 was US$195.26 + 598rmb + HK$200 which equals (to put it into one currency) £227.50 – not bad for most of a week in the States on holiday and a night out catching up with friends. I also didn’t buy any ‘stuff’ or takeaway, even though it was very tempting to when I got back.

Week 10: Back in Shenzhen.

No Shopping Challenge Week 8

Costa Rica!

Although I’ve relaxed my budget for food while I’m travelling, I’m still trying to stick to the ‘no buying stuff’ aspect of my challenge. So far the only things I’ve spent money on in Costa Rica have been food, accommodation and transport, and I’m going to try and keep it that way.

I’ve been here almost a week with my best friend from home, E, and it’s been fantastic. Although it’s less expensive than the US was, I’ve still spent a fair amount as we’ve been eating out for almost every meal and doing lots of fun stuff.

We began the week, having just arrived in Playa Chiquita near Puerto Viejo, Limón, heading to the nearest beach with the best reviews – Punta Uva. One of the staff at the lodge we were staying at persuaded one of his friends to drive us there when there were no taxis available. This turned out to be a fortunate turn of events for us as he was a font of information about Puerto Viejo. He recommended places with the best coffee, the best Asian food, the atm with the shortest queue and various other useful titbits. The journey from where we were staying to one of only three ATMs in Puerto Viejo, back past where we were staying to Punta Uva and Arrecife Beach (definitely the best beach in the area) cost 10,000 Colones or $17.50 between us. Not bad for a 30-odd minute journey with free advice.

We then spent some time at the most stunning beach with warm, clear water, which was just perfect.

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Since I wrote the first part of this post I’ve been busy doing holiday stuff, so I’m going to summarise my spending for the rest of this week. Otherwise it’s going to take a long, long time and I’ll just end up repeating what I’m writing on my post about my travels. If you’d like to find out more about what I did in Costa Rica, please have a look at my other blog posts here and here!

To summarise, all my money this week was spent on: taxis and tuktuks to and from the beach, restaurants and various places we explored; food and drink; cocktails; entry to the Jaguar Rescue Centre; horse riding along the beach and through the jungle with Caribe Horse Riding Club; transport from one side of Costa Rica to the other and back to the airport; accommodation; and tattoos.

I managed to resist the urge to buy things by telling myself they were all things I didn’t actually need, which is true, so almost all my spending was on food or transport apart from my various holiday activities.

Saturday we had half a day in Miami. Since we’d met up, we’d been talking about getting tattoos together (E’s idea!): as a memento of our trip, our friendship and a significant birthday this year for both of us. It would be E’s first tattoo and my 12th. After trying – and failing – to find somewhere to get the tattoos in Puerto Viejo where we were staying, I looked into tattoo artists in Miami. I found an article about the top ten artists in Miami and emailed a couple of places on the list who weren’t too far out of our way, to find out whether they’d be able to do what we wanted in the time we had available. Only one place came through, and it just so happened to be Love Hate Tattoo, where Miami Ink was filmed a few years ago! This made the tattoos even more special and everything went according to plan (even if that meant getting very little sleep. Stupid flight times). This, of course, has added a significant amount to my spending this week ($262.50/£190), however, I’m much happier spending that money on a beautiful tattoo with a beautiful person than on more stuff that I don’t really need.

My last stop this week was Bolinas, California, a lovely little town where my aunt and uncle live. My uncle picked me up from the airport on Saturday evening then treated me to entry to see a reggae band at the local community centre and a glass (well, tin cup) of wine.

Sunday was very chilled out. After breakfast I took a stroll into town taking a few photos on the way. I had lunch ($37) at the Coast Cafe – the only restaurant in town – bumped into my aunt by the People’s Store, met up with my uncle, bought a few food items (my uncle paid) and went back to the house for the evening.

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My total spending for the week was $579.62 (£415) plus $222 (£160 between us) on our accommodation for the week, plus the tattoos. Not too bad for a week full of fantastic food, awesome adventures and gorgeous scenery!

Costa Rica: La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano

My first two days in Costa Rica with my best friend E were fantastic.

I had arranged for a driver from Hotel Las Orquideas, where we stayed in La Fortuna, to pick us up from San Jose Airport when we arrived at around 1am. We thought it would make more sense to try and sleep on the plane and in the car while we travelled instead of staying in a hotel for one night and then wasting the next day travelling. This definitely turned out to be the best option, and not just because the B&B we were going to stay at emailed to say they weren’t open at 1am so we couldn’t arrive then anyway.

We arrived at Hotel Las Orquideas around 4am. E had slept most of the way but I hadn’t because the roads had been twisty and foggy which made me feel quite ill, and closing my eyes made me feel worse. However, I needn’t have worried. The driver showed us to a tiny room with one bed and got us duvets and pillows so we could sleep there for a while until the place opened at 6am. They actually let us stay there until our proper room was ready at about 11am and let us check in early at no extra cost (the regular time for check in was 2pm).

E went for a walk while I was still catching up on sleep and explored the town a little. When she got back we decided to spend the rest of the day at the thermal pools and hot springs that are one of the main attractions of the Arenal area. Once again our host Gustavos came to the rescue and got us a great deal – $35 each for use of all the thermal pools and a buffet dinner at Los Lagos Hotel. We’d heard of Baldi hot springs from other people and when researching about the area so we originally asked about going there, but as entrance alone is $35 each we decided to go for the cheaper option and went with Gustavos’ recommendation.

We weren’t disappointed. It was probably an ideal day to spend at hot springs as it rained on and off all day, however, because we were in nice warm water anyway it didn’t really matter. Los Lagos Hotel has 17 thermal pools of varying temperatures and sizes, some with water jets, bubbles, waterfalls or water slides. The main pool also has a poolside bar, which was lovely. We had a lovely relaxing afternoon and evening; perfect after the long night of travelling with little sleep. The buffet dinner was better than expected as they had a good range of vegetarian food for both of us. We both slept very well that night!

The following day we had brunch at Red Frog Coffee Roasters – a lovely cafe with a great range of traditional Costa Rican food, amazing coffee (according to my friend), a friendly owner who speaks English and a little gift shop. I had a traditional breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans) with plantain, fried eggs and vegetables, which was delicious and the perfect meal to set me up for the day of hiking.

After brunch we got a taxi to Arenal Volcano National Park. The driver recommended a different trail to the main one we’d asked him to take us to, which he said was better, quieter, cheaper and less touristy, so we took his advice and followed the Arenal 1968 Volcano View and Lava Trails. The walk up the trail to the viewpoint was gorgeous – surrounded by rainforest full of wildlife you could hear but couldn’t quite see apart from the birds, of which there were many different beautiful species. There were also epic sections of volcanic rock in abstract formations where the lava had flowed in 1968, causing devastation for 15 square kilometres around the volcano. Three small villages were buried and 87 people died; in total more than 232 square kilometres of land was affected by the eruption.

The view at the viewpoint was spectacular. No-one is allowed up the volcano itself because it’s still active, so the viewpoint is the highest elevation you can climb to. It gives a perfect view of Arenal Volcano on one side and a view out to the lake on the other. We saw eagles swooping around hunting for prey, heard howler monkeys in the rainforest and spotted specks of what looked like quartz in the volcanic rock we were standing on. By this point it had stopped raining and the clouds looked like they were going to lift from the top of the volcano; we waited for a while, admiring the view and watching the eagles swoop and soar, but unfortunately the clouds just played tricks on us and we didn’t see the peak.

Once we’d made our way back down the other side of the volcano and through some ridiculously tall grasses, we went for some refreshment at the ‘cafe’ – more like a booth selling soft drinks and cocktails, with a handful of chairs outside under a canopy and another great view of the volcano (if it weren’t for the pesky cloud cover). There were also some very friendly white-throated jays who were good enough to pose for photos!

As we’d arranged earlier, our local taxi driver picked us up at 5.30pm and took us back into La Fortuna for dinner. Unfortunately, the restaurant he recommended had very little in the way of vegetarian food so we had one cocktail there (it would’ve been rude not to!), then headed for a restaurant called Veggie Sub. The name is misleading as they do veggie/vegan burgers, pasta and breakfast as well as subs and sandwiches, so there was much more choice for both of us.

Of course we had to end the evening trying out the cocktails at a nearby bar, including one containing the local liquor Cacique, which is made from sugar cane. Delicious.

The next day we once again had brunch at Red Frog, followed by a quick visit to the free hot springs which all the locals go to. It was really lovely to go somewhere natural that hasn’t been bought out or turned into a fee-paying tourist attraction.

We sadly checked out of Las Orquideas and were picked up by Caribe Shuttle to take us to our next destination – Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.