New Zealand 3: Waitomo Glowworm Caves and Doing the Haka

New Zealand Day 2: Boarding the Stray Bus and Raglan Beach

After our night in the rainforest (or so we dubbed our Raglan hostel), we boarded the bus and drove towards Waitomo for a day at the famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves. While most of the bus opted for the scenic boat ride through the caves, a few of us decided to do something a little more adventurous…

Cave Tubing with the BlackWater Rafting Company! 

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Donning some very sexy water resistant suits, rubber boots and head lamp helmets, my group of English, Swedish and Irish friends took off across sheep farms towards the cave entrance. It was a surprisingly long but nice trek literally on top of the caves and through the hilly fields which was quite awkward in a skin-tight suit. But I enjoyed getting nice and warm before descending into the chilly 50 degree water of the caves below. Also, did I mention it was lambing season, so there were baby lambs EVERYWHERE and they were of course adorable to watch.

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Once we got to the entrance to the caves I was actually shaking with fear. I don’t like being cold and wet, which is exactly what we were going to be for about 2 hours. What if I got claustrophobic and wanted to get out? Thankfully we didn’t have much time to consider our predicament before we were climbing down a slick ladder between the rocks and into the darkness. Peace out!

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At the bottom of the ladder, we stepped foot into the shallow water of the cave, our footsteps echoing around us and guiding us towards an endless dark pathway. It reminded me of that scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when they are walking through the cave passageway towards the chamber (thankfully we didn’t encounter a massive snake!). Immediately we followed our guide forward, careful not to touch the sides of the cave and disturb any limestone formations. Over the next two hours we stomped along the slick belly of the cave, encountering narrow pathways and rushing rivers that flooded our boots with icy water.

Meanwhile our two guides explained the science of the caves and the glowworms that famously inhabit them. We saw enormous stalactites and stalagmites and were forced to squeeze into and crawl military style on our hands and knees through the narrowest parts of the cave. Then we turned off our headlights in suspended silence and watched the glowworms come to life above us. It was beautiful, like a living and breathing starry sky.

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At one point we came upon a calm body of water and were instructed to grab a tube and launch ourselves into the water. I was terrified, but did it and was immediately submerged in the frigid water. BRRRR! We then linked our ankles together and floated in silence down the slowly moving corridor of water beneath the glowworms like some Disney ride. It was my favorite part of the entire tour.

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After almost two hours of a very physical tour including a nice break for a hot beverage and chocolate, I was tired and my toes were completely frozen. Caving is fun but COLD. I couldn’t wait to get out and bask in the sun with the lambs. Although this tour was challenging and a little scary, IT WAS SO MUCH FUN. I really enjoy challenging myself when I travel (remember biking in Cambodia?) because I think you learn a lot about yourself and have a memorable experience to go along with the place you are visiting. I won’t just remember the Waitomo Glowworms Caves, I’ll remember freezing my toes off, scrambling along the rocks and laughing hysterically with my friends in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. And that is just so much better!

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When the tour with Blackwater Rafting Company (check them out here!) was over, we emerged into the sunlight (thank god!) and walked back to their outpost on the farm. There we struggled to peel ourselves out of our wetsuits and I took the most marvelous hot shower of my life despite the pins-and-needles feeling in my toes. I was exhausted but so content by the time we met up with the rest of our bus who were dry and energized in comparison!

We then drove to Mourea where we would be exposed to Maori culture for the first time. We met our guide for a short bush-walk in Okere Falls Scenic Reserve. We learned about the significance of the area to the indigenous Ngati Hinerangi people and saw the Tutea and Okere waterfalls (they looked scary!).

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We then drove to our destination for the night, a traditional Maori Lodge of the Ngati Pikiao. On edge of Lake Rotorua and Rotoiti, the lodge is a peaceful place where we would be exposed to Maori culture for the first time. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by the family into the wharenui (Maori meeting house). The building is a sacred place that represents the ancestors of their tribe and the women enter first after removing their shoes out of respect. Our hosts then performed the traditional welcoming ceremony which included a welcome speech and song in the native tongue and a hongi or pressing of the noses together. I was so nervous to go up to everyone in such an intimate gesture, but Maori consider hongi the acknowledgement of the spirit through shared breath. I could do that, awkwardness be damned.

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We then joined the family for a traditional and AMAZING meal of roast meat and vegetables before participating in Kapa Haka or traditional Maori song and dance. I really enjoyed the singing the dancing, especially the exaggerated facial expressions, intended to frighten opposing tribes or enemies. And then we were asked to do it ourselves, girls vs. boys!

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The girls performed the poi, a surprisingly complicated dance with a ball on a string, complete with a song which I DOMINATED by the way. Linda was our fearless leader, leading the girls in our Maori song and swaying of our hips seductively while swinging a ball around. It was hard but we did so well! I have video evidence but will spare you for you now! The boys performed the Haka or traditional war dance made famous by the All Blacks rugby team. Honestly the Haka is so much easier, you just slap yourself and yell while making ridiculous faces. The boys won our little competition which meant the girls had to do the dishes for the evening. BOO. But wow that was so much fun!

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Our fun group! I love these people.

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That evening we spent the night in the meeting house on mattress pads and sleeping bags on the floor. Linda had NEVER SLEPT IN A SLEEPING BAG BEFORE which had the both of us laughing hysterically at the ridiculousness of our sleeping arrangements. We were cracking ourselves up getting ready for bed under a very “exposed” ancestor carving and with 60 other backpackers in the same room. We stayed up late drinking tea and chatting with our friends before taking a shower in the amazing bathroom facilities and going to sleep in our communal lodgings. It was a ridiculous but fun experience that felt a lot like summer camp. I definitely enjoyed the entire evening and it is definitely something neither of us will ever forget!

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We slept fitfully and dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags for another full day, this time at the magical village of Hobbiton! Let the journey begin!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! An Ode to Ireland

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Are you celebrating? In honor of today, here is my brief ode to Ireland, one of my favorite places in the world. We are going back this September and I could not be more excited to return to this beautiful country.

To Ireland.

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The land of endless green.

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The land of giants and ancient stones from times past. 

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To a land of division and a land of hope.

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To a land of friendship and good cheer.

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And to the land of Guinness.
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Cheers! I’ll be drinking a pint and having the craic in honor of you.

New Zealand 2: Boarding the Stray Bus and Raglan Beach

After 3 very long and wet days living it up in Auckland, we woke early Tuesday morning to walk to the appointed meeting place for our North Island adventure! Upon finding Stray Bus, we immediately knew that this was going to be nothing like we expected. We watched as the bus slowly filled up with 20-30 something backpackers from mostly Europe while I silently prayed that my mother-in-law would not hate me by the time this was over!

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As we headed south, we met some of our fellow passengers including a group of Stray Bus trainees, a Belgium girl on sabbatical, a Swedish boy traveling during his gap year and an English girl who just graduated from college. Everybody seemed really nice so we were happy. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad?

We drove for about 3 hours and arrived in Raglan, a small surf town on the west coast of the north island.

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We had a short stop in town to visit the harbor and buy some food. I found a quaint little Japanese restaurant decorated with vintage surfing and Japanese art and ordered some salmon and rice to-go. Rice is definitely life.

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We then hopped back on the bus and drove along the windy coast and into the jungle towards Karioi Lodge, our hostel for the night. The hostel was comprised of long wooden cabins situated up in the hills and deep in the foliage off the coast. Linda and I bunked with our Belgian friend Gaelle and English friend Stephanie in a tiny room with two twin beds and a bunk bed. We had a shared bathroom in another cabin and even had to rent a couple of towels. Pretty standard stuff for a hostel but I could tell Linda was feeling a little uncomfortable. So I suggested we go walk with everybody down to the beach and watch the people who elected to take surfing lessons.

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It was a magnificent and steep hike down to the beach and I was finally struck by the absolute beauty of New Zealand. This was the pure, wild landscape I had always imagined. THIS WAS IT. The water was positively chilly but the sun was effective at blasting us with heat. So we buried our toes in the sand and walked down the beach, reveling in the warmth.

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Honestly I don’t know how people an surf in cold water! Brr!!

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We were surrounded by the most gorgeous landscape I have ever seen, straight from a fantasy novel or jurassic park. After days of nasty cold weather in Auckland, the sun was out, the sky was blue and everything was saturated with the perfect shade of GREEN and BLUE. This was the New Zealand of my dreams. And our trip had just begun!

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After a few hours, Linda, Gaelle and I decided to forgo the bus back to the lodge and walk back instead! That cliff was a bit more difficult to climb up but we eventually found the road which provided a blissful view over the coast. However we did have to dodge several cars speeding down the hill, including a van full of our fellow backpackers running into town for some beer! We did however see an actual chicken crossing the road which had us laughing our heads off while Linda tried to adopt the chicken and take it home as a pet when it began to follow us! I refused.

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We made it back to the lodge before dark and showered before enjoying a lovely dinner cooked by our guide and trainees. Linda and I played pool with our Swedish friends (hilariously winning after playing awfully) before taking a walk to see the glow worms in the pitch black night. We found the glow worms lighting the path which Linda adamantly believed were just Christmas lights! I was like no… those are the glow worms! Haha. We then joined a group of Danish friends to stargaze on a wooden mountain platform overlooking the ocean. We saw so many shooting stars and laughed under millions of twinkling lights till our bellies ached. It was an absolutely beautiful and perfect first night, one that I will always remember.

We eventually called it an early night in our steamy room with our little bunks and slept lightly. But it was going to be a jam packed day! Next up is the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves and Mourea!

Bachelorette Weekend #1D2KeyWest

Whoah is it already March?? Where has the time gone??

Our wedding is in 6 weeks and I still can’t believe it. What a fun season punctuated by lots of quality time with family and friends. It is so invigorating to be home with everything that is happening, it is busy but so rewarding.

After my two week stint apartment hunting in Shanghai, I flew back to Florida and immediately got ready for my Bachelorette Party!

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My sisters who are my lovely maids-of-honor organized a weekend in Key West with my other bridesmaids and our good friend from Tampa. On Friday night we drove down to Fort Myers and stayed in a swanky hotel room before departing in the early morning for the ferry down to Key West! Waking up was hard and we were all a little cranky, especially when the ferry was packed full of people who wouldn’t let us sit together! But we eventually found some seats scattered throughout the boat which was great since it was freezing outside. After 3 hours of attempting to nap, we arrived in sunny Key West where my girls showed off their sweet shirts designed by the one and only Carina!

We were pretty excited. So I busted out the selfie stick. Selfie time!

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We dropped off our stuff at the Sheraton and immediately headed to the pool to lay in the sun. It was an absolutely perfect start to the weekend. Sunshine, pina coladas, and a One Direction towel!

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We do things in style (harry styles… lol).

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After the pool we rested up and got ready for our big night out! My girls know me so well and decorated our room perfectly with the theme of the weekend… One Direction! Hahaha, oh my god I was so excited to find this cardboard cutout of Louis standing in the corner of the room as the speakers blasted 1D music. It was so silly but so fun. I love my girls for indulging my obsession with a boyband and not judging! We opened presents, played a few games including Quiz the Groom and basically laughed a lot while sipping champagne. It was amazing and just so perfect.

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Selfie time with Louis! Hahaha so good.

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We then took a cab out to Duval Street to grab some dinner and go dancing!

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We had an extremely late dinner at Conch Republic after an epic fail at finding our original restaurant. But we finally found our way to Sloppy Joe’s where they had an incredible cover band playing all night! We stayed there all night, dancing and singing at the top of our lungs amidst some relatively creepy dudes. But no matter, we were having the times of our lives and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect evening. Honestly. It was fantastic.

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The next morning was a bit rough but we pulled ourselves out of bed for brunch at Blue Heavens. Thank you to Morgan and Madeline who waited for hours to get us a table. We listened to some great music and watched chickens cluck about while enjoying delicious food and amazing company.

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After brunch, Morgan, Taylor, Tana and I went snorkeling! It was really a fun trip despite the slightly rough seas. We saw a lot of barracudas and other sea life in the sort of murky water but it was a relaxing activity. Back on the boat we drank beer and margaritas and laughed at the crew guy relentlessly hitting on Taylor. “You’re a ten!” It was amusing to say the least.

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That night we had dinner at the hotel before heading downtown for dessert at “Better than Sex”. Omg this place was crazy, we had wine in chocolate dipped glasses and extraordinary desserts in a dimly light room. So funny.  Afterwards we went to a few weird bars but decided to go back to the hotel after witnessing a bar fight. Weird. But back at the hotel we played a few more games and laughed hysterically until our neighbors yelled at us. Whoops. But overall a good night!

On our last day in the Keys we went back down to Duval for lunch at Hot Tin Roof and to do a bit of shopping. We enjoyed some rummy slushies in honor of Fat Tuesday and bought a few hats. A great combination.

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Some of the girls stayed to shop while Carina and I went back to chill on the beach before boarding the ferry. We ate our frozen key lime pies and laughed and laughed in the sunshine. Then we all packed our stuff and brought it over to the pier. Before boarding the ferry we stopped for snacks and beer at the pool bar across the street. I love my girls!

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We again did not get good seats at all on the ferry (my god people are so territorial it’s funny), but we were able to sit together and chat for which I was grateful. I even napped on the floor which was great since we had to drive back to Tampa from Fort Myers. Thankfully Tana and Carina allowed me to jam out to 1D during the drive back. They are the best.

All in all my bachelorette party weekend was absolutely perfect! I had sunshine and my best girlfriends all around me. Thanks to my girls I love you!

#1D2KEYWEST FOREVER

 

New Zealand 1: Rain, Wine and Waiheke in Auckland

Last September 2014, I traveled to New Zealand for the first time. It was one of my favorite trips ever and I am excited to finally be able to share it on the blog.

My fiancé had a trip to NZ planned already with his groomsmen and there was no way I was going to be left behind in China for 2 weeks. So I went. With his mother :-). Thankfully Linda was awesome enough to meet me across the world and let me plan the entire trip… backpacker style. After such an incredible experience in Ireland with Shamrocker Adventures Bus Tour, I found a hop-on hop-off bus tour company called Stray NZ and went from there. But before we took off around the North Island, we met up in Auckland for a few days.

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Peter and I took the 12 hour flight from Shanghai, arriving in Auckland in the afternoon. We met with his customer who showed us around the city and took us to a nice outlook point and dinner at a great restaurant. I was surprised at how cold and windy it was! But I guess that’s what you get for traveling at the end of winter. September ended up being the perfect time to travel to NZ since it is considered the slow season. That means fewer tourists and cold weather! Hooray! It felt amazing to leave steamy hot Shanghai behind for a few weeks and escape into the wilderness.

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The next day I picked up Linda from the airport while Peter spent the day with his customer. We settled into our swanky hotel downtown and went to bed, exhausted from traveling. The next day was a flurry of drama when Peter slept through his alarm and wasn’t there to meet his friends at the airport. They ended up calling me at 5am, lost and confused. Whoops! We met the boys for a fun dinner before they began their journey in a rental car down to the South Island.

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Later boys. Girls trip starts NOW.

Linda and I stayed in Auckland for 3 days and it basically rained the entire time. Yuck. It was cold and dreary and not entirely pleasant. We shopped quite a bit and ate a lot of good food which was nice. We also stocked up on cold weather necessities like long underwear and wool hats, better prepared than sorry! But I hate big cities and was anxious to get out and see New Zealand.

On Sunday we took the ferry to Waiheke Island for a Wine Tour.

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We boarded a small tour bus and headed out towards the wineries. It was another gloomy day with a chilly rain blanketing the island which reminded me of a small-beach town in the winter. You know, except for the dramatic cliffs and wild landscape. Now THIS was the New Zealand I had imagined with rolling hills and scruffy trees dotting the green landscape. FINALLY.

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We visited a winery and olive grove for lunch, a badass brewery in a basement, and another winery with a stunning view. We sampled everything from merlots and pinots to ginger beer and lagers. It was fun! I love a day full of eating and drinking.

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My favorite was probably the hipster brewery in a basement and the Mudbrick winery, situated on a gorgeous hill overlooking the gulf.

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They had lavender plants everywhere, how lovely is that?? Apparently it is a popular wedding location as well and I can definitely see why.

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It was a nice little day-trip that had me salivating for more. We spent one final day in Auckland preparing for our bus tour and getting free facials at the Lush store. Auckland was pretty nice but I was READY TO GO.

Our backpacker bus tour was about to begin and I was nervous. Linda had never really roughed it traveling before and had never spent the night in a hostel or even in a sleeping bag. I had no idea how she would handle the constant go-go-go of the tour and the less than swanky accommodations. But I knew that she would be up for the challenge as long as I was there to support her along the way. If anything, I knew this would be a life-changing experience for the both of us as friends and as a new family.

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Goodbye Auckland!

 

Best Photos of 2014

Here it is. My favorite photos from 2014! (And last year: Best Photos of 2013)

Here are 30 of my favorite photos that I took all around the world. They include some of my favorite locations in Ireland, London, China, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, France and Florida! A lot are from Ireland, my favorite of all the places visited this year!

Precariously balanced on the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Precariously balanced on the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Night falls at Blue Duck Lodge in New Zealand

Night falls at Blue Duck Lodge in New Zealand

London Bridge, London

London Bridge, London

Moonrise over the mountain, New Zealand

Moonrise over the mountain, New Zealand

Looking up at the Financial District, Shanghai

Looking up at the Financial District, Shanghai

London Artwalk in Shoreditch

London Artwalk in Shoreditch

Horseback riding at Blue Duck Lodge in New Zealand

Horseback riding at Blue Duck Lodge in New Zealand

Kayakers in Breton, France

Kayakers in Breton, France

Peace Hotel, Shanghai

Peace Hotel, Shanghai

Rocky beach in Zhoushang, China

Rocky beach in Zhoushang, China

Overlook at Raglan beach, New Zealand

Overlook at Raglan beach, New Zealand

Shanghai skyline

Shanghai skyline

 

Wooden birdhouse in Hobbiton, New Zealand

Wooden birdhouse in Hobbiton, New Zealand

Field of cotton in Breton, France

Field of cotton in Breton, France

Volcanic view in Jeju, South Korea

Volcanic view in Jeju, South Korea

Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand

Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand

Foggy day at Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland

Foggy day at Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

Cliffs of Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland

Cliffs of Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland

Brilliant sunset in St. Petersburg, Florida

Brilliant sunset in St. Petersburg, Florida

Rocks in Breton, France

Rocks in Breton, France

Bright and blue in Raglan, New Zealand

Bright and blue in Raglan, New Zealand

Farmhouse on Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland

Farmhouse on Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland

Bamboo Forest in Shanghai

Bamboo Forest in Shanghai

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Field of flowers at the Red Granite Coast in France

Field of flowers at the Red Granite Coast in France

Fukuoka, Japan

Fukuoka, Japan

Dark Hedges in Ireland

Dark Hedges in Ireland

Borough Market, London

Borough Market, London

Beautiful spring blooms in St. Petersburg, Florida

Beautiful spring blooms in St. Petersburg, Florida

At the top of the world, Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand

At the top of the world, Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand

Read more about 2014 in My Year in Review

Apartment Hunting in Shanghai… we moved!

Surprise! I am back in the states after spending the last 2 weeks in Shanghai. Of course our internet was shit and our VPN stopped working so that meant absolutely no access to blogging or my emails! Lovely! I did however do some writing and photo editing so let’s catch up shall we?

I arrived in Shanghai at the end of January to some surprisingly freezing temperatures. It was 35 degrees and overcast (aka POLLUTED) with the occasional rain shower. Sounds lovely doesn’t it? The problem with China is that there is no central air-conditioning and wall units are pretty ineffective at cooling or heating large spaces. More often than not I found myself camped out in the living room under a blanket and close to the heater wearing socks and multiple sweaters while chugging hot water.

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Jiuting waterway

Good news, we moved into a new apartment!

After 3 days, 2 real estate agents, 20 potential apartments, 12 hours of walking in the cold rain and a couple botched contracts later, we actually moved in to our new place! Hooray!

I had no idea the nature of the beast that is Shanghai real estate until now and let me tell you, it was quite the learning experience. First of all, expect to look at a shit ton of apartments, most of them either nasty or grossly decorated. Second of all, bring along a Chinese-speaking friend who can help you communicate with the agents and landlords and who can help you negotiate price. And thirdly, if you are working with a local Chinese real estate agent, be prepared to walk. A LOT. It was quite exhausting.

Look at this hideous decorating. No this is not our new place!

Look at this hideous decorating. No this is not our new place!

MOST IMPORTANTLY, when you are apartment hunting you must be decisive and go with your instincts. Do not settle for a place that is less than perfect because there are thousands of places that become available every day. IT’S CRAZY. And when you decide on a place, MOVE FAST. Put in an offer THE SAME DAY or else it will most likely be gone the following day. This happened to us with the first place we wanted and we did not make that mistake again.

For us, it came down to location vs. comfort and this time we went with location! Last year we lived in a very comfortable and large apartment in a nice quiet complex in Jiuting. However, we were in a very Chinese neighborhood at least 45 minutes away from foreigner friendly places including grocery stores, restaurants and expat associations. Most of the time I took cabs into the city which gets expensive and exhausting. I would often get anxiety and stress out if I had to go anywhere, mostly because it took so much time, energy and preparation. I had to meticulously figure out where I was going and how long it would take and then download the Chinese address on my phone to show to the cabbies and remember how to say “left” “right” “straight on” and “stop” in Chinese. Somedays I wouldn’t leave the house because I was too anxious to deal with the stares or the inability to communicate. I felt very alone, which makes me so sad to think about!

Our new apartment is definitely not as nice or as big but is located in Changning which is much closer to the city center. We are a 5 minute walk to the Zhongshang Park metro stop (line 2 and 4!) and a huge shopping area with Carrefour, Starbucks, Will’s Gym and even a local vegetable market. We are also close to Jing’an and Hongqiao which are big expat areas and where Peter works.

Busy Changning District of Shanghai

Busy Changning District of Shanghai

I look forward to having easy access to the metro, the grocery store and to major expat areas so I can actually get involved with some of the great events going on in Shanghai. I am also job hunting which is intimidating but exciting!

We moved most of our stuff this past Saturday, the day before I flew back to Florida. Thankfully we don’t have much stuff at all, just some books and clothes. It is sad how little we have accumulated over the 4 years Peter has lived here. It is weird to think of Shanghai as our “home” but here we are. After our wedding in April, we will be more or less settled in Shanghai for another year or two.

Before that though there are wedding festivities to attend to! This weekend, my bridesmaids and I are traveling to Key West for my bachelorette party weekend!! I can’t believe it’s here and holy crap I am excited to spend time with my girls in the sunshine. The next week, Peter flies home so we can finish some wedding related tasks and a couple’s shower. March will be a flurry of two more showers and final wedding preparations. Then on April 18th… BOOM WE GET MARRIED.

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My plan is to smuggle as many wedding presents as I can back to China. I need all those cute kitchen gadgets in my sad China kitchen.

Anything to make this place feel more like home.