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.

Day Trip to Rome

When we were organising our holiday to Naples, my sister Sarah and I decided to do a day trip to Rome. We booked as much as we could in advance – train tickets, guided tour of the Vatican, entrance to the Colosseum and Roman Forum – and we were very glad that we did. It meant we skipped most of the queues and saved us a lot of time which we then spent doing other, more exciting things.

We had an action packed, tiring and brilliant day. Starting off with possibly the best train service ever on the train from Naples to Rome at 8am, we got free soft drinks and snacks plus a nearly empty carriage meant we could both sit facing forward (we both get motion sickness and can’t deal with travelling backwards). After a bit of a search through Roma Termini train station we eventually found tourist information, got a map, found out where everything was we wanted to see and how to get there, and got a metro ticket for the day.

Our first stop was the Spanish Steps to followed by a short walk to the Trevi Fountain. Lots of people of course, but definitely worth seeing. I had forgotten how big the Trevi Fountain is, and my sister was very impressed by it.

From here we headed back towards the metro and stopped at a small cafe to share a four cheese pizza for an early lunch, before going to the Vatican for our guided tour.

The three hour tour around the Vatican, including the museum, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica, was a whirlwind tour that gave us a snapshot of everything the Vatican has to show. I’m going to do a separate post with all the photos I took inside the Vatican because there are just so many! Here’s the entrance though…

After the Vatican tour ended at 3.30pm, our Colosseum entry began at 4.40pm so as our feet were aching from so much walking already we decided to get a taxi there so we could sit for a few minutes. Definitely worth the 8 euros, especially as we drove past the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, affectionately known as ‘The Typewriter’.

The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine next to it are very impressive, and although you can see both of these without paying a penny the entrance ticket gives you access to the Roman Forum as well as the inside of the Colosseum. Inside there are many displays with information about the history of Rome and artefacts which were found in and around the area. Specific tours can even take you down to the floor of the arena and into the pits underneath where the gladiators and animals waited before the games.

The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are more examples of the spectacular achievements of the Roman Empire, just a short walk from the Colosseum. There you will find temples, monuments, statues and ancient government buildings where the Roman Senate itself was founded. Beyond these is the Circus Maximums, which was the first and largest circus in the Roman Empire, where chariot races were held.By the time we finished looking around the forum, we were starving so we went in search of the closest restaurant. The place we eventually found was Angelino ‘ai Fori’ dal 1947, where we had delicious food and cocktails (although my sister didn’t like her aperol spritz!).Finally we made our way to the station for our train back to Naples only to find out that it – and all the other trains to Naples – had been delayed by around 2 hours. Luckily we were able to get on an earlier train that had also been delayed, meaning we only left Rome about 40 minutes later than planned instead of 2 hours. Despite this it was an epic, if exhausting, day.

My advice to other people? Spend at least 2 days in Rome so you’re not shattered after trying to fit everything in!

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.

~~~

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.