So, there is a hate-thread about me over at Lonely Planet.

So, there is a hate thread about me over on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree site.  Bored at work one night, I Googled myself and there it was. People I’d never met, united together in a massive slag-fest about what an awful human being I am. It’s from a long time ago but I still remember being absolutely mortified when I found it. 

It was all because of a piece I wrote about travelling, that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald  and seems to have got up the noses of quite a few people who enjoy travelling. Like this person-

Wow that lady is so bitter!

I hope I don’t sound like as much of a self-righteous, pretentious, bratty snob when I say I would prefer to travel independently rather than on a package tour as that lady (Carly Smallwood, or was it Smallbrain?) does!

Smallbrain? I have feelings too you know, random internet person.

Written at the age of 24, the article is a lot more caustic than something I’d write today, but if you actually read it, I never knocked travelling, or budget travel or independent travel. I was simply critical of the idea that going off backpacking somehow makes you superior to those that don’t.

                             “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller.”

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Call yourself what you like, but no-one else cares, and in any case we are seeing different places not curing cancer here so let’s not get too enthusiastic about how wonderful we are.

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Thanks hippy. If you hadn’t posted this wise meme on Facebook, I might never have left the house.

Being lucky enough to live in a part of the world where you can have a job that gives you a disposable income, then choosing to save some of that disposable income and get on an aeroplane doesn’t make you any better than people that don’t. Just because you  want to find yourself on a yoga retreat in Guatemala doesn’t mean that life is for everyone. I have friends who have little to no interest in travel. Being away from home and the people they love to go to somewhere stinking hot with limited access to clean water and sending themselves broke in the process is not their idea of a good time.

And that’s cool.

Some people like to go away on holidays and stay in fancy resorts.

And that’s cool too.

For people that pride themselves on being open-minded, “travellers” can sometimes be a judgemental lot. 

Travel, don’t travel, stay in a fancy resort for a week, go hiking alone for three months or stay curled up on your couch with your dog. Your choices are yours and what you do isn’t right for everyone else.

And that is ok.

We need to get the hell off this island.

Remember that time you were robbed, injured while drunk, injured while sober, ripped-off, spent the night as a bed-bug buffet, experienced the most epic of diarrhoea and did things to the toilet you didn’t realise a human could do, crashed your scooter, or had a combination of the previous while at the same time coming down with malaria?

Just keep telling yourself “It’s all part of the adventure.”

“It’s all Part of The Adventure” a euphemism backpackers use when things go to shit.

After having an amazing time working on a farm on the island paradise of Ometepe, Nicaragua I was really excited to be going back there , only this time with my boyfriend, Dean. I was so excited for us to explore this magical place together.

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Look at this place, what could possibly go wrong?

As things turned out, going to McDonalds in our pajamas, ordering two Big Macs, then eating them while ignoring each other on our respective laptops at someone’s Grandmother’s house would have been a more fun and romantic time.

From the start, the heat was stifling. For the most part, Nicaragua is hot. You don’t go there to sit by the fire with a cup of cocoa, but the days and nights we were on Ometepe were unbearable.  The humidity sucked the life out of us and left us both unable to sleep. Without even a whisper of a breeze, the only way to fall asleep was to get drunk first, but inevitably we’d wake up a few hours later, drenched in sweat and spend the rest of the night tossing and turning in a fitful, half-sleep.

Despite the suffocating heat and a lack of sleep, we were determined to have a good time.  On our second day, we thought it would be fun to hire some bikes and explore the island.

Never in my life have I endured arse-pain like the vinyl hell that was my bike seat. As I rode I had to constantly re-position myself to share the agony to different parts of my cheeks. Finally, 4km of suffering later, we got to our destination, Ojo de Agua, a beautiful spring-water swimming hole. Admittedly, we did have a pretty good day there, until we had to turn around and endure the brutal bum-bruising return trip.

After another humid night, we woke up exhausted, but still wanted to try and make the most of our time.  Neither of us wanted to look at a bicycle again, so we rented a scooter instead and headed off for another “fun” day of exploring. We’d read some pretty good stuff online about a waterfall called San Ramon-

“Once you reach the waterfall it feels like heaven, pictures do not do justice for this place, the waterfall is so high in person and so beautiful to look at”

And, it was only a three kilometre hike. Easy! We decided to head there first.

I remain convinced there is no way that hike was 3km. It felt like 10km at least, maybe 100.

One website told us,

“At the end the path becomes a little steep, but in general the hike is not very tough.”

Shit. I’d hate to see what whoever wrote that’s idea of a “kind of tough hike” is. Everest?

It was not fun. It was shit and hot and then it got shitter and hotter. Typically unprepared, with just a small bottle water between us, the climb became horrendous as sweat rained out of every pour and we had nothing to replace it with.

Finally, close to dropping dead we made it to the waterfall.

It was alright.

I think maybe the people that wrote about how good it was haven’t seen a lot of waterfalls.

Exhausted and now massively dehydrated I stood under the waterfall with my mouth open drinking it in by the gallon, random, water-borne illnesses be damned.

After our waterfall “adventure” we decided to ride back out to Agua de Oja and chill out in the water for a bit, before spending the afternoon exploring more of the island by scooter. Back at Agua De Ojo, we dumped all our stuff on a chair, stripped down to our swimmers and got in the cool water. Floating around, I kept glancing back, keeping half an eye on our stuff.

“I`m so exhausted” I told Dean.

“Me too” he said, “Maybe we bail tomorrow, I can’t take too many more nights not sleeping”.

I agreed, “Tomorrow, lets just get up and go.”

We climbed out of the water and made our way back over to our stuff and picking up my clothes I realised,

“Fuck! The bag has gone!”

We both looked around as though it was suddenly going to appear, but it was long gone. Dean’s camera (notice the lack of photos?), money and the bloody scooter key were all in that bag. The also randomly stole Dean’s shitty old thongs, leaving him to go home barefoot.

“Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaark.”

I remain eternally grateful to the staff at Agua De Ojo who went out of their way to help us, moving the scooter somewhere safe in case whoever had the key came back to try and take it and even going as far as to drive us to the scooter-hire man so we could explain what happened.

In my shitty, broken Spanish I tried to tell scooter-hire man how our bag had been stolen with the bike key in it. I assumed we’d have to pay a few bucks to get a new key cut but scooter-hire man told us,

“There is no spare key so this whole bit here needs replacing. It’s going to be $100.”

“Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaark”

“Then we are going to need to pick it upso you’ll have to pay….” I could see where he was going with this, adding more on top of the $100.

$100 was already over the top and who doesn’t have a spare key?

I did the only thing I could think of and “burst into tears”.

“Oh God, it`s just, we had so much in that bag” I gasped for air between sobs, “camera, phone, money”. I fake-sobbed harder.

Somebody get me an Oscar.

“Tranquila, tranquila”  said scooter-hire man. We still had to pay $100, but anything else he was going to tack on to that was forgotten.

Relieved that the scooter was dealt with and trying not to feel too upset about the camera being stolen, we returned to our accommodation where Dean immediately fell down some stairs.

“We need to get the hell off this island.”

The next morning we headed off to catch the first ferry we could.  A taxi offered to take us to the port for $3 each. Three. Dollars. I can spend $60 down the pub without blinking at home, but no, I wanted to be a “real” backpacker and I insisted we take the bus instead.

The concept of a “bus stop” in Ometepe is apparently open to interpretation.  The bus just stopped where ever anyone liked. Someone would wave down the bus and get on, then maddeningly, someone got off a thirty meters down the road. With all the stopping and starting it took one hour and fifty minutes. We arrived at the port to see our ferry sailing away into the distance. Luckily, there was another soon after, the first thing to go right for us since we had arrived.

Back on the mainland, we took a cab to San Juan Del Sur,  where we checked into a hotel, cranked up the air-con and cracked open a well earned beer.

What’s your travel disaster story? Ever returned to somewhere you loved, only to have everything go wrong?

 

 

 

Some Stuff I Learned Working on a Farm in Paradise.

This view was my introduction to Ometepe, the volcano island paradise rising out of a lake in Nicaragua. This place was my home for a couple of weeks while I volunteered on a small organic farm.  I’ve written about this kind of work before, and it’s a pretty sweet way to travel.

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The location might have been mesmerising, but some of the work was bloody tough.

Shovelling rocks is hard!

It was pretty rustic.

Sharing a meal after a busy morning.

Our kitchen, note the duckie hanging out on the right.

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Hey, a bed’s a bed right?

But after a hard mornings work, we could head up for a beer in this pool.

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When you travel, every new place teaches you something. Here are a few things I have learned from working on a farm in the tropics.

1. Roosters do not shut the f*** up. Roosters love to crow at 4.30am. Roosters love to have a crow-off where one starts and they all join in, and just keep on going. How does so much noise come out of such a small beak?

2. When a dog kills a chicken, the results aren’t pretty.

3. Cooking together, with ingredients you’ve gathered from your own garden and sitting down and sharing a meal, is a pretty sweet way to live.

4. There are a lot of insects that like to bite you.

5. There are plenty of plants that like to sting you.

6. Lifting heavy shit in the tropical heat is a bit shit.

7. Beers by the pool taste extra delish after a morning lifting heavy shit in the heat.

8. If you aren’t careful about covering food, chickens will come and eat it, then take a poo on the table just for good measure.

9. When you are standing under a tree looking up at the monkeys, there is a fair chance they will piss on you, (didn’t happen to me but saw it happen).

10. If you are travelling for a while and have a bit of time, you should volunteer on a farm some time. It’s actually is quite wonderful.

Just to finish off, here are a few more photos of the farm and the beautiful surrounding area.

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Talking to Strangers.

I’ve been in this country just a day and already I have found the people of El Salvador to be wonderfully warm and friendly.

Even before I arrived, waiting for the bus in Guatemala City, I got to talking to Chris, a young Salvadoran guy. I had a ticket to the capital, San Salvador, but what I really wanted to do was go “to the beach”  only I had no idea which beach or how to get there. Chris told me about the different beaches in El Salvador and even took the time to write down some names and how long it would take me to get there.

“Come and find me if you need me” he said as we boarded.

When we arrived in San Salvador Chris came up to me and asked me if I needed and help. When I told him I needed to change money he took me to the currency exchange shop.

“Is there a catch?” a little voice wondered, “why should this stranger go out of his way to help me?”

After I exchanged money, he walked me to the taxi stand and told the driver where I needed to go. As I was putting my stuff in the boot he asked if we could share the cab.

Every thing seemed legit and I assumed Chris was a good bloke, so I agreed. I have been in dodgy cabs before though, and as Chris chatted away to the driver in Spanish a tiny thought crept into my head,

“I really hope everything is all cool here and this isn’t some set-up. I have just exchanged a wad of cash and no-one other than these guys, knows where I am.”

As we pulled up at the bus terminal, I reached into my bag to pay.Chris waved my money away,

“I’ll get it” he said.

I tried to insist, but he laughed and shook his head, “You women, always worrying.”

I collected my bags and thanked Chris. He waved as he drove off in the cab, to wherever it was he was heading.

Sometimes, lots of times, people really are just kind for no reason.

Beautiful El Savador.

Beautiful El Savador.

This experience got me thinking. When travelling, especially when travelling alone, how do you find the balance between being trusting and open and being wary and street smart? No-one wants to be taken for a mug (or worse) but if you spend your entire trip assuming everyone is out to cheat you, you may as well stay at home.

Years ago now, I was on a train in Morocco with my girlfriend Katie. We had planned to arrive in Tanger in the afternoon and take the boat back over to Spain, however delay after delay meant there was no way we were going to be getting a boat that day. Chatting to a young Moroccan dude on the train, we asked him if he could recommend a hotel in Tanger.

“You don’t need a hotel, just stay with me.” he said.

It turned out he lived with his aunt and uncle and their four children, none of whom seemed the least bit phased by their nephew bringing home to young Aussie backpackers at ten o’clock at night. They welcomed us into their home, fed us and made us and made up a bed for us both and even gave us breakfast the next morning.

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Way back when. Katie and I in Marrakech in 2006.

Sometimes, you just have to trust people.

Another night, this time in Barcelona, too much beer made me miss my hostel lock-out time. This left me with two options, roam around Barcelona alone in the early hours of the morning until I found more accommodation, or go back to a bar somewhere and stay out drinking until the sun came up and my hostel opened it’s doors once again. I was tired  and a bit drunk and just wanted to go to bed, so I sat down to have a think.

Out of the darkness, along came a young guy around 16 or 17 years old, riding on his bicycle. He pulled up when he saw me and sat down to talk with me. When I told him why it was I was sitting outside alone in the middle of the night, he insisited I come and stay at his place. I hesitated, but with just a few euros rolling around my purse, I didn’t have a whole lot of other options. He doubled me on his bike back to his flat, me sitting on his handle-bars, balancing precariously.

When we arrived he showed me to a bed in the spare room and left me to it. I woke up some time the next morning to an empty flat, made my bed and headed back out to the street, closing the door behind me.

Lots of times, people are just kind for no reason.

There is good and bad everywhere though. No matter how much you pride yourself on your good instincts or judge of character, sometimes, shit happens. In Bangkok one evening, I met one young Canadian bloke who had made friend’s with a local guy. He remembers going for a few drinks with him then nothing until over 12 hours later when he woke up on the street somewhere with his wallet and passport gone.

Sometimes, at home as well as while away, people are just total dicks.

There is no magical formula for deciding who to trust and who not to trust when travelling, but I think, for the most part, people are basically the same all over the world and people are basically good.

And, when inevitably while on the road, you are tricked, robbed or ripped-off, don’t let it spoil your trip, or lose your trust in all people. There is good and bad everywhere, but most people are pretty alright.

Lake Atitilan – A little piece of Eden.

Lake Atitilan is a ridiculously beautiful volcanic lake in the Guatemalan Highlands. Still blue water sits at the foot of lush green mountains and volcanos while dotted around the edges of the lake are colourful towns and villages, each with their own unique vibe. Mayan culture remains strong here with people speaking Mayan languages and dressing in traditional  clothing.

I'm no photographer and no photos I took did this place justice. Do yourself a favour and Google' Lake Atitilan images'. this place really is spectacular.

View of the lake from San Pedro. I’m not much of a photographer, but if you Google ‘Lake Atitilan images’ you will get a glimpse at how spectacular this place is.

Ladies in traditional Mayan clothing selling fruit.

Ladies in traditional Mayan clothing selling fruit.

I spent a week at Lake Atitilan, mostly in the village of San Pedro. San Pedro is the backpacker party town of the lake and it is a magnet for gap-year kids and wandering hippies. I took some Spanish classes here and my school arranged  a home-stay with a local family for me.  Unusually for me, I stayed out of the party scene this week. The family I stayed with lived away from the main strip and I didn’t really fancy stumbling home at all hours and waking everyone up. I was content to spend my days exploring and going to classes and nights hanging with my host family. Sometimes after dinner I would read the little girl stories and my pronunciation must be ok because she seemed to understand and enjoy the stories even if I had no idea what I was saying.

During the day I visited a couple of other nearby villages. San Marcos is a very pretty, chill little village where people go to do yoga, meditate and refresh their chakras. It is also home to the gorgeous Cerro Tzankujil nature reserve where I spent a beautiful morning bushwalking.

Quick rest before I head up the path.

Quick rest before I head up the path.

In San Marcos I also got involved with a bamboo building workshop. The plan is to build a shelter for local ladies who have been trained in Chinese massage where they can see clients and run classes. The shelter is made from bamboo held together with old bike inner tubes. We didn’t it finish but we did make a good start on the frame. It wasn’t that hard and if/when the apocalypse comes I reckon I’ll be able to knock myself up a bamboo hut without a drama – as long as I have some bike inner-tubes.

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I rode a tuk-tuk to visit the village of San Juan. San Juan is one of the smaller of the villages and is home to a number of co-operatives that produce and sell traditional arts and textiles. It is also home to some beautiful street art and is a bit less touristy than the other places I visited.

Tuk-tuks or boats are the way to get from village to village.

Tuk-tuks or boats are the way to get from village to village.

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San Juan.

San Juan.

My next stop is Semuc Champey and I will be staying in a hostel this time. I loved my home-stay but now I am looking forward to having a few beers some other travellers.

Cheers!

I am always curious about who visits this blog and I love when people leave a comment, even if it is just to say hi. So please do.

How Not To Catch A Cab In San Jose.

There are towns and cities in this world that I have visited and just instantly fallen in love with. Places that have left me feeling like, “Wow, I could see myself living here for a while.”

San Jose, Costa Rica was not one of those places.

Simone and I arrived there after a week working on a farm in the jungle, to meet up with our friends Amy and Cathy.

Here we are, all together!

Here we are, all together!

I’d already heard that there wasn’t much to see or do in San Jose and the couple of days we had there did nothing to change my mind. We’d only really gone there at all because that’s where the girls flew into and we were all happy to be getting out of the city and heading to the Caribbean Coast.

Walking out of the hostel, loaded with bags, one of the hostel staff members asked me, “taxi?”

“Yes please” I said.

Conveniently, waiting right out the front of the hostel, was a cab with a smiley, jolly driver. The hostel guy and the taxi driver had a quick chat then our taxi man started loading our bags into the cab. We four girls squeezed in and away we went. As we drove away I realised we hadn’t agreed on a price first. Rookie mistake.

I tried asking him how much, but he said something about clocks and drew circles on his hand. I had no idea what that was about so I gave up.

“Dammit”, I thought. “Now he is probably going to overcharge us, like ask for $10 instead of $4 ho hum.”

Our driver was all smiling and friendly. He asked us where we were going. When we told him Puerto Viajo, he recommended us many things.

“I recommend you keep pass-a-port close, like baby”

“I recommend you looking, no talking blah, blah to people at terminal”

“Keep money close, no in big bag, many dangerous peoples at bus terminal.”

“Here, see” he rolled up his sock and showed me an old scar, “for iphone, at bus terminal” then he made his fingers into a gun shape and said, “bang, bang”.

“No ATM near Caribbean, I recommend you get money now”

I sort of had doubts. No ATMs in a popular tourist are in 2015…… really? But I guess we don’t want to get stuck without money. He pulled up at an ATM and we all got out and withdrew a wad of cash. The moment we got back into the cab and started driving, my heart sank.

I suddenly just knew he was lying about there being no banks in the Caribbean.  Now he knew we all had a few hundred dollars cash on us. I looked around the cab to see if his taxi licence was displayed anywhere, and saw none. My heart sunk a little further.

He got on his mobile and started talking in a low voice to someone.

“It’s going to be OK.” I told myself, but I felt a little bit sick.

He pulled up in some random area nowhere near the bus station and told us we had to walk a block to the bus terminal and that he couldn’t drive up that way.

He then asked for a fare of 68,000 colones, or, around $160.

“That can’t be right” I thought. I figured he must mean 6,800 colones, a rip-off for sure but I was happy to pay the equivalent of $16 or $17 to get away from him. I handed him a 10,000 note, expecting change.

He shook his fat head.

He drove forward a little.

I asked him to write it down, that I didn’t understand.

68,000.

“That can’t be possible” I said.

“Si, possible”

He drove forward some more and the smile was gone.

He got back on his mobile phone. My heart rate went right up.

He then dropped the price to around 35,000.

I tried to argue some more but I was getting really scared, he kept driving forward, further from the busy street. Mr Happy Cabby was now Mr Pissed Off and Mr. Pissed off had us trapped and wanted his money now. I was waiting for his mates to pull up at any moment.

In the end he reluctantly lowered his price to 20,000. He gave me this look, as though I was ripping him off. A look that said, “the fare is $160 but I guess I’ll just take $50 because what more can I do you selfish woman”

I shoved the money at him as he kept driving along. “Stop, stop” I said, feeling a little panicky wondering where on earth he was going to take us.

He pulled up on the corner of Shady-As Rd and Shithole St in Downtown Ghettosville, then drove off.

There we were, with all our bags, our passports, our electronics and hundreds and hundreds of dollars in cash between us in some dodgy-arse part of San Jose.

There were groups of sketchy looking dudes huddled around on the corner, staring.

“Hey Lady,” one called out.

One started walking towards us.

Another looked at us and made some hissing sound.

Every single shop on the street was boarded up. I can’t speak for the others, but I was shitting myself. Up ahead was a busy looking street full of cars and people, “If we can just get there without getting stabbed” I thought, “we will be ok”.

After the longest hundred metre walk of my life, we made it to the busy street and my heart rate slowed just slightly. A young guy asked us where we were headed, and he was very nice and helpful. We were still a fair way from the bus terminal and he advised us not to walk because it was dangerous so we reluctantly got into another cab – this time agreeing on a price first. Our new driver took us to the bus station, without a drama, for 2,000 colones, or around 4 or 5 dollars.

I don’t like to think about how much worse it could have been, but it’s all behind us now and we are chilling in the Caribbean paradise of Puerto Viajo.

 

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Rio Carnival 2015

Despite reaching my early 30’s with a lacklustre career, no assests, no boyfriend, a dismal bank account, no fixed address, and no direction in life, I have decided to move even further away from something that resembles a successful person by taking yet another 6-12 months out of real life to travel around South and Central America.

Delaying adult-hood for one more year.

All packed and ready to delay adult-hood for one more year.

I’m travelling with Simone and we kicked off the trip in our usual sensible and subdued manner by heading to the worlds’s biggest party, Rio Carnival.

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The whole thing was insane. Carnivale is non-stop parties day and night. As well as the famous parades, there is live music, colour, costumes and parties all over town. We went to one party in the park that had a band singing Beatles songs Samba style. People of all ages dressed up in costumes, singing, dancing and drinking a lot of beer.

At the Beatles Samba-Style party.

At the Beatles Samba-Style party.

Simone making new friends.

Simone making new friends.

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The streets were packed with people every night. When you have tens of thousands of people in the street drinking, you have tens of thousands of people needing a wee. There were port-a-loos, but they got pretty vile pretty quick so most dudes seemed to just opt to wee against a wall somewhere. Every night the streets were filled with streams of piss and they stunk. As I walked along bits of liquid would flick up off my thongs and hit my ankles. I like to think it was just someone’s spilt beer, but in reality I don’t think there was a night that I went home without someone else’s wee splashed up my lower calves.

I’ve had all my shots so I’m sure it’s fine.

The high-light and most famous part of Carnival are the incredible parades. Rather than watch one Simone and I decided to march in one. Anyone can join, you just need to buy a costume from a samba school and you become a member of that samba school for the night and can march along with them.

Samba time!

Samba time!

We had a song we had to sing and dance along to but all the words were in Portuguese and I have no idea how to samba so I just opened and closed my mouth, pretending to sing and shook my hips and banged on my bongo drum.

After the parade we headed back to the street parties and kicked on. We were still awake when the sun came up and ended up partying until 1030am.

I make myself sound like such a rager. To be honest, I partied until about 8:00am then dragged my feet and dreamt of bed while everyone partied around me. At one point I fell asleep in McDonalds. 

I’ve heard Carnival has a bit of a wrap for being dangerous but the biggest drama I had was when some dude yelled “Happy Carnival!!!” then tried to pash me by opening his entire mouth onto my face. I tried to push him away and ended up with his teeth and spit wiping across my nose. Thanks mate. Other than that it was all cool, and everyone was friendly.

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It was full on and by our final night we were both exhausted and a little bit partied out. We already had tickets to the gay ball though, so like the troopers we are we got dressed up in our sparkly wigs and headed to yet another party. I’m glad we did, seeing some of the costumes alone was worth it and the ball ticket included food and an open bar so we couldn’t let that go to waste.

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It was two very exhausted and hungover girls that got on a flight the next day. It was epic and amazing but by the end I just wanted a quiet room, a massive nap and something non-alcoholic to drink.