Goodbye 2018!

Looking back at my posts I realised my last one was much longer ago than I thought. So here’s a summary of my year of no shopping and various other bits and pieces along the way.

I started 2018 with a pledge to myself not to buy unnecessary things. Essentials and replacements for things like clothes, shoes and bags, were fine, as was money spent on experiences and travel. Although I haven’t been as good at keeping track of exactly what I’ve been spending since the summer, I have kept to my pledge of not buying unnecessary things. I’ve bought no jewellery, no books, no electronics and no makeup this year. And I’m no worse off for it. I’ve also tried to become more ecologically inclined, so I have bought a bamboo toothbrush and metal straws as well as soap, solid shampoo and conditioner from Lush to try and cut down on plastic.

Dinosaur hoodie I knitted for my friends’ baby boy

As for travelling, I’ve had a great year! This time last year I was in Hong Kong with 3 great friends, having watched the fireworks display in the harbour by boat. For Chinese New Year I met my best friend from home in New Orleans where we celebrated Mardi Gras, then had a day in Miami before heading to Costa Rica for 8 days, which was fantastic. We had one more day in Miami before she flew back to the UK and we got awesome hummingbird tattoos at the shop where the tv show Miami Ink was set. I then flew to San Francisco to stay with my aunt and uncle for a few days in Bolinas before going home to Shenzhen.

Giant cocktails in Miami

After CNY we had a really long semester (15 weeks) with no proper break other than a couple of long weekends. However, I was lucky enough to be able to attend my good friend J’s wedding near Atlanta, USA, in April. It was really lovely to be able to attend and after the big day we all did fun touristy stuff, like visiting a gold mine and Rock City.

See Rock City, Georgia, USA

My summer holiday was jam-packed. I didn’t have a single day of doing nothing, but it was all great stuff: catching up with friends and family and adding a few more countries to my list. I had a spa weekend with my sister in the UK; a few days in Cyprus with one friend; a few days in Ibiza with two other friends; a week in Dubrovnik, Croatia, with my Mum, during which we did day trips to Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina; a week in Bath, England, studying for my MA with my friend T who I work with in Shenzhen, and while we were there meeting up with another friend we used to work with and has now moved to Peru; and finally a few days in Paris with my friend O from Finland as well as catching up with another friend who lives there. My friends joked I was coming back to Shenzhen for a rest!

View from a castle, England
Sunset in Cyprus
Ibiza
Dubrovnik, Croatia
Paris, France

August and September were back to work as usual, ending with a lovely long weekend near Pattaya, Thailand, visiting good friends J & N and their little boy with my friend T. The first week of October is a National Holiday in China and I went back to a different part of Thailand (Railay Beach) with a different friend for more of a beach holiday. This included scuba diving, paddle-boarding at night and getting two bamboo tattoos. Awesome stuff!

Railay Beach, Thailand

The week after that I went back to the UK for a funeral. Although it was a really sad reason to be going home, it was also really nice to see friends and family at such a difficult time. My birthday was not long after that, and while I was home I had surprise birthday drinks with my friends organised by my sister, and a surprise birthday meal for me and my Mum (as her birthday had been at the beginning of October) organised by my sister and her boyfriend. It was amazing, and so thoughtful.

Joint birthday family meal

Back in Shenzhen my awesome friends threw me a surprise fancy dress birthday party. It was the best birthday ever! 70s theme, free flow drinks, 70s music, everyone sang happy birthday to me as I walked in, an amazing birthday cake in the shape of the world with a little icing model of me and a panda, and a video made by friends and family from around the world.

In typical China fashion, however, things never go completely according to plan. My friends had booked out a room in a hotel for the party, but some Chinese people decided they wanted to take over one end of the room and of course the staff let them. At around 11.30pm we were told by hotel security that we all had to leave (not the Chinese people though, just us foreigners). As we still had a load of alcohol we couldn’t go to a bar or club so we decided to go to a local park and continue the party, because, well, why not! A while after that I invited the remaining partiers back to my apartment to finish off the night playing card games and having a dance. The last ones standing left about 7am! Although it didn’t quite go according to my friends’ plan, it was still the most epic birthday ever. The perfect way to celebrate a significant decade.

In November I spent two consecutive weekends in HK; one for HK Pride and the other for a fab music festival called Clockenflap, which I’ve been to for the last 6 years. Both weekends were brilliant and spent in excellent company.

Clockenflap festival, Hong Kong

To finish off the year myself and T went to stay with J & N and their baby boy for Christmas, which was really lovely. Much food was eaten, games were played (including a brilliant Jurassic Park board game), drinks were drunk and laughs were had. We bade them farewell on the last weekend of 2018 and saw in the new year on the rooftop of our hotel in Bangkok, watching the fireworks.

Chao Phraya River, Bangkok

That about wraps up my 2018. Let’s see what 2019 brings!

No Shopping Challenge Week 7

A little different this week as I’m in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and on Thursday I’m going to Miami for a quick stopover then Costa Rica! I’m still planning to stick to my not buying ‘stuff’, and keeping track of what I’m spending, however, I’m not giving myself a budget for food, drinks or experiences while I’m travelling. Travel was one of the only things I didn’t restrict myself on when I was first deciding my criteria for my no shopping challenge. The idea is to reduce the number of physical items I have, not to reduce the number of experiences I have; if anything to increase them as an alternative to buying stuff.

The first day of this week ended in my spending US$147.96 (£106.80), the vast majority of which was on food and drink. In fact the only money which was not spent on food or drink was $16.49 (£11.90) on a pair of leggings – because I completely didn’t think of bringing any with me and now I’m wearing a skirt in the Mardi Gras parade tomorrow (Tuesday) (lent to me by friends who live here/lived here and are visiting for Mardi Gras) and it’s going to be much too cold not to have leggings on as well (it’s predicted to be around 12°C in the morning) – and $22.04 (£15.90) on a New Orleans Mardi Gras Tricentennial anniversary t-shirt. I knew I’d find it difficult not to buy anything when travelling as I always like to get a souvenir of some sort. Usually I get something small like a keyring or a fridge magnet, but I thought it would make more sense to get something a little more practical, and this I will actually wear. Plus I have about a million fridge magnets and keyrings already; I really don’t need any more! To counter these purchases I will get rid of/donate more clothes when I get back to China, to add to the four bags I’ve already given away.

This makes it $109.43 (£79) on food and drink, and $38.53 (£27.80) on clothes. I knew I’d probably spend a fair amount on food and drink here, but I think that amount is not going to be feasible every day! Mind you, $73 (£52.70) of that was on dinner alone at Pere Antoine: Shrimp Creole, 2 Sex in the Quarter cocktails, and Bananas Foster Beignet Fries for dessert. All delicious and very filling, and definitely worth it – especially because of the great service. Our waiter seemed really tickled by us and kept saying he was going to record our banter!

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Mardi Gras!

Such an awesome day! And yet I managed to spend $40 (£29) less than yesterday. This was due to being bought some drinks by lively people; having a really late lunch of crepes with cheddar, goat’s cheese, mushroom and onion (delicious); getting a bit of an iffy tummy after dinner and drinks at the Hard Rock Cafe (thanks IBS!); and being a little tired after walking over 20,000 steps since 8am so only staying out until about 11.30pm.

Still, much fun was had by all! Money isn’t necessary to have a good time, especially when you’re with great people in a place with a fantastic atmosphere.

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Our last full day in New Orleans I spent even less money with almost all of it being on food, apart from $1.25 on the street car from near Lafayette Cemetery back to Canal Street and the edge of the French Quarter. What ended up being even better (although it was really annoying at the time) was that our dinner at Carmo took absolutely ages and the service was really bad, but after complaining they comp’d the whole meal! Because of that we did give them a tip of $10 in the end, although we hadn’t been going to give them any tip until then (tipping 15-20% is standard and expected in the US, and where most wait staff make their money as the minimum wage is so low). This made my total spending for the day only $57.73 (£41). Much better than the previous days!

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Sadly we said goodbye to New Orleans this morning (Thursday), but then hello to Miami!

The airport shuttle had been paid for on the way to our hotel, so there was no extra cost there. We took an Uber from the airport to South Beach ($22.49/£16) as it was the quickest and easiest way, then left our luggage at the Luggage Locker on 9th Street between Washington and Collins Streets for $10 (£7) each so we could enjoy the day without dragging our suitcases with us.

After grabbing a quick slice of pizza and a drink for lunch ($11/£7.80), we headed for the beach! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wide sandy beach before. It went on for miles! With practically no shade anywhere other than beach umbrellas and loungers you had to pay for, of course. We ate our pizza lunch in a small bit of shade we found next to a cabin-type construction then I went for a paddle while E changed into her swimwear. As I burn something chronic in the sun, even when I use copious amounts of sun block, I decided that a paddle was enough for me, and headed along the main road next to the beach to find somewhere I could sit and chill while E went for a swim. Eventually we found somewhere that wasn’t blasting out party music at full volume, and I set up camp there.

Of course, I had to order a drink while I was there and decided on a South Beach Vice cocktail, which was half mango and half strawberry frozen margarita. It was the most enormous cocktail I’ve ever seen! Just ridiculous!

But very tasty. E returned about an hour and a half later, by which time I was just about finishing my huge cocktail, which we then replaced with a free one of the same and shared. Once we’d finished that and got our bill, the waiter brought over two large glasses of tequila with salt and lime on the edge for us, for free! That definitely sent us over the edge and into fits of giggles, and all for the princely sum of $50 (£35).

Dinner was in a lovely vegetarian restaurant down the street called Plant Therapy, after retrieving our luggage as the storage place closed at 6pm. I had an artichoke ‘burger’, which was delicious, and we both had a couple more (regular-sized) cocktails (total $46.68/£33 each).

Finally we got an Uber to Fort Lauderdale Airport for $44.44 (£31.65) to catch our flight from Miami to Costa Rica and the next leg of our holiday.

***

Costa Rica!

Our flight arrived at 1am on Friday 16th February. Not the best time to arrive anywhere really. After a lot of checking information and considering options, we decided it would be best to go straight to the place we were staying Friday night. This was a three hour drive away from San José Airport in La Fortuna. I had arranged for a driver from our hotel to pick us up from the airport at 1.30am, with the plan that we’d sleep on the plane and in the car, and the money we saved from not paying for a hotel that night would go towards the cost of the airport pick-up ($140/£99). Unfortunately I didn’t sleep well on the plane and the road was so twisty and foggy on the drive to the hotel that I felt really ill and couldn’t sleep then either.

Luckily, the people in Costa Rica are super friendly, and even though our room wasn’t ready when we arrived at Hotel Las Orquideas at around 4am ish, the driver showed us to a tiny room with a small double bed and got us a duvet and pillow each so we could get some sleep. In the morning, the owner let us check in as soon as the room was ready about 11am, instead of waiting for the standard check-in time of 2pm. We decided to give him a good tip (C10,000/$17.50/£12.50) and a great review as he was so friendly and really helpful during our whole stay, not just at the beginning.

We were both fairly shattered from the overnight journey so decided to spend our first day at one of the hot springs resorts. We got a good deal through Gustavo, our hotel owner, of entry to Hotel Los Lagos thermal pools plus dinner for $35 (£25) each. It was really lovely there and the perfect thing to do, especially with the intermittent rain.

Saturday we had brunch at Red Frog (delicious Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto, vegetables and fetid eggs with a cup of tea for $11/£8) and then spent the afternoon hiking around Arenal National Park and admiring the still-active volcano, the surrounding rainforest and the many different birds (C13,000/$22/£16 entrance fee for 2 people to the park, plus C12,000/$21/£15 taxi there and back).

The day ended with dinner and cocktails in La Fortuna: Cocktails at restaurant Nene C10,500/$19/£13; Dinner at Veggie Sub C10,000/$17.50/£12.50; after dinner cocktails C11,100/$20/£14; taxi home C1750/$3/£2.20). As you can see, food and taxis are pretty cheap, alcohol not as cheap but still better than in the UK.

***

Sunday has come around much too quickly.

After brunch at Red Frog again (it really was tasty), we had a little while to go and see the free natural hot springs (definitely worth checking out for the price of a taxi there and back C17,500/$30/£22) before our shuttle picked us up from Hotel La Orquideas at 1pm and we said goodbye to Gustavos and Arenal Volcano.

The shuttle took about 5 hours 30 minutes to get from La Fortuna to Puerto Viejo, Limon, on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and cost $62 (£44) each with Caribeshuttle.com. By far the cheapest and best way to get from one side of the country to the other.

Once we’d checked in, we left our luggage in our room, went for a quick walk down to the beach and then went to find food for dinner. The first place we found was closed, but outside was an older couple who we started talking to and they invited us to join them in finding a restaurant for dinner. It turned out they’re American and have lived here for six years since retiring. We accompanied them to a gorgeous Italian restaurant called La Pecora Nera, which we would never have found ourselves, and we had a really lovely evening with them (C24,750/$43/£31 each for dinner and wine, plus C4,000/$7/£5 for the taxi back to Playa Chiquita Lodge where we’re staying).

***

Week 7 has been much more expensive than any of the previous weeks so far, which I completely expected, totalling $866/£617 for the week. This does of course include lots of travelling, eating out and activities which I wouldn’t usually be doing. I’ve still pretty much stuck to not buying ‘stuff’, and it’s made me think much more carefully about what to buy for a souvenir that would actually be useful not just decorative.

Next week more Costa Rica!

New Orleans

I’m in love!

I don’t know what else to say. New Orleans is my new favourite place in the States.

***

Although I wrote that after a few drinks and a busy day, it’s still true (apart from Bolinas of course, which will always hold a special place in my heart).

Waking up with a slight hangover after our first full day in New Orleans made me very grateful that breakfast was included at our hotel. I went down for breakfast as my best friend E was feeling more worse for wear than me, and brought her back a plate after I’d enjoyed my toasted bagel with cream cheese. Then it was back to bed for a little more recovering from the previous day’s escapades.

Every day so far has felt like a holiday. I know, I know, I am on holiday, but this place really puts you in the party spirit – whether that means fruity cocktails, delicious food, extravagant shopping, wandering the streets, meandering through various boutique stores, admiring the architecture, chilling out overlooking the river or a combination of everything. I swear I will have put on about 20kg by the time I get back to China!

What started out as a chill day on Monday ended up being just about as exciting as the first day (which I just realised I have yet to tell you about).

***

So to go back to the beginning!

After arriving late Saturday evening and eventually finding each other in the airport, our first full day in New Orleans was on Sunday. We had a pretty good breakfast of toasted bagels with cream cheese at The Whitney Hotel where we’re staying. It’s in a great location on the corner of Poydras and Camp streets, only a few minutes’ walk from Canal Street and the French Quarter and the next street over from St Charles Avenue, which is one of the main parade routes. If you’re coming here for Mardi Gras make sure you book as far in advance as possible. I booked several months ago, as soon as I knew my holiday dates but before I booked my flights, just to make sure I got a hotel in the best location for the most reasonable price.

The French Quarter was our first port of call after breakfast where we had a good wander around looking at the stunning architecture and boutique shops. Lunch was at Bubba Gump Shrimp, accompanied by a Georgia peach iced tea cocktail each to celebrate the start of our holiday.

We then went to meet J, a friend of mine who I’d met last time I was in the States 4 years ago. She’s actually a good friend of my Aunt C who lives in California and I’ll be visiting in the third week of this holiday. The wonders of Facebook have meant that we’ve stayed (vaguely) in touch, so I sent her a message to ask about meeting up a couple of days before we arrived. I’m so glad I did! It made such a difference being shown around New Orleans by someone who lived here for 17 years (she doesn’t live here anymore but was back visiting for Mardi Gras). One gay bit of travel advice: always get a local to show you around if you can. It can make it break a trip and gives you a completely different view of the place from that of a tourist.

J showed us around various places and introduced us to various people in the French Quarter and Bywater, including a nice little bar with an art gallery attached to it, a street artist who wrote me a poem on the spot, and her hosts in NOLA, Z and C.

We spent a while with J, Z and C at their huge house, drinking wine, eating goat’s cheese and crackers and chatting about all kinds of things. They are really lovely people, and apart from welcoming us into their home, feeding us and giving us alcohol, they also furnished us with costumes to wear in one of the Mardi Gras parades and invited us to join them! Of course we said yes. It’s one thing to watch parades, it’s quite another to be in one! Needless to say we were both quite excited.

Around 8pm ish C gave us a lift to Frenchmen Street on the edge of the French Quarter so we could walk back to our hotel easily from there. This meant walking back along either Bourbon Street or Royal where – of course – we passed several bars and decided to pop into one for a couple of drinks and a bit of a dance, which was great fun and a perfect end to our first day in New Orleans.

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As I was saying earlier in this post, what started out as a chill day on Monday ended up being just about as exciting as the first day. I ended up going for breakfast by myself as E was still sleeping, which was fine as I read my book (Carol by …, in case you’re wondering), and I brought up a few breakfast bits for E when I was done. After going back to bed for a bit (We were both tired after the long day the day before, plus all the travelling to get to NOLA), we took a walk down to the Mississippi River. On the way we popped into an art gallery with some gorgeous photos and other random pieces of art, then had lunch (tater tot poutine for me) at a World of Beer, just because it was on the way and had veggie options.

When we got to the Riverwalk Outlet Mall there was a small stage set up with a band playing for Lundi Gras (which I didn’t even know was a thing until I got here). After a quick stop in the mall we then headed back to the French Quarter along the river, and on the way found the Coyote Ugly Saloon bar. Of course, we had to stop in for a drink, and somehow I ended up doing a catwalk through the bar with Harlequinn’s cape on, along with a few other customers with various fancy dress items! Brilliant, and I definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the area.

We spent the rest of the day looking around the French Market (where they were starting to pack up so we couldn’t have the crepes we wanted but had sangria instead), going for dinner at Pere Antoine, then walking back to Canal Street where we found the Krewe of Orpheus parade happening. We hadn’t realised how long the parades go on for and thought we’d missed them all for the day, so it was a nice surprise to come across this one. The floats were amazing! So much detail had gone into the decoration and costumes of people riding on them. And this is where we collected our first beads! Every float had people throwing beads, balls and various Mardi Gras-themed items into the crowd watching the procession. We ended up with loads of beads of all different colours and sizes. Even though everyone around us also had lots, there was a huge amount of beads (and rubbish) left on the ground once the parade finished. The parade was fantastic to watch; I’m so glad we saw it and it was a great end to the day.

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Tuesday was Mardi Gras! It was such a fantastic day. The whole city basically had a party! Everyone dressed up and some of the costumes were amazing; so much time and effort had obviously gone into them.

Unfortunately we missed meeting up with J in the morning because of traffic, but luckily Z spotted us a little later and then we found their house again where we said hi to C and tried King Cake for the first time (delicious). Our first drinks were bought for us by a lovely lady i was chatting to at the bar, as it was our first Mardi Gras – so kind!

We had a few more drinks (red wine and frangelico) with Z and C and their friends, and hung out with them for a bit meeting other people and watching the rest of the St Ann’s parade go by. Z and C invited us to walk with them as part of the parade to the French Quarter, which was so much fun. When we got there, there was a huge street party unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. And there was none of the aggression or violence you might get in other places at such an event. Everyone was so friendly and chilled out.

Around 3pm we decided it would be a good idea to go for lunch, so we said our goodbyes to Z and C and headed off to find the crepes in the French Market, which were very tasty. After a bit more exploring of the city we headed back to the hotel for a short rest and a change of clothes before heading out again about 6.30pm for dinner, drinks and a dance. We tried a few places for food but all of them either had too long a wait or very little in the way of veggie options, so we went back to the French quarter once more where we spotted the Hard Rock Cafe and decided this would be the best option as everywhere was so busy. They at least had veggie burgers! I have to say, I was quite disappointed with the lack of vegetarian options in the restaurants here, unless they were specifically veggie or vegan places.

After dinner we walked through the French quarter along Bourbon Street which was so busy! It reminded me of Lan Kwai Fong (the main area that people go out to bars and clubs in Hong Kong), only worse! After escaping to a slightly quieter street we found a club to have a dance for a while before calling it a night and walking back to our hotel.

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Wednesday was our last full day in New Orleans, and the city was much quieter. We began the day with a lie in as neither of us wanted breakfast then walked to Seed vegan restaurant for lunch, where I had an eggplant poboy (nice filling but the bread was stale) and E had a tofu poboy (which she loved). Lafayette Cemetery wasn’t far from the restaurant, so we went and looked round for a while. It’s interesting because everyone there is buried above ground due to the high water level, so there’s no regular graves just tombs. After a brief stop for coffee/frozen lemonade we got the street car along St Charles Avenue back to the French Quarter. We wandered round lots of shops along Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and E bought a few bits; while she was in one shop I was given giant beads for taking a photo of a horse and carriage. Random! I then sat in the Market Cafe and had a glass of wine while E went on a hunt for t-shirts and gifts for her family as I’m doing my ‘No Shopping Challenge’.

A short walk brought us to Carmo for dinner – a restaurant that specialised in vegetarian and vegan dishes as well as having a few for the meat-eaters. The service was really bad and our main meals took an hour but when I spoke to the manager he gave us the whole meal for free, plus desserts! A pretty good ending to another great day in New Orleans.

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Today is Thursday, and we left NOLA on a 10am flight. So now it’s goodbye New Orleans, hello Miami (for a day)!

No Shopping Challenge Week 6

Six weeks in and still going strong!

I wrote that at the beginning of the week… Now it’s Thursday evening and I’ve gone over my 1000rmb budget already. This is for 3 reasons: I had to pay off my credit card from Christmas spending in Johannesburg (2766.96rmb/£315); putting money in the bank account to pay for bills for the next couple of months (1000rmb/£114); and taking a friend who’s leaving China out for dinner (483rmb/£55). If I take those costs off then I’m well within budget! (584.1rmb/£66.50 spent so far this week.)

The next three days are definitely going to start getting more expensive. Friday I finish work for the Chinese New Year holiday and catch my flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco, so that will include the cost of getting to the airport and dinner when I get there. Because of the time difference, I leave HK at 11.40pm on Friday and arrive at 7.40pm – on Friday. It’s a very weird experience to go back in time! I’ve done it once before. Flying to the States from HK means you gain a day on the way there and lose a day on the way back; when I fly back I’ll leave on Thursday, arrive on Saturday and miss Friday out completely – which really throws your knowledge of what day it is!

After one night in a hotel near the airport, I’ll be flying from SFO to New Orleans where I’ll meet my best friend who’s flying over from the UK for this holiday. I’m so excited to see her!

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Now it’s Friday evening and I’m waiting to board my flight from HK to San Francisco after a lovely meal and a couple of glasses of wine at Pizza Express (HK$432.20/348.3rmb/£40). Let the time travel begin!

***

I’m in San Francisco! Still feeling really excited as this evening I meet up with my best friend from the UK, E. In this blog I’m going to focus on spending and my no shopping challenge. I’ll be writing other posts about my adventures in New Orleans and Costa Rica.

I ended up spending US$30 on a taxi to my hotel last night as I’d had no email confirmation from them about getting their airport shuttle. Slightly annoying as that would have been free, but ah well, I just wanted to get to the hotel by that point. The hotel cost $90.19 plus a $100 deposit; it’s lucky I got cash out at the atm in the airport as they wouldn’t accept my Chinese credit card because it doesn’t have a chip, it just swipes. I have a feeling that may become a problem here!

After being sat on a plane for 12 hours, and feeling a little peckish, I fancied a walk so I went for a stroll to the nearest store, which was a few blocks away. I picked up a drink, a chocolate bar and a large packet of salt & vinegar crisps (yay!) for just under $5.

A good night’s sleep (helped by a sleeping tablet to get me into the right time zone) was followed by a delicious breakfast of banana pancakes topped with strawberries with a hash brown on the side and a cup of tea (total $17.37). Free shuttle to the airport, a short wait chatting to my sister on WhatsApp, and now I’m boarding my flight to New Orleans. Can’t wait to see my best friend this evening!

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My estimation of more expense this weekend was not without merit. Due to factors previously mentioned, plus the first couple of days of a new trip, I went way over my estimation, as follows:

Total Week 6: 760.5rmb + credit card + bills + Nat’s dinner + HK$432.30 / 348.3rmb / £40 + US$310.36 / 1957rmb / £224 = 3065.8rmb / £350.

Despite this, I have still not bought any ‘stuff’, despite other people trying to convince me otherwise!

The first couple of days in New Orleans have been amazing. Hopefully they will continue that way while I continue my no shopping challenge.