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!

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Paris!

I haven’t published anything for a while because I’ve been super busy starting a Masters in Education through distance learning at the University of Bath, plus, well, life. Rather than getting further behind while trying to catch up, I thought I’d write a quick post about my trip to Paris while I’m still in Paris, and sort out the rest later.

Paris! Always a beautiful city, always so much to see and do with a landmark around practically every corner. Here for a few days with my friend O, the time has just flown by.

I arrived Tuesday evening, getting to my hotel (Le Glam’s Hotel) in Port d’Orleans around 8pm. Although quite a small room, the hotel itself is very nice, the staff are friendly and it’s very conveniently located near bus, tram and metro stops. And with the temperature exceeding 30 degrees every day I was very pleased to find that the room has air conditioning.

After checking out the room and dropping off my things I set off again to go and meet K, a friend I’ve known for many years who now lives in Paris. I say now, he’s lived there with his wife and two (soon to be three) children for a few years. It was really lovely to catch up over a glass of wine and a bite to eat. The last time we saw each other was about 2 years ago, so there was a lot to catch up on and not enough time to say everything. Still, we made the most of it and a few hours flew by, and before we knew it it was time to say goodbye again.

On Wednesday my friend O arrived around lunchtime, so the first plan of action was to find food. We went to a funky car-themed cafe called Auto Cafe, a short walk from our hotel. I had delicious hot goat’s cheese on toasted rye bread with rocket salad, and O had a huge smoked salmon salad. We couldn’t resist dessert so shared caramelized French brioche with salted caramel ice cream – scrumptious and just the right amount.

For the afternoon we decided to go and see the Eiffel Tower and then figure out what else to do. Both of us have been to Paris before so there wasn’t a mad rush to try and see everything, which was nice. Unfortunately the area under the Eiffel Tower is now closed off and you have to go wait in a big queue to through security before you can get in. It was much too hot to do that, so we walked around to the other side of the park where we could at least get a good view of the tower.

By then it was time for a coffee break; O found a little place called Terres De Café a short walk away which served good coffee (for her) and tea (for me).

The rest of the afternoon we spent at the Louvre, and even though we spent several hours there we still didn’t see everything. We didn’t even make it to the second floor! Most of my photos are on my camera which I haven’t had time to download yet, but unfortunately it ran out of battery towards the end of our visit so here are a few photos from my phone.

This is just a few of the many, many photos I took. Let me know if you’d like to see more and I’ll make a gallery.

The building itself is a work of art with elaborately painted ceilings and carvings everywhere, behind all the stunning sculptures and paintings that make up the contents. If you haven’t been I thoroughly recommend a visit.

The following day we met a friend of O’s, who lives in Paris, for lunch in the Jardin Des Tuileries. Although it was once again a scorching hot day (around 34 degrees) it was really lovely sitting in the shade under the trees, chilling out, chatting and eating ice cream.

As the Musée de l’Orangerie is in the grounds of the gardens and we both love Monet that was our next port of call. Les Nymphéas or The Waterlillies is a stunning collection of paintings. If you’ve never seen them in person the size of them will stun you. The main floor of the building was specially designed by Monet to display the finished pieces – two oval rooms each containing four paintings, one on each side of the room. Natural light filters down from the ceiling, adding to the ambience. It would be wonderful to experience this with an empty room and silence as the paintings take up so much of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, it’s always busy, probably due to their reputation around the world. And they are still well worth going to see.

The next floor down hosts other exhibitions, permanent and temporary. Masters such as Renoir, Picasso, Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse, to name but a few, line the walls with an array of art to suit every palate. The temporary exhibition we saw portrayed the influence of Monet and his waterlillies on other artwork, particularly the abstract movement, with artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler displayed alongside various other works by Monet.

Having enjoyed our fill of art for the day, we met a couple of other friends who live in Paris for a few glasses of wine and a platter of cheeses – divine! We didn’t stay out too late, however, as we had an early start the next day. Versailles!

What a wonderful place to visit on our last day in Paris. Especially as neither of us had been there before. One thing I strongly recommend if you go there is to get your tickets online before you go. We got there around 10am, as that was the time we had booked the tickets for; there was a horrendous queue stretching all the way across the main courtyard. Apparently people were queuing for around 2 hours, with no shade in temperatures well over 30 degrees. By the middle of the day it had reached 37 degrees! I was very glad I’d brought sunscreen, sunglasses and an umbrella with me. (Yes, an umbrella – also useful as a sunshade on hot days – a little trick I picked up from living in China!)

As we’d already bought the tickets we could skip the giant queue and go straight to the entrance – and another queue, this time for a security check. Luckily this one was mostly indoors and so in the shade, so at least I wasn’t at risk of getting sunburnt. Plus it moved quite quickly and then we were in the grounds of the palace.

If you’ve never been, the size – of not just the palace itself but also the gardens – beggars belief. It is huge. The gardens literally stretch as far as the eye can see and then even further. The building is covered in opulence and luxury, both inside and out. Ornate gold decorations catch the sunlight and temporarily blind you as you walk around the interior courtyard. It is simply spectacular.

After almost two hours exploring the State Apartments, we decided to go for an early lunch in the Angelina restaurant. Again we made the right decision as we were nearly at the front of the queue for the restaurant opening at 12pm, which meant we got a table quickly and were served quickly. The individual salmon and spinach quiche was tasty and just the right amount, followed by possibly the best raspberry macaron I’ve ever had (and I love macarons). By the time we left around 45 minutes later, the queue for both the restaurant and the snack bar next door stretched out of the door and halfway when the stairs.

A post-lunch stroll was definitely in order, so we then headed out to the gardens. Fountains, hedges, trees, sculptures and endless paths beckoned us onwards, accompanied by classical music playing tastefully from hidden speakers.

We saw quite a few people driving round in golf buggies, and if we’d realised quite how big the gardens were we would have hired one ourselves, especially considering how hot it was. Luckily the trees provided plenty of shade, apart from down the main boulevard which was too wide for the shadows to reach anywhere near the other side.

By this point a cold drink and a rest were in order so we bought drinks and found a bench in the shade a little further along the canal to sit, cool down for a bit and enjoy the view.

We still had time for some more exploring, so we then headed for the Grand Trianon. A majestic building filled with mirrors and ornate decorations, but not quite as grand as the palace itself. It was built by Louis XIV of France as a retreat for himself, his wife and a few select guests, away from the strict etiquette of court. With its own gardens, it’s almost a miniature version of Versailles.

By the time we finished exploring the Grand Trianon it was time to head back to the station for our train back to Paris. Luckily there’s a Little Train that takes passengers between different points of the grounds for €4 each, as we were both fairly worn out with walking so far in the heat.

Once back in Paris we went straight to meet our friends (the same friends who we met the previous day) for dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant. Once again my umbrella came in handy as the weather went from 37 degrees to a thunderstorm and downpour in no time at all! Bizarrely, once we were seated in the restaurant and our friends had arrived, the rain was interspersed with large hail stones. Very odd! Aside from that it was a lovely meal, and we followed it up with drinks on the river with a view of the Eiffel Tower. A really lovely end to a short, busy and exciting visit to Paris.

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I wrote the first part of this post while sitting in the gardens of Versailles when we were enjoying a short break from our day out at the palace. It was around 37 degrees and scorching hot in direct sunlight, although quite pleasant in the shade and with a bit of a breeze. The rest I’ve written on my journey leaving Paris and going back to the UK, during my in between time at the airport while waiting for my Mum and my next flight, and during this week while I’ve been in Croatia. Guess where my next post will be about?!

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.

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.

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!

***

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.

***

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!

***

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!

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!

***

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!

***

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.

No Shopping Challenge Week 5

Once again the start of the week went well, and I managed to spend nothing on Monday. This was mostly because I stayed home from work with a bad stomach and only managed to eat a cheese toastie in the evening. All better now though! I think it must have been the street food scallops I had on Sunday.

My new aim is to try not to go over 1000rmb spending for the week, so I can eat out and see friends but only up to that amount. Let’s see if I can stick to that!

Tuesday friends came over and we watched Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, which we’d tried to watch the other weekend but the internet failed us miserably. Two friends ate before they came over and the two others ordered food. I resisted the urge to order pizza and instead and a portion of red pesto pasta that I’d frozen a couple of weeks ago. Point to me for will power!

On Wednesday I ended up having dinner with one friend then meeting some others for a few drinks and the local pub quiz at The Brew, one of whom I hadn’t seen since before Christmas. It was really nice to catch up and not worry too much about limiting the number of times I go out.

The only money I spent on Thursday was 4rmb for two vegetable baozi for breakfast plus the taxi home from work. This should have been just under 20rmb, but there was a car crash (only one car and the driver looked ok) which blocked the junction to where I live, so the taxi driver had to go a really long way round instead and it ended up taking twice as long and costing almost twice as much. After this I was tired and grumpy, and the last thing I felt like doing was cooking. However, after a bit of thought about what I have at home and could make quickly and easily so I wouldn’t order takeaway, I ended up cooking pasta with broccoli, sweetcorn and peas, and a mushroom sauce. I made enough for three portions so froze one and kept the other for lunch on the weekend.

Friday was drinks with one friend and dinner with another at a great Thai restaurant called Very Siam in OCT Loft. I got the metro there and back, so transport only cost me 5.7rmb rather than the 40-something-rmb it would have been to get a taxi both ways.

The best thing this week with regards to my No Shopping Challenge and getting rid of stuff I don’t need was going to an exchange evening on Saturday. This was run by a local group called Green Foot International Group (you can find them on WeChat under that name), which organises events such as hikes with litter picking and beach cleaning. This is the third exchange evening they’ve done and it was very successful. I dragged two of my friends along, as they’re also doing a sort out, but none of us were sure what to expect. It was held at a restaurant not too far from where we live, and once we found the place it all went really well. We started the evening by all introducing ourselves, then we had dinner together. This consisted of delicious Chinese food such as grilled aubergine, egg fried rice with raisins and pistachios, string mushrooms with garlic butter, broccoli and cauliflower with cheese sauce, and rice cakes with beansprouts and fried egg. Split between us and new friends the total came to around 40rmb (£4.50) each. Once we’d finished eating and chatting, the exchange part of the evening began. The initial idea was for everyone to show what they’d brought individually, but me and my friends had brought so much that we thought it would take much too long (and be slightly embarrassing) to do it that way. In the end we spread everything that would fit out on the tables, the idea being that everyone could take what they wanted and whatever was leftover would be taken by volunteers to local people who could use it. I took four bags with me, mostly of clothes and some shoes plus a few random items like a feather boa, spare phone charger, jewellery I never ware and various other bits and pieces. We were all amazed at how much was taken by other people, and it’s so good to know that your unwanted things are going to be used by someone else rather than just thrown away. I will definitely go to the next one of these they organise, and now I know what to expect I’ll try to get more people to come too.

I also went out for a friend’s birthday after the exchange night but only bought one drink (mostly because they’d run out of wine (Oh the horror!), but still) and walked home (not far) instead of being lazy and getting a taxi.

The week ended with a chilled out day working on my secret project, catching up watching Will & Grace and trying out a new tv show called Altered Carbon, which I quite enjoyed. The evening was spent playing various board and card games with friends and drinking mulled wine (it’s really cold here at the moment!), which was great fun and we all were crying with laughter at one point. My only cost here was getting there and back.

My grand total for the week is 996.2rmb (£112)! I managed to stick to my budget but still go out and see all my friends who I wanted to, plus I didn’t buy any stuff or even get anything for free at the exchange evening. My No Shopping Challenge is going well so far. Things may well change when I go away next weekend, but we shall see. I’m still going to stick to my no buying stuff, although I’m going to relax my eating out and doing stuff budget while I’m away. Next time I post I’ll be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras! Can’t wait!