The Essential Guide to Airbnb

My sister and I figured that we’d be staying in hostels during our journey in Europe. We’d share rooms with 8 strangers and sleep in rooms of dubious cleanliness. It’d be overpriced and somewhat uncomfortable.

And then we discovered Airbnb.

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Airbnb is a website where people rent out lodging. I’m not talking about those hotels and motels: people rent out their apartments, houses, even spare rooms in their own home. Often, for what you get, Airbnb can be relatively cheap. With many Airbnb listings being equal to or cheaper than hostel prices, we were definitely interested in using the site.

My sister and I did a lot of research and ended up using Airbnb for the majority of our Eurotrip. Using Airbnb can be daunting, though. With over 500,000 listings in over 190 countries, it’s tough to know what place to choose. My sister and I stressed over it quite a bit.

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After going on our trip and staying at all these apartments, we are glad to say that our Airbnb experience was positive! Though, there are some things we wish we knew before booking some of those places. It’s hard to know when you’re using Airbnb for the first time.

So, I’m going to list a few things my sister and I looked for when we booked our Airbnb apartments. Everyone’s experiences will be different, so I can’t promise anything– but hopefully these tips will help your Airbnb experience go a little smoother.

Verify your identity.

You can book places without verification, but nobody’s going to rent to you if they don’t know you’re a real person. Airbnb lets you prove your existence in a number of ways.

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The most important is to provide an offline form of identity, usually in the form of a government-issued driver’s license or passport.

Now you’re ready to start booking!

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Obviously, pick one with good reviews.

Airbnb sends out professional photographers to take verified photos for the site. These guys are pros. Some of the apartments on Airbnb look beautiful, and often, they are!

Just for a comparison, here’s the Airbnb photos of the apartment my sister and I stayed in Paris…

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…compared to the photos I took myself.

The bedroom.

The bedroom! Don’t get me wrong: this Parisian apartment was one of my favorite places we stayed in.

The other part of the bedroom, covered with our luggage. This wasn't actually pictured in the Airbnb photos.

The other part of the bedroom, covered with our luggage. This wasn’t actually pictured in the Airbnb photos, so the table and the couch were a nice bonus.

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The bathroom: it was a bathroom.

You can see that what the site tells you isn’t always exactly what you get. A good way to know for sure is to read reviews! Ideally, the apartment or house has had a lot of guests and a lot of reviews. Our Parisian apartment had a high rating, which I would totally agree with.

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Sometimes, though, you’ll discover less positive feedback.

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So read your reviews! My sister and I played it safe, going only for listings with a lot of positive reviews.

Look for a high cleanliness rating.

An Airbnb is not a hotel, so you really can’t expect hotel cleanliness. Sometimes, you might even be sharing a kitchen or a bathroom with your host.

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I’m not the cleanest person, myself, but being in someone else’s messiness always makes me a bit uncomfortable. Anything less than a 5-star cleanliness rating means the place probably isn’t spotless, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Double-check the location.

When you’re booking an apartment in an unfamiliar city, it’s hard to tell how good the location is just by staring at Google Maps.

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A nice indicator is that the farther you get from center city, the cheaper the apartments become.

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And my sister and I did book one without really looking into the location. It was our first booking, for a lovely and cheap apartment in London. Or, wait. Look at that address. Is it really in London?

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When we landed at London-Heathrow, the passport security was baffled.

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My sister and I had booked a place in the London suburbs, not London itself. Luckily, we had at least done enough research to…

Check the proximity to public transport.

Our apartment in Tooting was a 15 minute walk to the subway, and a 10-minute walk to the public buses. It took us, then, at least an hour to get all the way to London’s most famous attractions. But at least there was transport: if we hadn’t had such convenient access, getting around a big city like London would have been difficult.

Besides, it was a good excuse to spend an hour on one of London’s famous double-decker buses.

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Watch out for hidden fees.

The price listed on Airbnb is not always the final price. Sometimes, there are “cleaning fees.”

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Sometimes, the host will charge a bit extra for every extra guest you bring in. For instance, the dude below will charge you the list price for two guests. But to bring a third friend, you’d pay an extra $13, and another $13 for a fourth friend… yeah. You get it.

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Sometimes, the host will ask for a security deposit.

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My sister and I avoided listings with security deposits, so I unfortunately can’t give any advice about dealing with those. Also, since most listings were made to accommodate two people, my sister and I never had to pay that extra guest fee.

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So those extra fees never caused us any trouble– but it’s certainly something to look out for when you’re booking a place.

It’s also worth checking out the apartment’s cancellation policy. Are you a wandering soul with no strict travel plans? Check the cancellation policy of the apartment to make sure that you’ll be refunded in the event that you change your mind. Airbnb cancellation policies come in the shades of flexible, moderate, strict, super-strict, and long-term. You can read more about that here.

Privacy is really nice.

Well, depending on what style of traveler you are. Some people have plenty of time, and just love to chat it up with whoever’s around. Talking to your host can actually be great– they can give you recommendations only a native would know. And shared rooms give you the chance to hang out and chill with other travelers

My sister and I, however, had barely any time at all in each city.

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At the end of the day, we just wanted somewhere to relax and unwind. When you’re that exhausted, having your own room to just chill is really nice– no need to tiptoe around sleeping strangers.

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It all depends on you, but we found that having our own room really enhanced our trip. A little comfort goes a long way, and Airbnb helped us afford the luxury of our own room.

You get what you pay for.

That said, not all Airbnb listings are created equal. There are a huge variety of apartments you can find, the quality and price of which differ greatly.

You could rent this entire apartment for $200 a night…

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…or this girl’s couch for $57 a night.

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What a steal!

My sister and I found a really cheap place to stay in Rome. The host described it as a “beautiful bright dorm” that was part of a “big, lovely, classy and fun apartment.” With all those superlatives, it HAD to be good.

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The reviews were all positive, and the price couldn’t be beat. We were going to have to share a room with two other strangers, but we figured that we could deal with that for a few nights.

And we could. That was fine– we bunked with two lovely girls from Texas. It was the apartment itself that was a problem.

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The apartment was pretty much falling apart. It was nicely decorated, at least– it was lived-in and frequented by artsy hipsters. But, hey: it was cheap! You could tell.

The extra little conveniences go a long way.

At least, they did for my sister and I. Firstly, we were backpacking. We only brought a week’s worth of clothes for a five-week trip.

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So, whenever we had washing machines, it was a godsend.

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Before you believe that we were totally smelly, though, I’ll tell you that my sister and I washed our clothes every day! Washing machine or not! When there was no washer available, we just washed our clothes by hand. It was a process, involving us carrying around laundry detergent, scrubbing out our clothes, rinsing them out, and drying everything on my sister’s travel clothesline.

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Washing machines: I appreciate them now. And if you’re traveling light, you will too! They’re really handy if you don’t have enough clothes for the entire trip.

Since we were trying to keep our expenses down, we would often buy lots of food from the grocery store. We would usually need a place to keep this food. The second convenience to look for: Refrigerators. Under the Airbnb listing, look for a kitchen, and read the reviews and description.

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And finally, check if your place has internet! We take it for granted these days, but my family actually stayed in an apartment in Budapest without WiFi. For those two nights, my family bemoaned the fact that we couldn’t look up directions or tourist attractions.

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Airbnb has even made it easy for you. Hosts can show which amenities they do and don’t have.

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Communicate with your host.

Did you read the description, check the reviews and have finally decided on a place? Awesome! Now you can try to book for the dates that you want.

However, even if your desired dates are available, you can’t book instantly. You have to talk to your host first. Introduce yourself, tell them what you’re dropping in town for, be polite. Then, you’ll receive a confirmation message when your host accepts your booking.

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Some places can be booked instantly, though. Look for the lightning icon next to the price.

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Be a good guest!

You can leave reviews for your hosts. Reversely, your hosts can leave reviews of you once you’ve stayed in their apartment. If you rack up a string of bad reviews, people are less likely to rent to you. So be a good guest! If your host requests you to do something, like close the door gently or be quiet at night, do it. Don’t be a college freshman in a dorm.

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It’s really just common courtesy. Most importantly, remember: you’re staying in someone else’s house. Sometimes, they have maid service. But if you’re staying somewhere cheaper, the likelihood is that they clean the place themselves.

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And that’s it! Those are just my little tips on things to look out for when renting your Airbnb. It’s not an exhaustive guide, but hopefully it’ll help out some prospective travelers. I was lucky enough to have a great time. But who knows? When I travel again, my experience with Airbnb might be better. It might be worse. But at this point in time, I know this: I’ll be using Airbnb again soon.

You are what you Eataly

Panna cotta in Rome!

When I came home from my internship last June, I got a bit of a surprise.

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My sister is a naturally slim and healthy person, so I was surprised to see her dieting. I asked her what brought this on.

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Europe is a special place: there are a ton of distinct, unique cultures clustered on one continent. These cultures have had centuries to develop and refine their cuisine. My sister compiled a list of the must-try foods in every country we were visiting. The list looked kind of like this:

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This was the case for all of the countries: Too many foods, not enough time. It didn’t stop us from trying, though.

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Oliebollen: fried dough covered in powdered sugar!

Italian fried cheese and fried meat!

Italian fried cheese and fried meat!

Bitteballen: Dutch fried meat!

Bitteballen: Dutch fried meat!

You get the idea.

The bakeries were the most irresistible. Every corner of Europe seemed to have a cute, locally-owned bakery filled with tempting sweets. My sister could barely resist the allure.

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And my sister indeed tried everything she possibly could.

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As for myself? Well, I kept up with my sister at first.

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But right before going to Europe, I had been on Weight Watchers. I had trained for and completed a half-marathon. My body couldn’t take the transition from super-healthy to super-indulgent.

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I was stuffed to the brim.

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But I continued to eat.

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Yessir, my sister and I ate as much as we were physically capable of fitting into our bodies. We had to. There was too much deliciousness for us not to. By the end, even my sister agreed:

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Coming home and trying to exercise again for the first time after 5 weeks was… interesting.

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And I still don’t.

 

 

 

For the foodies: Here are some of my favorite foods that we ate during our trip!

Stroopwafels: a Dutch dessert consisting of two thin waffles with caramel in between them.

Stroopwafels: a Dutch dessert consisting of two thin waffles with caramel in between them.

Panna cotta in Rome!

Panna cotta in Rome!

Duck confit in Paris! And that side dish is aligot, mashed potatoes and melted cheese.

Duck confit in Paris! And that side dish is aligot, mashed potatoes and melted cheese.

Bratwurst and potatoes in Traben-Trarbach! German food will always have a special place in my heart.

Bratwurst and potatoes in Traben-Trarbach! German food will always have a special place in my heart.

Parisian creme brulee makes my mouth go YAY.

Parisian crème brûlée makes my mouth go YAY.

Italian gelato cafes are really popular in Germany!

Italian gelato cafes are really popular in Germany!

Just some simple penne in Rome. What you'd expect, yet somehow infinitely more delicious than any pasta I've had before!

Pasta in Rome. Looks simple, yet somehow it infinitely more delicious than any pasta I’ve had before!

 

That time I cried in Paris

Whew, I’m finally home! After five weeks of backpacking through Europe, and then another week of visiting family, it’s a relief to sleep in my own bed. And to finally have a computer again!

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Now that I have a computer, I can blog again as well. So let’s get to it!

Since my sister and I returned from Europe, we’ve been asked a lot of questions about our trip.

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Since many of you might be curious as well, I’ll answer your questions.

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My sister and I saw so many amazing sights, but we wholeheartedly agree on one as our favorite.

You see, my sister and I happened to be in Paris on Bastille Day. We hadn’t planned it that way– it was a total coincidence.

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I did some research on the Bastille Day celebrations. One caught my eye.

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Fireworks at the Eiffel Tower? That sounded like a must-see! I did some research.

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It sounded like it was going to be chaos. My sister and I still wanted to see it, though, so we headed over to the Champ de Mars around 5PM.

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It was already crowded when we arrived.

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All there was to do was to picnic and wait. Which was fine with us– after touring Paris the entire day, we were glad to rest our feet.

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My sister and I arrived at a fairly good time. Although it was crowded, there was still space farther back from the tower. We had enough space to actually spread out our towels and lay down.  As the hours passed, though, people started packing in.

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Soon, getting anywhere was a challenge.

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There was a stage right in front of the Eiffel Tower, but we were too far to see it. Luckily, the entire park was lined with giant speakers. As the sun set, a concert began.

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Opera singers, choirs, and an entire orchestra performed classic French music. Though I’m not French, I recognized quite a few of the songs.

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The Eiffel Tower began to light up and change color with each new tune.

Eiffel Sparkle

One song– the love theme from French film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg– struck my sister and I particularly hard.

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Then, after a rousing performance of the French national anthem, the fireworks began.

And it blew my mind.

I’m used to just… normal fireworks, you know? I’m already impressed by the fireworks put on by my local county during July 4th. I expected a few fireworks to shoot off behind the tower. It’d be a nice photo-op. It’s be chill.

But then the Eiffel Tower started to do this:

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And this: 

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Also this: 

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I’ve never seen fireworks form words before.

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There was only one appropriate reaction to this sight.

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Not only was it Bastille Day, but it was also the 100th year since World War I began. Because of this, the entire 40-minute-long fireworks show commemorated the war. The fireworks were timed to music, matching each phase of the war. The colors would darken and the fireworks would slow for times of peace. For times of conflict, the music and fireworks would rise and explode.

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Sometimes there were so many fireworks that it was hard to see the tower.

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It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Fireworks are awesome and lovely, but Bastille Day fireworks are something else entirelyNo GIF or video can really explain how incredible it was.

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40 minutes later, the fireworks finally concluded. I couldn’t believe thatit was already over– I could have stood there, repeatedly screaming “OH MY GODDD!!” for at least another hour.

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The Eiffel Tower still sported its Bastille Day colors, though– which is more than you might see on a normal day in Paris.

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It was almost midnight when my sister and I joined the crowds heading home.

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The streets were packed, traffic was stopped, and taking the metro was out of the question. My sister and I walked an hour and a half to make it back to our apartment. By the time we got back, we were hungry, exhausted, and in desperate need of a shower.

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The next day, we rejoined the throngs of tourists making their way around Paris. A lot of people say to not visit Paris near Bastille Day. July is peak tourist season, and the holiday makes the crowds almost unbearable. But after that night, my sister and I concluded:

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After all, that’s the only time a bunch of exploding rockets have moved me to tears.

 

Curious to see what the Bastille Day fireworks are like? Here’s a nice video I found of the entire 2014 show!

I’m going to Europe for a month! And it’s going to be as smooth as sandpaper.

I’ve been pretty busy for the last few weeks. I finished my internship in Boston. I packed up my apartment and moved home. And now, I’m getting ready for a month-long journey in Europe.

Wait, what?

You see, my sister just graduated from her MBA program. She’s starting her first big-girl job in September, where she’s expecting to work long hours and have little vacation time. This summer break is going to be her last for a while.

Also, we share a love for one of the dumbest comedies of all time.

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So, last year, she proposed:

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I agreed, of course. I’m always up for a little travel!

I wasn’t sure how serious she was, though, until I started looking for internships. Internships (or, more specifically, co-ops) at Northeastern last for the entire semester and part of summer. My sister called me in protest.

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Thus, for the past several months, we’ve been booking hostels, buying train tickets, and planning out our European journey.

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As you can imagine, planning a trip of this extent takes a lot of effort. Since my sister’s been out of school, she’s done a lot of the work.

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I was able to plan London and Paris myself, though.

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Even the most detailed plans can’t ensure a smooth trip, though. Take my New Zealand trip, for example. Yeah. My sister and I have  many concerns about our trip to Europe, including…

Pickpockets.

Do you know how many horror stories I’ve heard about thieves in Europe?

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lot. 

I’ve heard about pickpockets…

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…scams…

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…and straight up destruction of property.

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Yeah. I’ll be the girl with the hidden money belt, luggage locks, and anti-theft purse clutched tightly to her chest. No worries, mate.

The language barrier.

Everyone says that you can get around Europe just fine with only English.

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That doesn’t mean that we’re not worried, though.

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To help us along our way, my sister has compiled a small phrasebook.

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At least we have Italian down.

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Navigation.

I get lost in my own hometown. Navigating a new city every few days is going to be even harder, especially when everything’s in a different language.

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Carrying a giant paper map around is like screaming, “I’m a tourist! Please rob me!” In this day and age, there has to be a better solution.

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Luckily, I have an unlocked smartphone that is able to use any carrier I choose. After doing some research, I decided to try and get the T-mobile Simple Choice plan.

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After a good hour at the T-mobile store…

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I have the plan on my phone now.

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I’ll let you know how that goes.

Driving.

My parents are actually joining my sister and I for part of the trip. They’re flying into Germany, renting a car, and meeting us in Salzburg.

My dad actually asked for my opinion before deciding on our transportation.

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Based off my previous experiences in Australia and New Zealand, I did not think this was ok.

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After considering my opinion, and many other opinions, my dad made his decision.

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This brings us back to our previous problem.

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Our trip is going to be smooth as silk. I can already feel it.

Either way, my sister and I are departing the States on July 8th– less than a week to departure! Despite all my misgivings, I’m also very, very excited. Some of the things on our itinerary are things I’ve only dreamed of seeing.

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And I’m sure that, no matter what bumps and mishaps come our way, it’ll be a trip to remember.

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Starting July 8th, I’m going to be without a computer until August! Add me on Instagram to follow me and my sister on our journey through Europe!

Renting a campervan in New Zealand: Tips and tricks to avoiding utter chaos

The University of Sydney, like any university, gives their students a break mid-semester. My friends and I wanted to do something with that break.

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My friends and I decided that “something” would be to travel. While we were in Sydney, why not hit up Australia’s next-door neighbor? New Zealand is world-famous for its natural beauty. The amazing scenery in all three Lord of the Rings films? All shot in New Zealand.

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Our time was limited, so we decided to travel only New Zealand’s south island. But how would we get around? The majority of New Zealand lives on the North Island. The south island, on the other hand, is sparsely populated. We decided to be extra-adventurous and rent a campervan for our trip.

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It sounded like the perfect 20-something, idyllic college adventure. Don’t get me wrong: it was an adventure. And like any adventure, not everything went as smoothly as we planned. After this trip, I came to realize that not everything about travel is smooth sailing. A little foresight would have gone a long way for those 10 days in the land of Kiwis. So for the reference of future travelers looking for a fun and exciting trip ti NZ– here are some of the things I wish I knew going:

You get what you pay for.

Campervans are popular in New Zealand and get booked out way ahead of time. Do your research early, especially if you’re on a budget.

While doing your research, keep in mind that some vans are cheaper for a reason. Check reviews of the rental company. Check how old the campervan is.

My friends and I got lucky. Though we booked our van pretty late, it wasn’t a total lemon. In fact, we were really excited when we saw our van!

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However, we found a few problems. Our campervan had a working sink and shower, connected to a water tank in the van. But when we tried to fill it up…

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Our van would leak water until the tank reached about half its capacity. This wasn’t too much of a problem for us, though since we usually stayed at campgrounds with bathrooms. However, our second problem was much worse.

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The heat in our campervan didn’t work, not even once. During that time, the weather averaged around 50-60 degrees during the day and got even colder at night.

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We found a small heater fan under the sink that staved off the worst of the shivers, but the Icebox was always a bit chilly. At least this led to great bonding time.

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Figure out how you’re going to navigate.

We rented a GPS with our company and drove off happily, thinking it would solve all our problems. Then, we turned it on.

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Our GPS was old, broken, and incapable of guiding us anywhere. My friend had the foresight of downloading an offline navigation app onto his phone. The only problem was that, though the app could navigate offline, it needed internet to locate our desired destination.

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My advice? Figure out a data plan for your phone, preferably one with a reliable navigation app, before you depart. You don’t want to get knocked with high roaming bills. Nor do you want to get lost.

 

Check the New Zealand travel website.

My friends and I were overly ambitious. Our first day of travel had us drive from Christchurch, on the east coast, all the way over to the west coast.

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The most direct road to get there was through Arthur’s Pass. Google Maps predicted that the trip would take 5 hours. As we drove, though, we found that the route was a winding, meandering mountain road.  We were forced to drive slowly to avoid hurtling off a cliff. As a result, the trip took 8 hours instead of 5.

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Late that night, we finally arrived at our campsite. We made a quick dinner and got ready for bed. My friend and I went to the campsite lodge to wash our dishes.

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The campsite caretaker visited us in the lodge, curious to see who was doing dishes at 11PM. He struck up some small-talk.

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The caretaker elaborated.

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Wait. What? The only road, closed? But we had to get to Queenstown. We had bungee jumps and skydives booked there! We were on a schedule!

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He said what I didn’t want to hear.

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Suddenly, our planned route went from this

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to this: 

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In other words, a 4 hour ride suddenly became an 11-hour one. To make it to Queenstown on time, we were going to have to drive.

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Which brings me to my next point.

 

Don’t over-plan.

We had our whole game plan outlined when we went to New Zealand. In retrospect, this wasn’t the best idea. We sacrificed the liberty to wander where we wanted.

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And, of course, there was the Haas-Pass-landslide fiasco.

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Our overplanning may have caused us to rush around. A lot.

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These long rides led to another problem.

 

Carsickness can happen.

When you’re driving down those winding, twisting mountain roads, bouncing around in the back of a bumpy campervan, you’re bound to be a little uncomfortable.

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My friends and I hoped to read, play cards, or do things while riding around. Mostly, though, we just sat back and slept. There was no other way. We took turns sitting in the front with the driver, just to help with the nausea.

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Remember that you can’t camp just anywhere.

The national law in New Zealand allows freedom camping– aka, pitching your tent wherever you want– in any public space. However, local laws have limited the areas where camping is allowed. Trying to find out where you can and can’t stay can get confusing.

And don’t forget that your campervan needs some tender love and care. You’ll need somewhere to dump your waste, fill up your water tank, and charge the van’s battery every few days. This usually means booking a campsite.

My friends and I played it safe and made sure that we had a sanctioned campsite to stay at… most nights.

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It’s a lot less stressful when you’ve got a set place to go.

You also can’t park your campervan just anywhere.

Basically, don’t do this:

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Seriously, don’t drive your van into any sort of grass until you know it’s solid. There won’t always be a group of friendly tourists willing to push your van out of the mud.

Give yourself time to take it all in.

Our trip to New Zealand was one of the craziest experiences of my life. We got lost. We got sidetracked. We raced around the entire island. We panicked and freaked out.

Our trip to New Zealand was also one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I’ve yet to visit a place that can match NZ’s natural beauty. We often in such a rush that I forgot to look around me– but when I did, it always took me by surprise. Like it did in Queenstown.

After arriving in Queenstown at 4 in the morning, we  finally found a parking lot without a “No Camping” sign. It was too dark to see exactly where we were, but were too tired to care. We parked the car, locked the doors, and went to sleep. A few hours later, I woke up and groggily crawled out of bed.

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By some miracle, we had chosen a parking lot with a public bathroom next door. I grabbed my toothbrush and headed outside.

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It was here that I brushed my teeth and greeted the morning.

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And this was only a taste of the amazing little Queenstown.

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That was just one of the many incredible things we saw. Our first day, driving to the west coast through the insane Arthur’s Pass, we also stopped for a bit. We had to. We needed a moment to appreciate what we were seeing.

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Here’s another place we needed to stop and appreciate:

Lake Ruataniwha-- the name of which I didn't know until I Googled it later.

Lake Ruataniwha, which we hadn’t heard about in any travel guide. I didn’t know its name until I Googled it later.

And another:

Nugget Point, New Zealand.

Nugget Point, New Zealand.

And another.

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Lake Pukaki, New Zealand.

The campervan allowed us to access places we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. For instance, we stayed a night at Purakaunui Bay, located in the Catlins Coast. The campground was basic: hole-in-the-ground toilets, water that needed to be boiled before drinking, and absolutely no lights. We went to sleep with the sunset…

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…and woke up with the sunrise.

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Our trip was organized chaos. Would I do it a little differently if I went back to New Zealand? Sure thing. Do I regret going? Not even a little bit. I still have trouble describing in New Zealand in words. It’s a country of unadulterated, dazzling scenery.

Future travelers, be warned: your dream trip in New Zealand might not be perfect . But hopefully, with these tips, your campervan trip will smoother than mine. Keep a rough plan and book things ahead of time. At the same time, though, give yourself time to enjoy everything to its fullest. Honestly, all the time in the world isn’t enough for New Zealand. And we only saw half of it.

Hiking to Fox Glacier on a rainy day.

Hiking to Fox Glacier on a rainy day.

Along the Hooker Valley Track, New Zealand.

Along the Hooker Valley Track.

Near Akaroa, New Zealand.

Near Akaroa.

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Good luck with your travels!

 

Edit: Hey all, I got a great comment from a New Zealand native on driving in the country. I think it’s great to know, so I’m including it here. She’s also talked about it on her blog

“Kia ora Vy.

Well done for choosing the South Island to go to. All us kiwis ask tourists when we see them – ‘Are you going to the South Island? You HAVE to see the South Island while you’re here, it’s the best of New Zealand scenery!! I’m really sorry you got a lemon camper van – this is a good thing to know, so we can advise others ourselves.

A word to tourists heading our way – there is quite a big fuss being made in New Zealand at the moment about tourist drivers. Several have caused accidents lately that have killed New Zealanders, and we’re not very happy about that. Many kiwis are calling for a special driving test for overseas tourists before they can drive on our roads. Because they ARE very windy and narrow a lot of the time, not what those who come from countries with straight roads and many lanes are used to. There are two things us locals want you to know:

PULL OVER!! If you have 3 or more cars behind you when you’re driving, pull over as soon as you can do so safely. You may be on holiday, but we’re probably trying to get to work. Not pulling over can cause people to get frustrated and do dangerous overtaking manouvres to get where they’re trying to go. Potential accident!

If you’re tired, DON’T DRIVE!! Tiredness can lead to you pulling out into wrong lanes in confusion. Potential accident!

We love having tourists here because we’re very proud of our country and want you to see it. But please don’t come over here and kill us. Thank you, and happy holidaying.

Regards, New Zealand locals.  :D

Drive safely, everyone! Take your time and don’t rush, no matter where you’re going. 

I’ll take any excuse to dress up in costume and ride on a boat.

Last weekend, I went on a cosplay cruise.

That’s exactly what it sounds like. A boat full of costumed otaku, doing whatever it is otaku do. It was being hosted by Boston’s local anime store, Anime Zakka, who kindly reduced the price for us.

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What a deal! Dozens of the most hardcore anime dorks in the same boat? That had to be a good time!

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I really wanted to go, but I really didn’t want to go alone. Luckily, my friends were interested in coming as well.

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Alright, I may have pestered a couple of my friends into going. Hey, that cruise was a great bargain. And the more, the merrier! Thus, last weekend, my friends and I woke up bright and early Sunday morning to get ready for the cruise.

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The cruise was taking off from the Boston Harbor, which meant that we had a nice, long ride on the subway to get there.

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We arrived at the port.

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We had indeed gone the right way.

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A Madoka crossplay from Madoka Magica.

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A police Stocking from Panty and Stocking!

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Anime Zakka had rented out the entire lower deck for the cruise. Although the deck has a capacity of 200+ people, they restricted the event to 100 tickets to avoid overcrowding. My friends and I got our own table.

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As promised, there was food…

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Cosplay…

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Aladdin from Magi.

Hatsune Miku.

Hatsune Miku.

…and a cruise in the Boston Harbor.

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That wasn’t all, though. There was a Yankee Swap, where people bring in anime-themed gifts and exchange them anonymously between attendees. There were no guidelines on the event page, so I wasn’t sure what to buy. I went with a keychain of one of my favorite characters.

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What I didn’t know was that people would be going all out. 

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Though I wasn’t the only person to bring in a small gift, I ended up feeling pretty guilty at the end.

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Also unexpected were the people on the boat. The nerds might have occupied the entire bottom deck, but the upper two decks were taken by perfectly ordinary people who just wanted to enjoy a cruise on this lovely day. Little did they know that they would be interrupted.

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But, the most unexpected of all?

How normal it all felt.

I always go to conventions and enjoy them. Yet somewhere, at the back of my mind, I’d feel ashamed. Every judgmental onlooker gave me a twinge of shame. I really am a dork. People think we’re such losers. 

It’s true. People do think we’re such losers.

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But, that day, there was no embarrassment.

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On the contrary, I felt pretty alright.

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I mean, who cares? Really, we were just a bunch of friends enjoying the beautiful weather. In costume.

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SO FIERCE, RIGHT?

On that day, I cosplayed and didn’t feel like a freak. I felt like it’s OK to like what I like. I was on a boat and having a great time, just like any other person. Just because I like anime doesn’t mean that I should feel less about myself. Just because I like comics and cosplay doesn’t mean that I have to be a socially awkward, stereotypical dork.

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Though I can see where the stereotype comes from.

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I guess I’m an awkward turtle after all.

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But even awkward encounters can lead to great things.

My friends and I with Haruka Nanase from Free!

My friends and I with Haruka Nanase from Free!

Anime Zakka, if you ever host another cruise: I will be there.

I might run like a snail, but at least I can run for 13.1 miles!

When I arrived at my first half-marathon, I didn’t think I was nervous.

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Maybe it was because I had been having a ball. The past few days had been pretty awesome, after all.

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My family even came to Boston to see me, adding to the fun.

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When I think about it, though, I bet I was pretty nervous.

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But I managed to keep that nervousness down, mainly because my family was with me. At my insistence, we arrived at the start zone an hour early. We spent the time taking photos and messing around.

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The race was set to begin at 7AM. The closer it got to the start time, the more crowded it became.

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Finally, only a few minutes remained before the start.

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That’s when it truly hit me. Today was the day. The time was now. This half-marathon that I had spent the last 5 months training for was about to happen.

The runners lined up, the national anthem was sung, and then…

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There were so many runners that for the first minute, I didn’t move at all. Finally, the crowd surged to a walk. Then a jog. Then, finally…

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Off I ran, joining the stampede of runners through downtown Boston.

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Dozens of people strode past me, but I didn’t care. I knew from the start that I was slow. I would finish this race at my own pace, no matter how fast people were!

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Each mile had a timer set up, allowing the runner to see how much time had elapsed. I guess I was letting the people around me set the pace, since I was running a lot faster than usual.

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Alright, I’ll confess: when I started training back in January, my pace was around 11:30 per mile– really freakin’ slow. By the end of my training I had reduced it to 10:30 per mile. But now I was running a good 30 seconds faster than that, out of nowhere. What’s the deal?

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Maybe it was all the runners around me, maybe it was the adrenaline. Whatever it was, at each mile marker, I didn’t seem to be slowing down. I pushed on without pause.

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Well, ok. I did stop at the many water stations set up along the route. Volunteers handed out cups of water and Gatorade. However, there were not enough trash cans to keep up with the water consumption. Cups were simply tossed aside in massive piles.

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In spite of these stops, I kept up the pace.

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I kept it up even as my legs started to burn.

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And as my breathing grew steadily heavier.

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By the tenth mile, I had pretty much had it.

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The maximum I had run before the half-marathon was 12 miles. So when I reached that 13th, final mile, I was out.

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But at the end, I had a surprise waiting for me.

My family was waiting faithfully for me at the finish line, that I knew. Since they couldn’t follow me during the rest of the race, I tried to keep them updated. I kept my phone with me during the race (to listen to music, the ultimate essential for running) and also sent them periodic texts.

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As a result, they were ready for me.

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My sister ran along the last 200 yards or so of my half-marathon, taking photos like a madwoman. My mom and dad were lying in wait as well.

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I was too exhausted to model for long, though. My sister got plenty of unflattering shots.

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Though amused, I didn’t slow down for my family. I couldn’t. Not after running for so long. I had to finish strong!

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And thus, in 2 hours, 10 minutes, and 20 seconds, I finished my first half-marathon.

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At the finish line, there were bagels, chips, and bananas waiting for us.

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And, of course, our medals.

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It was hard to believe that this run– this darned half-marathon that I trained for months to complete– was actually over. I had actually finished, with a personal best! I met up with my family, who congratulated me.

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Completely and utterly sore, I limped triumphantly to the car, where I proceeded to lay on the ground.

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A week later, I’ve finally gotten over my soreness. I still carry that little medal wherever I go, though. I’m the girl who hated running, after all. I’m the one who could barely run a single mile a few years ago. I know, I know: half-marathons have been done so many times before, by people much faster than I am. But to me, that little medal– it’s kind of a big deal.

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The Real Life of a Newbie Runner, part 2

Read part 1 here!

Although I acknowledge my status as a newbie runner, I admit I’ve been getting more confident lately.

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However, every since returning from Sydney, I have always run alone. I haven’t had anyone to measure myself against. My concern isn’t speed, it’s distance. Thus, while I think I look like this… 

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…the reality is a little more like this. 

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A few weekends ago, I met up with some of my buddies for my school’s annual Holi festival. One friend is actually signed up for the same half-marathon as me. He’s been a long-time runner– a person who used to do cross-country and runs consistently in his free time. A real runner! But hey, aren’t I a runner too now?

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As soon as I said it, I immediately regretted it.

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Hey, I thought. Maybe this will be fine. I can handle running a little faster than usual, right? Sure, Vy. Keep on telling that to yourself.

Later that day, my friend and I met up and took off.

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I ignored the feeling and kept on running.

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But only a few miles had passed. We kept going.

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Around the 7-mile mark…

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My friend and I stopped for a few minutes, allowing me to drink some water and stop hyperventilating. My legs and lungs were burning. Man. How fast had we been running, anyway?

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We couldn’t stop for long. My friend had a dinner date to get to that evening, and we had to make sure he got home on time.

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My bravado was soon defeated, though.

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By the end, I think my friend was seriously fearing for my health.

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After what seemed like an eternity later, we reached his apartment.

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Despite still being a few miles from my own apartment, I couldn’t run anymore. Instead, I stumbled home…

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…and moped in bed for a while.

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That day, I didn’t reach my target distance. How was I going to run the even longer half-marathon in only a few weeks? Despite all my training, I still lacked speed and endurance.

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Just to make me feel worse, the Boston Marathon was two days later.

This Boston Marathon was going to be a big one. After last year’s bombings, people were determined to make this year a success. The number of participants increased to 36,000, 10,000 more than the previous year. Literally hundreds of thousands of people lined up along the route to cheer on the runners, alongside more police officers and security guards than usual.

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One of the many security checkpoints along the race route.

I entered the marathon zone around the 25-mile mark, slowly walking my way towards the finish line. The closer I got, the more crowded it became. By the time I got to Boylston Street, it became difficult to see.

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I arrived pretty early, around the conclusion of the wheelchair race. Only the fastest runners were nearing the finish line. I’m sure at that point, the runners must have been absolutely exhausted. Yet they pushed on.

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Perhaps the crowd was helping them along. For some reason, the cheering seemed more tumultuous than usual. Every runner brought a new round of clapping and shouting.

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A big screen set up by the finish line allowed people to view the runners’ struggle up close.

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And, of course, their victories.

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Regardless of the runner’s pace, they were all met by equal amounts of applause. Each one, as they crossed the finish line, had the same expression as well. Complete exhaustion. Utter relief. And– regardless if they placed first, third, or 1000th– an expression of personal victory.

A Boston Marathon bombing survivor finishes the race. From popsugar.com.

A Boston Marathon bombing survivor finishes the race. From popsugar.com.

People have knocked me for my super-slow running. They’ll first express disbelief, then smugness. Then they’ll sanctimoniously offer advice.

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But when I watched the Boston Marathon, I remembered the words of one of my runner friends.

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And as I watched those runners cross the finish line, I finally understood what she meant.

A week from now, I’ll be running my first half-marathon. I’ll be the out-of-place looking girl who has neither the lean body of a runner nor the fancy athletic gear to match. I’ll be the one running like a snail. And I’ll be the one who will still run proudly, because I’m going to finish. That’s all I want.

To prove to myself, and no one else, that I can do it.

 

 

 

 

The Oatmeal has a great post on long-distance running, which I have found more and more to be totally true. 

Also, if you have any good workout songs, let me know! I need a playlist for the half-marathon, and using Pandora is getting old. 

 

In which I discover that I’ve learned nothing for the past three years of college.

When I entered college three years ago, I took a free practice MCAT offered by Kaplan.

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Three years later, I took a practice MCAT again. This time, I was trying for real. I had been in college for three years already, so I had to do better– right?

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Apparently not. After three years of schooling, my score raised only by a nominal point.

Unlike during my freshman year, where I could just brush it off…

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…I can’t really ignore it now.

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Since I’m graduating college in a year, I actually have to think about my future now. Part of this has become studying for the MCAT, also known as the Medical College Admission Test. Among all of the grad school exams, the MCAT is particularly notorious. It is long, hard, demands a great deal of memorized knowledge, and is designed to weed out the weak.

The weak, including me.

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So I registered for one of Kaplan’s online MCAT courses.

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I knew that I would have to study hard for this exam. It covers organic chemistry, general chemistry, biology, physics, and verbal reasoning– all subjects that I have struggled with in the past. But I was still a little shocked when I received my Kaplan review books in the mail.

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I was even more shocked when I started to read the material.

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As it turns out, I haven’t learned 50% of the content I’m supposed to know for the MCAT, ever. The other 50% I studied years ago. In between my full-time internship and increasingly time-consuming half-marathon training, I continued to study.

My first MCAT class rolled around.

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Try as I might, I could not keep up.

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But as life got in the way, even the weekends failed me.

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Falling so behind started to get to me.

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There was only one thing to do.

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So now, I’ve bought myself a little more time (literally, as changing your MCAT test date costs $65) to prep for this exam. In other words, I’ve delayed my inevitable collapse until October.

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Maybe I should go into business instead.

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Sisterhood of the World Bloggers

sisterhood-of-traveling-blogger-award_thumb[2]

Hey y’all! So, this may come as a bit of a shock, but people other than my mom read this blog. Well. It’s shocking to me, at least!

The lovely Little Misadventures nominated me for the “Sisterhood of the World Blog Award”– not an actual award, but another cute little meme where bloggers can appreciate each other’s sites. It’s like a nice pat on the back. I’ve done a few of these things before, I know. You’ll have to forgive me for doing another one!

Anyway, the “rules” are as follows:

1) Link to the blogger who nominated you and say thanks.

2) Nominate blogs that you find a joy to read.

3) Link to the nominees and tell them about the nomination.

4) Include the award logo in your blog post.

5) Answer the ten questions listed below.

1) What is your favorite color? 

At those darned get-to-know-you-icebreakers, I usually tell people my favorite color is green.

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And I do like green. But honestly, I think colors look best in combination with one another. My favorite color combo, then, is cerulean and spring green.

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Though what I should really do at those icebreakers is tell people the names of Crayola crayons.

2) What is your favorite animal?

This is going to sound odd, but in elementary school I used to have an obsession with beavers.

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I used to draw them on everything.

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For one of my school projects, I even made a board game on beaver trivia.

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It’s Castor fiber, by the way. The American beaver is Castor canadensis.

My love was short-lived, though. That same year, I bought my first Gameboy along with the game Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland. My obsession with beavers soon gave way to an obsession with Kirby.

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3) What is your favorite non-alcoholic drink?

Almond milk. Is that weird? It’s weird.

The thing is, I don’t drink it because of this whole deal:

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Nah, while all that is very concerning, I drink almond milk because:

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Unfortunately, my gallons of unsweetened almond milk has a high price. It’s literally double the price of milk.

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4) Do you prefer Facebook or Twitter?

I’m a Facebook person, I admit. I’m just not witty enough for a Twitter. Besides, I like taking photos, and Facebook is photo-friendly.

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Facebook is fun!

5) What is your favorite pattern?

I always thought fractals were pretty cool.

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Fractal art is even cooler!

6) Do you prefer getting or giving presents?

Man, I’m just going to say it straight: receiving presents is awesome. What kid at Christmas didn’t like receiving presents? Not me, that’s for sure.

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But I also like giving presents. The only problem is that I really, really suck at gift-buying. So while giving gifts is sometimes fun…

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…sometimes, it’s not so fun.

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7) What is your favorite number?

Back in 9th grade, I joined the lacrosse team on a whim. It was the only season that I have ever played lacrosse. As a total beginner, I sucked at it.

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That year, we got to choose our own uniform number. The coach piled up all the old jerseys and let the girls have at it.

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By the time I got to the pile, only one jersey was left.

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It was the number 13.

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An abandoned, unloved, unlucky number.

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And for the rest of that season, I continued to suck at lacrosse. But even now, I’m fond of the number 13!

8) What is your favorite day of the week?

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9) What is your favorite flower?

An idea I stole from my sister– Gerber daisies! Because they’re so bright, obnoxious, and in-your-face.

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10) What is your passion?

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Yeah. Not surprising, I guess.

And now, some blogs that I happen to enjoy reading!

This Japanese Life.

Wings for Liberty

The Japanese Role Playing Game

Incidental Comics

Zen Pencils

Mister G Kids

Gourmet Gaming

Enjoy!