Posts Tagged hotel

Wading our Way to the Winery

Travel can often lead to unforseen obstacles and unexpected delights. Toward the end of our stay in Uruguay, we experienced both.

Narbona Wine Lodge vineyard

vines @ Narbona Wine Lodge

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What Does World Travel Cost?

People often wonder how much it costs to travel around the world.  The answer is whatever you want!

There are people who enjoy camping, while others will only stay at 5-star resorts.  I fall somewhere in between.  I enjoy my creature comforts, but I’m not over the top (unless you want to bankroll my next trip and then I’ll go all out).

On our 30/40 World Tour, we didn’t camp or stay in dorm-style hostels.  We always stayed in private rooms and almost always had private bathrooms, except when it wasn’t an option on group tours like our “sailing” safari in Fiji and bus tour through Australia.  We stayed in a range of hotels from the $13 internet special to a 4.5 star resort with more staff than guests.  We even stayed for free with familybrand new friends, and while volunteering.

For the most part, we didn’t rough it and our final price tag shows it.  Our 10 week around-the-world tour of 8 countries ran us $25K.  To top it off, we were still maintaining mortgages, car payments, and utilities at home.  Although we did cancel phone, cable, and internet service during our time away.  While taking on all these expenses, I was on a 3-month Leave of Absence from work and had no income.  So the trip was not an inexpensive proposition.

Flights

The biggest chunk of money was spent on flights — $4K/person.  It may sound like a lot of money for flights, but when I priced out a couple of different RTW (Round the World) airline tickets, they were $6K/person.  Plus, those RTW tickets did not allow some of the exotic locales we visited due to number of hops or milage constraints.  I was quite pleased with our individually booked flights because we almost always flew direct, and were able to use a week-long layover (included in the price of our ticket) to visit New Caledonia.  Our flights ranged from $137 to $946 per person.

Flight Costs

The cost of each flight purchased for the 30/40 World Tour

Expense Categories

I was curious to see how we allotted our money across various categories while traveling.  As mentioned above, our biggest expense by far was transportation including flights, car rentals, trains, airport shuttles, ferries, and subway rides.  I separated out the transportation (sailing and bus tour) where accommodations and meals were also included.

Expense Categories

All expenses by category on the 30/40 World Tour

Our next biggest expenditure categories were accommodations and food.  Some of our accommodations in Fiji and Mauritius included meals, and are categorized in the Lodging with meals category.  Food and shelter seem like reasonable expenses.  We had to meet our basic needs!

After transportation, lodging, and food, our next largest category was cash.  Oh what a black hole of undocumented expenditures!  Cash was withdrawn from ATMs in country and probably spent on food, taxis, and other cash-only vendors.  We never converted cash to a new currency, so I always tried to withdraw a small amount and spend it all before leaving the country.  It may sound a bit gauche, but in New Caledonia I used my leftover cash and coins to pay our hotel bill and charged the remainder.  The clerk was super nice about it, even though I was being a hobo.

We only spent 2% on entertainment, which included all the theater performances and a museum.  Gas was for our rental cars in New Zealand.  Goods consisted of toiletries that we purchased as we ran out (since we could only carry 3 oz. of each), a few gadgets (universal travel adapter and auxiliary cable for the rental car), sunglasses (after I left my mine in a hotel room), and a cute hat.  Our other expenditures were for internet, laundry, and spa services.

Expenses by Country

So where in the world did we spend $25K?  As you can see in the chart below, we spent most of it on flights.  But the country where we spent the most money was New Zealand.  That’s not surprising since we spent the most time there — 3 weeks.  We were only in the US for half a day and in the UAE for less than 2 days, so those bars look pretty small in comparison.

We also had almost no expenses in UAE and Germany since we stayed with Sir Expat and my cousins.  They were super generous and treated us to everything! So those countries skew low.  Spain is also lower than normal since our lodging and meals were covered for a week during VaughanTown.

Country Expenses by Category

Total expenses in each country in various categories

To try to normalize the data a bit, the chart below shows the cost per night in each country.  Again, this is skewed by staying with relatives, so don’t think UAE and Germany are inexpensive places to visit.  They certainly are not …unless you know people!

Remember that we also stayed in a range of lodging styles, so the chart below isn’t meant to compare similar living expenses in each country.  It’s merely a representation of what we spent while experiencing life on islands without electricity to splurge hotels like Sofitel when we needed to recover.  Our food also ran the gamut from quick sandwiches to extravagant sit down meals throughout the trip.

When splurging, one of Mr. HalfFull’s favorite phrases is, “How can we afford NOT to do it?”  Often when you’re far from home, it’s wise to take advantage of the chance to experience things that may seem pricey because the opportunity is fleeting.

Another factor is the strength of the US Dollar versus local currency.  All amounts in this post are in US Dollars.  While we were traveling, the US Dollar was stronger than the New Zealand Dollar.  But our American currency was weaker than the Australian Dollar and Euro, which made things seem more expensive for us.

Average Country Cost

Average cost per night in each country

Credit Card Fees

Before we left home, I called my credit card companies to uncover their foreign transaction fees.  Visa and MasterCard always charge 1%, but your card issuer (Bank of America, Capital One, Chase, Citi, USAA, etc.) can charge an additional percentage.  So my USAA card was only 1% because USAA does not charge an additional fee, but one of my other credit cards ended up being 3%.  While my credit card foreign transaction fees ranged from 1% to 3%, I discovered that my bank debit card did not charge a fee.

It makes me a bit nervous to use a debit card, especially while traveling, since it taps into my actual bank account and doesn’t give me time to review or dispute charges.  But no transaction fee sealed the deal.  We used my debit card throughout the trip for ATM withdrawals and purchases.  But we still used credit cards on sites like hotels.com that process in US Dollars so foreign transaction fees were not an issue.

Tracking Expenses

Before our trip, I had always used an old-fashioned paper checkbook register.  This matched nicely with my old-fashioned paper planner.  Although I’m far from being on the bleeding edge, I have always embraced technology.  But I was still attached to these paper relics.

My work environment necessitated a paper planner.  I also occasionally write paper checks to businesses that don’t accept credit cards.  Since I no longer have duplicate checks, it made sense to record those checks in the checkbook register at the time of the check writing.  It also forced me to practice simple math, which we rarely do anymore.  Hopefully, this will save me from embarrassment the next time a 6-year-old tries to stump me with a rapid-fire addition or subtraction problem!

But the paper method drove me crazy on the 30/40 World Tour.  It just wasn’t practical.

As I mentioned earlier, I was very worried about using a debit card linked to my bank account.  What if there wasn’t enough money to cover an automatic mortgage payment?  Questions like that made me nervous and drove me to spend a lot of time tracking receipts in my paper register.  The problem was that currencies fluctuate.  All my receipts were in local currency, but my bank account was in US Dollars.  So I had to estimate the USD amount to track in my register.

But I never knew when the transaction would clear, meaning that the USD amount could change from day-to-day.  Granted, we didn’t visit any places with highly volatile currencies, but I’m a perfectionist who balances her checkbook to the penny.  Pretty close just doesn’t cut it for me.

Trying to keep track of all that on paper with a running balance was a mess.  So I moved to an electronic register — a spreadsheet.  The spreadsheet allowed me to track currency fluctuations easily and was much easier to maintain since I could move pending rows and know the true balance at any time.

I still use the spreadsheet today, so I no longer practice simple math.  Keep your 6-year-olds away from me! =)

Verdict

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves on our trip and experienced a range of living styles from staying on an island where toilets only flushed at high tide to a boutique hotel with flower petals on our bed.  You can always spend less, but life is about choices.  We were constantly reminded that you get what you pay for.

  • What country was most expensive in your travels?
  • What do you splurge on while traveling?
  • Do you subscribe to Mr. HalfFull’s philosophy on splurging?
  • Do you use any antiquated tracking systems in our world of technology?

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Coffee Around the World

Mr. HalfFull got his photo op around the world. Now it’s time for mine.

If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you know I drink coffee.  In fact, when I ventured around the world on the 30/40 World Tour:  Quest for Passion, I found that my passions are coffee and napping.  I learned this through various opportunities to enjoy them and be deprived of them.  Undoubtedly, coffee and napping are essential to my life.  Deep, I know.

Let’s take a photo tour of my coffee encounters around the world…

Capitol Grounds lattes

I was armed with a latte from Capitol Grounds on my very first flight out of Washington, DC.

Fiji, our first country on the 30/40 World Tour, was not coffee aficionado friendly.  At our first coffee stop, they tried to tell me that Coke was just like coffee!

Ms. HalfEmpty eats breakfast

Much of my time in Fiji was spent on primitive islands with instant coffee.  Quelle horreur!

I didn’t get real coffee until our final night in Fiji when we checked into Sofitel and I had an amazing cappuccino.

My coffee experience in New Zealand was the complete opposite of Fiji. New Zealand has the most coffee roasters per capita of any country in the world.  They take their coffee culture very seriously; even gas stations have espresso machines with baristas, and no one serves drip coffee.

Coffee @ Mecca Stonehouse

My first full day in New Zealand included a latte (and internet time) at Mecca Stonehouse in Mission Bay outside Auckland.

Blogging in Paihia

I seem to always have coffee while on the netbook, including here at Paihia wharf.

Volcanic Latte

We learned that coffee drinks come from volcanoes at the museum in New Plymouth.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

I even had a coffee in hand outside the Te Papa Museum in Wellington.

Circa Theater

Later that same day when we went to see a show at Circa Theater, just across from the museum, I had another coffee.  Zoom to see me drinking it.

New Zealand was perhaps the best coffee country on the 30/40 World Tour, but the French-speaking countries like New Caledonia weren’t bad either.

Café Malongo in Nouméa

While waiting in line at Café Malongo in Nouméa, I considered my espresso order.

Change in Nouméa

After using bills to buy coffee, we count our change in Nouméa.

Coffee at Le Surf Hotel

Once again enjoying coffee with a side of internet at our hotel in New Caledonia.

Coffee School

When we reached Sydney, Australia, I considered joining coffee school, but decided I didn’t have enough time.

Australian Parliament

I brought a cup of joe with me to the Australian Parliament Building in Canberra.  They wouldn’t let me bring it inside, but I had no problem devouring it quickly!

Phamish in St. Kilda

The coffee drink and coffee netbook seemed to pair well at a restaurant called Phamish in St. Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia.

Heidelberg Train Station

After visiting our new Australian friends in Heidelberg (another suburb of Melbourne), I waited for the train with coffee in hand.

Latte Art in Melbourne

Loving the latte art at a café in Melbourne before our flight to Mauritius.

Turkish Coffee in Dubai

Enjoying turkish coffee in Dubai with Sir Expat

Coffee in German Biergarten

Coffee in a German biergarten on Lake Starnberg with my cousins. Yes, I know you usually drink beer in a biergarten, but we had done plenty of that the night before!  Don’t I look just like a beermaid, but with coffee and less cleavage?

Coffee @ Marianplatz

Any time of day is a good time for coffee — even late night at Marianplatz in Munich.

Lunch @ Barcelo Sants

A cappuccino complemented my 3rd course of lunch nicely at our hotel in Barcelona, Spain.

  • Do you try to limit your coffee intake?
  • What things/actions are essential to your life?
  • Do you have any coffee location recommendations for me?

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Exposing Ourselves to Spaniards!

Mr. HalfFull and I participated in VaughanTown (an English immersion program for Spanish business people) as English-speaking volunteers.  And boy did we speak!  It was a heck of a lot of talking for an introvert like myself, but even Mr. HalfFull’s extroverted social battery was happily drained by the end of our week.

When we applied for VaughanTown as we were planning our 30/40 World Tour, we were excited at the prospect of cultural exchange with Spaniards.  After traveling for an extended period of time, all the churches, monuments, and town squares start to blend together.  What you really want is the human story and the insider’s perspective.

As a tourist, it’s hard to meet natives; you don’t travel in the same circles.  But even if you did happen to meet each other, how would you start a deep and meaningful conversation?  It’s unlikely to happen, so VaughanTown is a great way to capture real Spaniards and make them talk to us!

Meals

VaughanTown final dinner

Our final dinner at VaughanTown was served on a long banquet table instead of the 4-6 person tables for normal meals

Each day at VaughanTown, we were required to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in groups of 4 or 6 with even numbers of Spaniards and Anglos to keep the conversation going.  Lunch and dinner were always full service meals at the 4-star hotel with an abundance of wine.

One-On-One Sessions

One-on-One Session

Mr. HalfFull in a One-on-One Session on the hotel steps

But the majority of our time was spent in One-On-One Sessions with one Anglo and one Spaniard.  Anglos were given an idiom to explain to the Spaniard, but aside from that we were just supposed to talk about anything for 50 minutes.  As you can imagine from normal life, this can be easy or excruciating depending on the person.

Gredos Lobby

Ms. HalfEmpty waits in the hotel lobby for her One-On-One partner

I learned a lot about the lives of these Spaniards from the personal to the cultural.  I even got to ask my burning questions about Spanish life.  I was supremely disappointed to find out that most working Spaniards do not take a siesta in modern life.

My favorite part of Spanish life was just shattered!  But the Spaniards explained that it’s not really practical to drive home for lunch and siesta if you have a long commute.  It just extends the day, and they would rather finish their workday earlier.  Makes sense, but still disappointing.

Walking Back to Gredos

Ms. HalfEmpty walking back to the hotel

Remember when I said we did a lot of talking?  There was also a lot of walking.  The grounds around the hotel were beautiful, so we would often walk and chat for our session.

The closest town, El Barco de Ávila, was cleverly located a 25-minute walk away from the hotel.  So just as you approached the edge of town (with all the Spanish speakers), it was time to return to the English enclave at the hotel.

Sleeping

Ms. HalfEmpty in her room during a free session

After a 10 minute break, it was time to move to your next One-On-One Session.  Sometimes, there were more Anglos than Spaniards and we would get a session of free time.  My introverted self loved these breaks.  I often used them for another siesta, in addition to the one after lunch.

El Barco de Ávila

Mr. HalfFull was able to game his way into town.  Some of the Spaniards requested permission to buy fruit during their One-On-One Sessions.  So 2 Spaniard and 2 Anglos (including Mr. HalfFull) spent their session driving to town.

Beers in Town

Mr. HalfFull and the fruit buyers enjoy a surreptitious beer in town

They were supposed to buy fruit and come back to our English oasis.  But instead, they stopped for some beers.  When the program organizer found out, she wasn’t pleased.  But it actually turned out to be a serendipitous occasion.

One Anglo traveled to VaughanTown from India.  His trip ended up taking 3 days, so he missed the group bus from Madrid.  He had to find his own transportation to the nearby town, but never made it to the hotel.  Apparently, the program sent a taxi to town to pick him up, but they missed each other.

Hides

Animal hides hanging from a balcony in town

So what is a weary traveler to do?  Grab a beer, of course!

Church

Look Mom, I tried to go to church, but they wouldn’t let me in!

Somehow Mr. HalfFull heard the Indian man speaking English in the bar and had a feeling it was the missing Anglo from VaughanTown.  Mr. HalfFull introduced himself and bear hugs ensued!  The Indian traveler was so relieved to be rescued by VaughanTown comrades.

Aqueduct

Aqueduct in El Barco de Ávila

The rest of us got to town later in the week on a group outing.  We all walked to town on perhaps the hottest day during at the sun’s peak!

El Barco de Ávila is a quaint village with Roman and Arab influences.  It contains a small aqueduct, a castle, chapels, and even an old prison.  It was fun to finally enter the town we had been walking toward and peering at from afar all week.

Entertainment

Mr. HalfFull Plays a Bull

Mr. HalfFull in his role as El Torro!

Sometimes, instead of One-On-One Sessions, you would be pulled into a group to prepare entertainment — a skit, dance, etc.  Mr. HalfFull often got roped into these.

Skit

The bull fighter, Carrie, and Lady Gaga dance as Darth Vader watches. This is high art, people!

In his first performance, he was a bull.  He really took this role to heart.  He tore through the space running into chairs.  He even knocked over a floor lamp, that I was able to catch from my seat.  The other characters from his skit were Carrie from Sex & the City, Lady Gaga, Darth Vader, the famous Spanish bull fighter Enrique Ponce, and Big Bird.  Hilarity ensued.

Bollywood Dance

Mr. HalfFull and his fellow Bollywood dancers perform “Jai Ho”

Mr. HalfFull also started his training as a Bollywood dancer at VaughanTown.  If you know Mr. HalfFull, you know that he believes that nothing good can come from a man dancing past age 25 (unless it’s his wedding).  So you can imagine my surprise when he danced to “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire.

Teaching Lindy Hop

Ms. HalfEmpty teaches Lindy Hop

My contribution to the entertainment was to teach Lindy Hop, the original swing dance from the late 1930s.  I taught Lindy-style Charleston to the group and ended with a mini-performance.

Queimada

Mr. MC brews queimada in an elaborate ceremony

On our final night, Mr. MC brewed queimada for the group in the Galician tradition.  The base of this concoction is aguardente, a spirit with high alcohol content, that burns to a fiery blue. While Mr. MC was preparing the punch, others read a spell to confer special powers to the queimada and those drinking it.  It was a rather spooky affair.

Queimada Taste

Ms. HalfEmpty is not a fan of queimada

When I saw that the queimada was flavored with coffee, I was quite excited to try it!  But it was terrible.  I couldn’t even finish my little cup.

The Experience

By the end of the week, I was worn out!  But I am glad that I had the chance to get to know all sorts of Spaniards from recent college graduates to medical doctors and government workers.  Plus, I also got a chance to get out of the city, see a bit of the idyllic country-side, make some personal connections, and even learn about my namesake for free.

 

  • How do you meet natives while traveling?  Do you enjoy making deeper connections?
  • Have you ever found your limit on interaction?
  • What ridiculous characters have you played?
  • If you went to a place like VaughanTown, what talent would you share?

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Happening Upon My Namesake

Four Posts panorama

After our one day layover in Madrid, it was time to take a 3 hour bus trip west to VaughanTown. You won’t find VaughanTown on a map because it’s not actually a town.  In fact, it’s in 5 different towns.  Our VaughanTown was outside the village of El Barco de Ávila.

VaughanTown is an English immersion program for Spaniards.  As native English speakers, our job was to help the Spaniards gain confidence in their ability to communicate in English by exposing them to a wealth of speech and accents (including American, British, Indian, and Australian in our group).  The Spaniards pay for the program individually or through their companies, and the Anglos, like us, are volunteers who are compensated with free meals and a free stay at a 4-star luxury hotel.

Bus to VaughanTown

Anglos and Spaniards on the chartered bus to VaughanTown. Some are getting their last few moments of sleep, and others are already chatting away.

Before we could start our little English haven in the middle of Spain, we had to get out of the city and away from all the Spanish speakers.  Most of the participants took the chartered bus from Madrid with us to the middle of nowhere.  But along the way, we made one stop outside the town of my namesake.

Before our 30/40 World Tour, I didn’t even know why my parents picked my name.  But when my mom heard that we would be in Ávila, she shared this with me:

Ending the 30/40 World Tour in Spain is more than just a wonderful place to visit before heading home, but it is also a symbol of being on the edge between the east and the west.  The Greeks called Italy Hesperia or “land of the setting sun” and referred to Spain, still further west, as Hesperia ultima.

Spain is the place from where Columbus changed the understanding of where the world does not end, going from the known world to discover the new world. It is a place where Miguel de Cervantes created a fascinating hero with Don Quixote, the dreamer chasing the windmills. It is a place where you can hear amazing guitar tunes (La Tuna, Segovia, Sarasate, and Albeniz) and see flamenco dancing. While each region in Spain is unique in food, scenery and history, all Spaniards share a love for living life to its fullest with time for siesta and time for workkeeping soul and body well balanced.

highway exit to Ávila

The bus made one stop outside Ávila on the way to Gredos

More amazing, is that the last landing of the heroine’s journeyis not only in Spain but also in Ávila, the city of the famous Teresa of Ávila. While it is a coincidence and not a pre-meditated plan of Ms. HalfEmpty and Mr. HalfFull, it is a potential revelation for the couple, but especially for Ms. Half Empty.

In fact, there is a strong resemblance between our heroine and the famous saint of Spain who was constantly in search of perfection, while at the same time she challenged many of the existing social norms for women in the 16th Century. One of her most famous books, The Way of Perfection, describes her experiences in prayer which ultimately culminates in rapture.

St. Teresa of Ávila painting

1827 painting of St. Teresa of Ávila by François Gérard

The secret as Teresa explained in prayer is that it does not matter as much to think as to love.  Loving in the first place is allowing oneself to be loved. “Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift…”  Hopefully, our heroine will discover this on her quest.  It is not about righteousness in perfection, but about letting go to find oneself.

St. Teresa was a trailblazer, a reformer, a Doctor of the Church, and a very smart woman. She was a fascinating señora like our heroine. She liked adventure at an early age; she even ran away from home at age seven with her brother Rodrigo to find martyrdom among the Moors. She was beautiful and atypical of women of her time by making the most of her intellect and challenging the men of her time. She had a mind of her own, which she manifested as a mystic, writer, teacher of meditation, and founder of the Carmelites. Her work became classic text in Christian spirituality, mysticism, and Spanish Renaissance literature.

Four Posts

Ms. HalfEmpty at the Four Posts, which overlooks the walled city of Ávila in the background.  This shrine marks the place where St. Teresa’s uncle stopped her from running off with her brother to seek martyrdom in battle with the Moors.

Our heroine’s last landing is truly fitting before crossing the Atlantic Ocean and coming home to hit the road running and engage in a life of love.

Hotel Izán Puerta de Gredos

Our four-star accommodation during VaughanTown — Hotel Izán Puerta de Gredos.  Our room was on the top floor with one of those windows peeking out of the roof.

Woah, no pressure Mom!  Those are some big expectations.  But I do still love Mr. HalfFull (even after spending 24 hours a day with him for 10 weeks), so maybe that’s a good start on the life of love.

At the end of our bus journey, we reached Hotel Izán Puerta de Gredos, which sits on 15 acres of land in view of the Gredos mountain range.  The location was beautiful and secluded — a 30-minute walk from town.  This would be our home for the next 5 days, during which we would spend 16 hours a day speaking English to Spaniards.

  • Who is your namesake?
  • Have you found a life of love?
  • Have you ever participated in a program like VaughanTown?

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Worst Flight Ever

Thankfully for our livers, all things must come to an end.  After a weekend of partying in Germany, it was time to depart for Spain — the 8th and final country on our 30/40 World Tour.

Everyone has heard of “German efficiency,” but there was none to be found in the airport security line.  The line wasn’t very long, but was so slow!  They were basically taking apart each person’s carry-on bag despite having a perfectly serviceable x-ray machine.  They even examined my empty water bottle and told me I was not allowed to take more than 3 ounces of liquid.  My water bottle was clear plastic and attached on the outside of my bag.  This extra scrutiny seemed ridiculous.  But I assured them that my visibly empty bottle was indeed empty by shaking it for them.

Our flight to Spain was not direct.  It was also one of the only flights we did not book through STA, since they didn’t have any deals.  We couldn’t find any reasonably priced direct flights from Munich to Barcelona, so we used a discount carrier with a one hour layover in Düsseldorf.

Of course, nothing could be that easy.  Remember how we always say you get what you pay for?  This was another case in point.

The flight from Düsseldorf to Barcelona was delayed.  We had done a great job of booking direct flights with week-long layovers in exotic locales.  Our only true airport layover of the 30/40 World Tour was at LAX, but even then we planned a beach outing in Santa Monica.  This time, all we were able to do was hang out in a terminal filled to capacity with people from various delayed flights.  There weren’t any seats; even the nuns were sitting on the floor.  So we headed to the bar to wait.

Once it was finally our boarding time, they packed us into busses en route to the plane.  Finally, we had made it to the plane.  Thank goodness!

Not so fast.  Our journey was not yet over.  It was not yet time to relax.  This flight involved screaming children from all directions.

AirBerlin plane

After escaping the worst flight ever and arriving in Spain, we paused in the terminal to capture photographic evidence of our tormentor

The irony is that we had been on plenty of other flights with children.  Long flights.  Hours and hours of being constricted to a little seat.  But this tiny little 2 hour flight was horrible.

Perhaps I have a special intolerance as a person without children, but it really didn’t seem like the parents were doing anything.  The little girl in front of us was traveling with her German mother and Spanish father.  She was perpetually backward in her seat so that she could stare at us during the flight.  She got increasingly bold and started sticking her arm through the gap between the seats.

This was a nuisance, but not a major problem…until her arm swatted my drink.  Of course, it spilled all over my legs.  So I got to spend the rest of the day with sticky legs and socks.  Just lovely.

To understand just how much I disdain messes and sticky things, I will take you back to kindergarten.  I hated using glue because it could get on my fingers.  Other kids would smear glue all over their hands and wait for it to dry.  I found this appalling.

Back to the flight.  In the US, they would never serve food on a 2 hours flight.  But this was Europe.  They gave us some sort of boxed meal, but all the “fresh” food was inedible.  I think the sandwich was just mayo — gobs and gobs of mayo.  Perhaps there was something else in the sandwich, but it was hidden by the mayo.

We eventually arrived in Barcelona where we had to hurry up and wait for the train.  Despite visiting Dubai, it seemed excruciatingly hot in the train terminal with little air flow.  I expected it to be cooler in the evening as the sun descended.  Perhaps I was just being my half empty self with additional annoyance and stickiness.

We ended up in a train car with a group of boys on vacation.  With a liquor bottle.  They ended up making quick friends with the two girls nearby, and the liquor went back and forth across the train.  Hilarious people watching!

Barcelo Sants elevator lobby

Can you spot Ms. HalfEmpty? She's sitting in the spacey egg chair in the Barcelo Sants hotel elevator lobby.

After an afternoon of travel that seemed like days, we checked into our hotel — conveniently located above the train station.  This hotel had a space theme.  All the hallways were dark until you walked by the sensor and then a group of vertical lights from floor to ceiling adjacent to each door would illuminate.  It was a neat effect and probably saved a good bit of electricity too.

Barcelo Sants room

Outer space portal above our glowing hotel room bed

Our room was elegantly modern with space touches including a captain’s swivel chair.  There were also round portals in the room with pictures of the moon.  Oddly, one of them was above the toilet.

Barcelona taxis

During our 4 days in Barcelona, I spent a lot of time watching the parade of taxis from my hotel room window while waiting for Mr. HalfFull to coif himself. He takes longer than me! It was great people watching to see the drivers smoke and chat. It was like I was spying from space!

We even had multiple sizes of pillows with varying degrees of firmness.  Plus, there was an amazing ergonomic backrest for sitting up in bed, and a perfect bed tray. Our room was so awesome and relaxing that we didn’t leave until 1 PM the next day in search of food.

Maybe the flight wasn’t actually that bad.  I mean it wasn’t great, but it could have been much worse.  Perhaps we had just been spoiled by awesome airlines with hot towels, edible food, and the gift of silence.

  • How do you select flights?  Price?  Schedule?  Number of stops?
  • Describe your worst flight.
  • Does a dislike of glue as a kindergartener make me an old soul?
  • Is it a sin to spend the whole morning of your first day in a new country asleep?  Or is sleep important to help you enjoy it?

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Bummin’ It In Mauritius

Mauritius beach

Belle Mare

Water, volcanic rock, sand, and grass meet in Belle Mare

Mauritius was beautiful. Of the entire 30/40 World Tour, this was our most relaxing stop.

Our hotel was right on the beach in Belle Mare.  Even though we had already been to beaches on the 30/40 World Tour, as my feet sunk into the sand in Belle Mare, I remember thinking the sand was so soft.

La Palmeraie

La Palmeraie bar area and overflowing pool

In fact, our entire stay made us a bit soft. I think there were probably more employees than guests at the hotel since it was the off-season. Our breakfasts and dinners were included, and we had an assortment of goodies to taste daily. When returning to my seat from the buffet, a member of the staff would often intercept me to grab my plate so I could walk unencumbered. How’s that for soft?

New Zealand Butter

Mr. HalfFull holds New Zealand butter against the backdrop of the gorgeous beach

Speaking of food, remember how we told you that dairy was a big deal in New Zealand?  Well it’s such a big deal that they had New Zealand butter in Mauritius!

There was often entertainment during/after dinner. One night, the band played, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”  I’m starting to wonder if that is the first song that all non-native English speakers who work in hospitality learn.   We heard the song in Fiji too!  It’s kind of ridiculous to hear a song about West Virginia while in Africa. It reminded me of the days when Mr. HalfFull and I were driving to West Virginia from our home in Virginia, and my dearest husband played (and sang) that song 10 times before I got a reprieve.

La Palmeraie

View of our Moroccan-inspired hotel from the beach

While in Mauritius, we spent much of our time lounging, but also ventured out to snorkel via a glass bottom boat, swim, paddle boat, and play volleyball.  One day we even decided to do the group fitness class on the beach. Mr. HalfFull and I constituted 2/3 of the participants. The instructor was a wiry man who was all abs and muscles. Needless to say, we were pretty sore afterward.

What’s the best way to recover from soreness?  Massage!  I love massages, so we decided to indulge in a couples massage at the resort spa.  It started out with a bath of coconut milk and lemongrass.  It smelled wonderful, but made us a bit leery that perhaps we were getting prepped for the grill and not a massage!

Thankfully, the massages did occur.  I was very glad that Mr. HalfFull and I were in the same room.  There was virtually no draping as is customary in the US, and the strokes did not neglect the inner thighs or breasts.  I was surprised!  Did she really just go there?!?

Christian Shrine

Christian shrine along the beach

Hindu Shrine on Beach

Hindu temple on the beach surrounded by offerings placed on the volcanic rock

We also took lots of walks along the beach and discovered various religious shrines — Hindu and Christian.  We also saw local boys playing a game of pétanque on the beach.  This time it wasn’t men on their lunch break.  We witnessed the smallest boy throw the winning shot.  Immediately, all the older boys went over to verify the proximity of his ball, while the little ones jumped up and down with excitement.

Arsha Vidya Ashram

Arsha Vidya Ashram along the beach

Pétanque

Boys playing pétanque on the beach

One evening, I inadvertently created a security incident at the hotel.  We were down at dinner when a manager came to tell Mr. HalfFull that there was a security problem in our room.  We had no idea what happened.  It turns out that I had left the safe open when we went to dinner, and the maid had entered our room to turn down our bed.  She noticed the open safe and alerted the security guard.  By the time Mr. HalfFull got there our room was being guarded by security and they asked him to verify that nothing was stolen.  It turned into a huge incident.  Oops!

Mauritius Taxi

Ms. HalfEmpty on the taxi ride to the airport

After our week of relaxation, it was time to head back to the airport en-route to Dubai.  Check back to hear about our adventures in the United Arab Emirates.

  • Where was your most relaxing vacation?
  • In what country have you heard, “Take Me Home, Country Roads?”
  • Do you exercise on vacation?
  • Have you had a massage that made you uncomfortable?
  • Have you ever left a hotel safe open?  Did the staff alert you?

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Into Africa (Sort Of)

Getting to Mauritius, an African island nation off the coast of Madagascar, was an ordeal that started back in Australia. Mr. HalfFull researched airport transportation and discovered a direct bus to the airport with a pickup location near our hotel. This seemed like a great option until we learned that our hotel offered an airport shuttle for less than the bus. What a great deal – no walking with luggage AND a lower price!

But as we’ve learned time and again on the 30/40 World Tour – you get what you pay for!

The shuttle did, in fact, pick us up at our hotel on time. But this was not a direct shot to the airport. Instead, the shuttle was also transporting a family from the airport to their hotel. So we dropped them off and thought, “Okay, we’re off to the airport now!”

Not so fast.

Melbourne

Skyline in Melbourne

The shuttle proceeded to make more stops to pick up passengers heading to the airport. During this circuitous journey, we passed by our hotel AGAIN! Then we stopped at a hostel to pick up two young girls who weren’t ready. With each stop, we got more nervous that we wouldn’t make our flight on time, despite having left our hotel with plenty of time.

Mr. HalfFull was livid on the shuttle ride, especially when he noticed that we were heading away from the airport. He almost blew his lid when we passed by our hotel the second time. But it was me, Ms. HalfEmpty, who tried to help him see the bright side of things! I pointed out that we were getting a nice drive-by tour of Melbourne – parts we had not seen – enroute to the airport. How’s that for role reversal?

After the most circuitous shuttle ride, I endured the longest plane ride of my life (almost 12 hours)!  I didn’t think a long flight would be a problem for me, but I was so ready to disembark after the first 8 hours. Also, this flight was during the day. Even though I’m an expert napper, you can really only sleep for so long before it’s no longer a nap.

When we arrived in Mauritius, it wasn’t very late in the evening, but it was already starting to get dark since it was the winter season in the southern hemisphere. We knew we had about an hour ride from the airport to our 4.5 star hotel (50% discount in the off-season!) on the beach. This turned out to be another crazy drive.

It was too late for a shuttle, so we grabbed a taxi; a harrowing ride ensued! Our driver had no qualms about passing vehicles with oncoming traffic on narrow roads. He also spoke on his cell phone for much of the ride, and was often not in his lane. Plus, we were moving fast!

La Palmeraie at Night

Nighttime view of the overflowing pool at La Palmeraie

Thankfully, we survived the taxi ride, although that fate seemed uncertain several times on the ride. We arrived at a beautiful Moroccan-inspired resort – La Palmeraie Boutique Hotel. I felt under-dressed and yucky from the plane ride. Plus, this wasn’t really a hotel where the normal clientele carried duffel bags.

Room @ La Palmeraie

Flower petals and a letter on our bed at La Palmeraie

As soon as we arrived, they greeted us with a refreshing local drink and chatted with us in the lobby. Despite our attire, our money was still green (or multicolored, as the case may be). I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived in our room and found flower petals on the bed, a personalized letter from the director of the hotel, and flowers in a vase. The little touches made us feel extra special.

We were gearing up for a relaxing week on a continent (Africa) and an ocean (Indian Ocean) new to both of us. After weeks of being on the move, I was looking forward to sleeping in the same bed for 7 consecutive nights! Check back to hear about our experiences in Mauritius.

  • In your experience, do shuttle drivers do a good job of scheduling pickups to create a direct route to the airport?
  • Do you and your spouse ever switch roles?
  • How long was your longest flight?
  • Describe your most harrowing taxi ride.
  • Have you been impressed with a hotel experience?

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Mr. HalfFull’s Beautiful Day

It’s almost been a year since Ms. HalfEmpty and I packed our tiny duffels and journeyed west around the world.  People still ask us, “What was your favorite thing?”  As we’ve learned through numerous attempts, it is simply impossible to tell our story of last summer in any reasonable amount of time. These blog posts capture the basics, but still seem to barely skim the surface.  That said, for me there was one day of the entire world tour that was probably my favorite.

Like any good story, this one requires a touch of background — in this case, the conclusion of our stay in Nouméa.  You see, New Caledonia’s Tontouta International Airport is located 51 km north of Anse Vata beach where we stayed, requiring shuttle transfer from our hotel/casino.  Our shuttle van was piloted by a crusty old French woman who drove sans concern for human safety.  We found ourselves stuffed into a rickety van, serendipitously sandwicheried behind a lovely Australian girl and her mum.  Perhaps to keep her mind off imminent death in a fiery crash, Ms. HalfFull uncharacteristically struck up a conversation with the Aussies squished in front of her.  By the time we all checked in for the same flight to Sydney, friends were made and e-mail addresses exchanged.  Hopefully we’d cross paths in a few weeks on the outskirts of Melbourne where they lived.

Heidelberg Train Station

Ms. HalfEmpty @ the Heidelberg train station

Fast forward through Sydney, a bus safari, and a few tears. We find ourselves stepping on to the platform of gorgeous Flinders Street Station with tickets outbound on the Hurstbridge railway line destined for the northeast suburbs of Melbourne.  As luck would have it, the train preparing for immediate departure was an express with a stop in Heidelberg, where Ms. HalfEmpty’s new Aussie friend planned meet us with her boyfriend. We ensued on a drive west into the Yarra Valley for a bit of sight-seeing and wine tasting!

Note to reader: at this point, feel free to quietly play Eels’ “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” in the background whilst reading the remainder of this post.

We hadn’t traveled by private car since New Zealand, so it felt almost luxurious to be chauffeured for the nearly one hour road trip from the ‘burbs into picturesque countryside that oddly reminded me of wine country here in Virginia. In this brief time, I was already smitten with the Aussie boyfriend who reminded me so much of my dear friend who’d married us a few years ago. As a couple, they were brilliant tour guides.

View of Melbourne

View of Melbourne from top of lookout tower

We pulled into a quaint, wooded parking lot that could maybe fit 10 cars or so. They were hoping the sky would clear so we could see Melbourne from one of the Yarra Ranges National Park lookout towers. We learned these towers play an important role in the early detection of fire. Anyhow, I’ll let the image we took up there speak for itself, but it was one of those moments when you feel lucky to be alive.

Wine Tasting at Chandon

Ms. HalfEmpty tasting a flight of white wines with our brilliant tour guides

Next stop, vineyards! We started out at Chandon, probably the most well-known winery in the region. To avoid the throng of tourists at the free tasting bar, I suggested we sample a range of white and sparkling wines at their Greenpoint Tasting Bar. Although the atmosphere was a tad corporate, we had a fun time with our Aussie friends and bartender. For you sparkling wine fans out there, grab a bottle of Chandon Z*D Blanc de Blancs if you stumble across it.

Punt Road Winery

Ms. HalfEmpty enjoying wine with our Aussie friends near Punt Road's pétanque court

The next stop was our amazing Aussie hosts’ favorite Yarra Valley vineyard: Punt Road Wines. I’m not sure where to start. Suffice it to say I felt like the cosmic tumblers of the universe had all fallen into place. Brilliant new friends. Delicious wines, especially their Pinot Noir. Friendly, yet knowledgeable bartenders. Tasty snacks that perfectly complemented their wines. A few other like-minded strangers up for a fun time filling out the tasting area, giving the room just enough energy. Even solid background music.

Samples turned into glasses. Glasses turned into bottles…leading to one of my most enjoyable conversations of 2011. I learned why you would never want to be nicknamed “FIGJAM” and why Aussies begin their answers to many questions with the words “Yeah, no.” By the time we were done out on Punt Road’s wine garden, our friends had become members of Punt Road Wines’ Punters Club!

Kangaroo Steaks

Mr. HalfFull finds kangaroo steaks in the grocery store (nestled between the ham and the chicken)

During our conversation an epiphany hit me that Ms. HalfEmpty’s personality was Kiwi, while mine was Aussie. Our hosts were interested in our trip and especially what we thought of Australia so far. I said my only regret during our time in Oz was that it didn’t seem likely we were going to be able to taste kangaroo steak. Our friends looked at me like I was crazy, noting that we could stop by the grocery store on the way home and pick up a few!

On top of being amazing hosts, it seems our friends were amateur chefs as well. I didn’t realize how much we missed the simplicity of a home-cooked meal. So my favorite day culminated with a scrumptious meal at our friend’s home back in Heidelberg: fresh steamed veggies, mashed potatoes, and seared kangaroo steak. It was delicious, and apparently benefited the Australian environment.

We settled in to the couch after dessert for a recorded episode of one of our friend’s favorite British television shows. I don’t remember much about it due to wine and kangaroo euphoria.

Katie's House

Ms. HalfEmpty bids farewell to our gracious host's Heidelberg house the next morning

She graciously offered her guest house. Apparently some people have to work, so we woke up to an empty house. The kitchen was a mess from the previous night, so we gave it a thorough cleaning before letting ourselves out.

I will never forget that beautiful day, and hopefully one day we’ll be able to repay the hospitality when our friends get the opportunity to visit us here in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

  • Do you have a hard time picking a favorite day/experience to share with friends after traveling?
  • Do you find yourself talking to strangers more easily when death could be imminent?
  • Do you enjoy wine tasting?
  • Have you learned interesting slang while traveling?
  • What exotic food did you try that was commonplace for locals?
  • Would you offer your house to people you met on a shuttle in a foreign country during your vacation?
  • What would you show foreigners who come to visit you?


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Highs and Lows Come and Go

On our 30/40 World Tour, we would typically book our accommodation before we arrived in a new location. However, on the Oz Experience bus tour, we didn’t have much downtime to do research online. Because of the mechanical problems, we usually arrived at our hotel/hostel late and were so excited to have a bed for stretched out sleep. (Sleeping on a bus can get a bit cramped.) We also had to wake up early to cover the mileage the next morning, so neither the evenings or mornings gave us much time to surf.

Melbourne

Ms. HalfEmpty & Mr. HalfFull in downtown Melbourne

Everyone else on the bus tour had a reservation in Melbourne – even the backpacker teenagers! (I wonder if their moms booked it.) So Squatter made the rounds through Melbourne dropping people off at their various hostels. After my two nights on the tour, I knew I wanted a nicer place to stay. So we got off at the last stop and started walking toward St. Kilda.

We were tired and hungry at this point, which is not a great combo for a traveler with no idea where she is going and a heavy pack on her back. I don’t do so well with the unknown, especially under those circumstances. Mr. HalfFull often reminds me to live my way into the answers and embrace the unknown. But it’s so hard! I like to have a plan and direction.

Our goal was to find a restaurant with free wifi where we could eat and book a hotel like hobos with all our luggage. Even though we traveled light, I still found it a little embarrassing to have so much stuff at a nice restaurant. But they were super gracious at Phamish café and didn’t seem to mind. We were “phamished” so we ordered the sampler appetizer, which turned out to be a huge platter with all sorts of foodie deliciousness. It was quite a contrast from eating powdered eggs.

We didn’t find a lot of reasonable accommodation options in St. Kilda. There were a couple of fancy hotels, but they were rather pricey. I was leery of sketchy places after our last two nights, but reluctantly I consented to a hostel called The Coffee Place. I think its name and color scheme was the only reason I thought it might be okay.

When we arrived, I wasn’t so sure. It was basically run by kids playing video games. In other words, it could have been a frat house. I’m too old for this!

We went up to our room by climbing several flights of stairs. The door wasn’t secure like a front door; it was more like a lightweight bedroom door. Inside everything was clean, but very sparse. There was almost no furniture aside from the bed. However, there was one small built-in shelf with a coffee maker – after all, it was The Coffee Palace.

After seeing the room, I lost it. This was no palace. The tears streamed down my cheeks. There was really nothing wrong with the room; it was fully functional, clean, and spacious. I think I was just exhausted from the bus tour; I didn’t get my afternoon naps or sleep-in time in the mornings! Plus, I was an introvert on a bus full of people for three days. I was drained from all the interaction. I guess six weeks of being on the move left me feeling rather half empty – maybe even completely empty.

Phamish cafe

Ms. HalfEmpty enjoying cappuccino at Phamish café

We enjoyed Phamish café so much that we went back there for breakfast the next morning. I had a cappuccino and internet time…I was back baby! Plus, we were staying at The Coffee Palace for two nights, so I wasn’t lugging my bag around this time, and knew where I would be sleeping that night.

Mr. HalfFull loves sports; I become a football widow during the NFL season. We actually got married on a bye weekend for his football team! He also loves college basketball, and once again goes missing during March Madness. So he was super excited to have the opportunity to witness Aussie rules football in person.

It was game day, so we walked to the train station and were surprised that there were no ticket kiosks. A person on the platform informed us that you could buy tickets on the train. This seemed strange to us, but obviously we knew nothing about public transportation in Melbourne. So we boarded the train and found the ticket machine. We soon learned that the ticket machine only takes coins. What does an ATM not give you? Coins!

So we had no coins and couldn’t buy tickets; I felt like a fugitive. Hopefully, they would let us play the dumb American card. We really did have the best of intentions!

Melbourne Cricket Ground

Mr. HalfFull looking for tickets outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground

Finally, we arrived downtown at the enormous stadium that seats over 100,000 people. We were about to engage in some more illegal activity. We didn’t have tickets and were scouring the crowd outside the stadium looking for scalpers. We knew the game was a huge local rivalry between Carlton and Collingwood and thus, was sold out.

We didn’t find the shady people Mr. HalfFull was seeking, so we headed to the club ticket counter. The woman informed us that indeed the game was sold out, but she told us to look for scalpers and warned us not to pay more than face value. An employee advised us to seek out scalpers! Is scalping not illegal in Melbourne?

We walked all the way around the stadium with no luck. Mr. HalfFull didn’t seem so half full and resigned himself to the fact that we weren’t getting into the game. Then he spotted a guy with long hair, facial hair, tattoos, and rings on every finger. He looked like the type of guy you didn’t want to fight. Mr. HalfFull thought he might be a scalper. We hung around to listen to his conversation and learned that he too was looking for tickets.

Stadium Family

Ms. HalfEmpty in the MCG stadium with the side of the family who supports the Carlton Blues

Our chances seemed pretty much exhausted when I overheard the conversation of a family nearby. They were talking about how it was too bad that “those two” couldn’t come. What? Two tickets?

So I butted into their circle and asked if they had two extra tickets. They did, but they were tickets for children. Bummer!

Stadium Family

Mr. HalfFull with the other brother who's a fan of the Collingwood Magpies

We started walking away when they said, “But we aren’t going to use them, so you’re welcome to try. Just walk in with us and be our kids for the day! There’s no harm in trying.” I didn’t know what the penalty was for using the wrong age-group ticket, but we had already ridden the train illegally, so what the heck! Weren’t the Australians descendants of criminals anyway? (Kids, this is why they tell you not to smoke because it’s just a gateway to more and more.)

The tickets worked and we all got in! The introvert had accosted strangers in a foreign country to fulfill Mr. HalfFull’s dream. It was amazing.

Inside MCG

Watching Aussie football inside MCG stadium

The stadium was huge and circular, unlike our oblong stadiums. It was impressive to watch these super fit athletes play with no padding. There was a lot of leg to tantalize the ladies. Plus, there were no big bellies like in the NFL. Even the referees were super fit.

The family we sat with explained the rules to us; they were so much fun. We tried to pay them for the tickets and buy them beers, but they didn’t want anything. They even emailed us a few days later to ask if we wanted to grab “a pot.” After looking that up online, I learned that it’s beer, not tea.

Meat Pie

Sampling meat pie at the stadium

We knew that meat pies are an Aussie football stadium staple. Even after our disappointment with pies in Sydney, we tried the stadium fare. It was okay. I guess they can’t make them like the flaky pastries in New Zealand because it needs to be self-contained and more spill-proof for the stadium.

Red Stitch Theater

Ms. HalfEmpty at Red Stitch Theater

That evening we had tickets to see a play called My Romantic History at Red Stitch theater. It was a super cute playhouse. Much of the play took place in the bathroom and the set consisted of three bathroom stalls. That brought our live theater count to six on the 30/40 World Tour.

Mr. HalfFull got his football and I got my theater. It was a good day all around, especially considering the tears the night before.

  • Do you make reservations before you arrive or wing it?
  • How do you handle the unknown? Are you able to relax and let things unfold?
  • Did you have a breaking point while traveling? What helped you get over it?
  • Have you broken the rules while traveling?
  • If you are not normally a sports fan, do you still think it would be interesting to witness in a foreign country?
  • Have you been surprised by the kindness of strangers?

Related:  All posts in the 30/40 World Tour series

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