A Quick Update

Hello Dear Readers!

It’s been a very long time since I last posted, and a very busy last month I’ve had. I’ve been working here in Tel Aviv full time as an Arabic teacher/Translator/Literally any other work that needs doing. I’m also trying to finish up my final project for University. So you can say that it’s been…hectic.

That being said, I’ve still got my two weeks in Vietnam to tell you guys about- I haven’t forgotten! But since I’m a little too busy at the moment (my project is due this Thursday), you guys will have to make do with some photos instead.

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Harrison drank this.
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And I can’t back down from a challenge.
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We spent our first week on the beach in Phu Quoc

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This included Harrison’s first ever night market experience.
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And my first ever attempt to make shrimp pancakes. It didn’t go well.
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Our second week was in Ho Chi Minh- which is huge.
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Yes, this was massively uncomfortable. 

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We ate our way around the entire city,
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Boated down the Mekong Delta,
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And made really questionable decisions.

See you all soon for story time!

-Carissa “Someone Please Help Me I’m Stressed” Rawson

Swimming With Whale Sharks

Hello Dear Readers!

Today I want to tell you about our day spent snorkeling with whale sharks. For those of you who don’t know, whale sharks are absolutely massive, and the Maldives happens to be a hot spot for them. We spent most of our time snorkeling on the house reef (or eating. There was a lot of eating.), so ended up only doing this one excursion. Plus, as you can imagine, it was obscenely expensive.

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Heading to catch our speedboat

So what did it entail? Well, to be honest, it was pretty cool. We hopped into a speedboat with about six other people and a guide and sped away from the resort. It was about an hour long ride to our whale shark spotting destination, so we settled down and enjoyed the breeze, the waves, and the islands we were passing. Probably the coolest part was that in our wake, thousands of flying fish skipped away from us. Have you ever seen a flying fish? I hadn’t but they’re really cool, and watching them soar across the water, like skipping stones, was really neat.

The way shark spotting works is that you get to the hotspot and your guide literally climbs up on top of the boat, searching for enormous shadows in the water.

Unfortunately for us, there didn’t seem to be any sharks around. We spent hours trawling the water, slowly, searching for these guys. And it’s not like you can miss them, right? The problem is that whale sharks don’t normally swim so close to the surface, and they can (and do) dive right down and stay there.

They’d told us that the young males were the ones who usually swam up near the surface, but we had no luck.

So. One guy.

One guy had a drone. Brand new, top of the line, really cool. So he volunteered to fire up the ol’ drone and see if he could spot any whale sharks from high up. A cool idea, in theory.

He sent it up, and away we went, following after it as he searched. See, the problem though, was that drones can only fly for about twenty minutes at a time. Twenty minutes pass and we slow down, coming to a stop as he attempted to land it.

I mentioned we were in a speedboat, right? And that his drone was new, brand new?

Yeah. So there he goes, trying several times to lower it to the deck, only for it to- finally- hit the edge of the boat and *splash* right into the water.

And no, it didn’t float. Immediate panic ensues and he runs to grab a diving mask. He jumps in and flails around, while the guide leaps into the water- and- I kid you not, just dives.

It’d had time to sink by now, so I don’t know how far down she went. But she was under there for a while. A long while. I began to wonder if she was dead or simply lost, but then- miracle of miracles- up she popped from the depths, drone in hand.

You guys, this woman freedived into the Indian Ocean to find a lost drone. I can’t even find my goggles in a swimming pool.

The jury’s still out if he ever got it working again, since it wasn’t waterproof, but he did mutter angrily that it was a $1200 waste of money.

Shortly thereafter, we started to make our way back, disappointed at not finding any whale sharks- when- to our immense joy, we ran into a boat that had found one.

And once you find one, you gotta jump in ASAP because they don’t stay at the surface for very long. So in we went, flippers on, choking on saltwater and swimming furiously after this guy.

I’m going to take a moment now to thank my parents for all the swimming lessons they forced me to take, because I managed to stay in the front of the group and get an uninterrupted view. It was incredible.

Our guide had a GoPro with her. Take a look at the video below.

-Carissa “This Is Why I Don’t Have a Drone” Rawson

I Survived Snorkeling: A Tale of True Bravery

Hello Dear Readers!

When trying to figure out what to talk about, I usually scroll through my photos. I try to take a fair few, and use them to spur the stories I tell you guys. And that usually works out well for me.

But I realized something while going through my photos of the Maldives.

Paradise looks great:

But it also looks pretty similar in every photo. And we spent most of our time in the water, which meant we took no photos at all.

So you’re going to have to rely on my story telling skills more than my visuals, I’m afraid.

In that same vein, let me tell you about our snorkeling.

Now, I’ve been to a fair few places for snorkeling (and even once dived successfully in Australia), so I’ve always figured I knew what snorkeling was about. You go in,  see some cool fish, swim around a reef, try to not touch the urchin and get poisoned. You know, normal things. So when they told us they had a reef just off the beach of the resort, I was excited but not expecting much.

I cannot even tell you how badly I misjudged this reef. It stretched the entire length of the island, and during our time there we saw more different aquatic animals than I’ve seen in all my previous snorkeling put together.

We spent so much time snorkeling that, while my face was completely unburnt, I was unable to sit comfortably for over a week. And yes, I was wearing sunscreen.

The best part about this reef was that you could walk right out to it. The water was so close to it, and it was so expansive, that at times your belly was about an inch away from the coral and the reef stretched on literally as far as you could see. You had to be a good swimmer (or at least floater) in order to avoid getting caught up on the coral.

And this place was packed. Aside from all the regular recognizable fish (Nemo? Dory?), we also spent hours swimming with giant schools of fish, found an octopus hiding inside some coral, followed a sea turtle for over twenty minutes, and even swam out over the “drop-off” which was exactly like the one in Finding Nemo and exactly as terrifying as you’d think.

But my favorite part, which Harrison completely missed (he was frolicking in a school of fish), was when I was wandering along and happened upon a barracuda- or at least that’s what I thought it was. Turns out it was a Moray Eel, but at the time all I could think was “oh god please don’t bite me.”

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You can forgive the confusion

He was a mere few inches from my face and I frantically backpedaled, getting far enough away to wheel around and begin swimming in the opposite direction.

At which point I encountered two reef sharks.

And ok. Reef sharks aren’t huge. But they were sharks! And I was panicking! Alone!

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Ahhhhhhhh!

At this point I wheeled just 90 degrees (still avoiding the barracuda) and began swimming in towards the shore as quickly as possible.

Of course nothing happened to me. I mean come on, you think the Hilton is gonna let a shark eat their customers? No.

But it was scary!

– Carissa “The Bravest” Rawson

The Magnificent Maldives- Reserving a Room (For Free!)

Hello Dear Readers!

I’ve made so much fuss over the last year about the Maldives, and previously when I wrote about going, I detailed how I would spend points for nights at the Park Hyatt Maldives. Well, like I told you before, I ended up trading in those nights for a 4 day stay at the Conrad, simply because it was easier (and I wanted to go to their underwater restaurant.)

So how did I do it?

Well, the Conrad Maldives is the absolute highest category hotel that they’ve got, clocking in at an astonishing 95,000 points/ night. For reference, their cheapest hotels (Category 1) go for a mere 10,000 points/ night.

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I spent all year saving up for this, using sign up bonuses from the Hilton Honors Ascend card (which offers 100k points after 3k spend in 6 months) and the now defunct Citi Hilton Reserve card, which offered two free weekend nights at any hotel after 3k spend in the first three months.

I also saved up all the points I’d ever earned from doing my Diamond status challenge and made sure most of my stays during the last year were at Hiltons. This wasn’t just to earn points (though the earning ratio is vastly improved when you have status), but also because being a Diamond member means I get better perks here than at any other chain.

If you’re looking to acquire Hilton points, you can get the card I mentioned above as well as the Hilton Honors Aspire card, which earns you 100k points after 4k in spend in the first three months. (It also gives you Diamond status simply by owning it). There’s also the no annual fee Hilton Honors card, which gives you 50k bonus points after 1k in spend in the first three months.

Obtaining these three cards will net you a minimum of 250,000 points before spend (which will easily drive it up another 10-15k)- nearly enough for three nights at the Conrad Maldives. If you can get yourself up to 380,000 points (very doable in a year, as the Hilton cards earn rewards very quickly), you’ll have enough points for 4 nights. The Hilton Honors program gives the 5th night free on all hotel stays, so you’ll be able to stay for 5 nights for the cost of 4!

So, yes, it’s expensive. But you’re also redeeming your points at a hotel that regularly goes for over $2,000 a night, so you’re making it well worth your while.

The reward room you get is the beach villa, which is nice enough on its own. But a mere month before my arrival, Hilton accidentally made overwater villas (normally a $150-$300/ night upgrade) available for redemption for only 95,000 points a night- the same rate as a beach villa!

Unfortunately, I was past my cancellation window, so thought I had lost the opportunity to snag this. However, I still gave the Diamond desk a call and to my extreme surprise, they pulled some strings, replacing my 4 night stay in a beach villa with 4 nights in an overwater villa at no extra cost! I was more than a little pleased, and have continuously gloated since.

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For us!

Anyway, if you’re looking to stay, those three cards are the easiest way to earn large quantities of points, and once you’ve accumulated enough, it’s worth your while to aim for 4 nights and get 5. If you’re averse to too many cards, American Express transfers points to Hilton at a 2:1 ratio, so you’ll need a mere 190,000 American Express points for your 5 nights at the Maldives.

Up next, more fun and less points. See you soon!

– Carissa “Smug AF” Rawson

Maldivian Money- The Monopoly Money That Wasn’t

Hello Dear Readers!

I’ve got a great many things to say about the Maldives even though it was a relatively short trip, but half of them are to do with points and the other half are about what I actually did while I was there. And if you’re not into points- well, then, today is your lucky day!

Today I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a good story- a tale of both woe and triumph, (but mostly woe), where a girl learns a costly lesson but also has an amazing time. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive, are they?

So. I told you all how the Conrad Maldives is expensive, right? And I knew this going in. In fact, I broke down for you exactly how to save alllll kinds of money during your trip.

And yet.

And yet.

It was our first night, you see. Harrison and I had just arrived, met up in the Conrad Lounge at the airport, and made our jolly way via seaplane to the resort. (Which was amazing, by the way).

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Super cool!

And we’d enjoyed the bottle of sparkling wine that they’d left in our room. We’d taken a dip in our own private pool, and had already swam off the edge of our overwater villa down into the ocean.

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We were flying high, you could say.

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So we wended our hungry, tipsy, way down to dinner. It was gorgeous, an absolutely phenomenal view. The restaurant was built on a deck over the beach, and nearly no one else was there, which meant that the lights, softly glowing, fell only on us, the sand, and water, while the gentle crash of the waves kept us company. Such a scene paved the way for excess, as the magic was kept alive through small glasses of champagne, toasted tipsily to each other, to our fortune, and to our immense luck at being there in paradise, together.

One, two, perhaps three glasses of champagne each.

And dessert. You can’t have a luxurious dinner without dessert, right? Molten lava cake and ice cream, melting messily on our plates as we laughed, drank, and toasted.

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Such indulgence, the scene was almost fantastical, like something out of a movie. I could write you volumes about it, but suffice to say that it was so great I almost don’t regret what happened next.

You know those places that don’t publish their prices? And their saying is “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

Well, we should have asked. Because when that bill came- oh Lord did it come.

It was so expensive that at first glance I looked down, scoffed, and reached for my wallet, thinking that the prices were in “Maldivian Money-” some sort of Monopoly money that meant nothing to my mighty US dollar.

No, no they were not.

And that’s the story of how I spent my entire budget on my first dinner in the Maldives.

– Carissa “Worth It” Rawson

Pure Paradise: French Polynesia

Hello Dear Readers!

I’m writing to you from my new favorite country, French Polynesia, where the water is blue and the beaches are pristine. Like I’ve mentioned before, my stay here is taking place across two different hotels: the Hilton Moorea, and the Intercontinental Moorea, both of which are utterly gorgeous and deserving of heaps of praise. To that end, I’ll be writing about them separately, both their positive and negative aspects, and which I’d rather visit again (it’s a tough call!).

My flight here from Los Angeles was as painless as can be. I’ve now stripped my travel gear down to a single backpack and tote bag, so I had nothing to check. Thus, I checked in online, waltzed through security, and hung out in a lounge until the very last minute when I boarded my flight. This was only my second flight with Air France, and I’m always tickled pink by the teeny baguettes that they pass out during the meals.

Less awesome was the fact that my flight in Tahiti landed at 4am. Now, I’m going to go ahead and admit to you all that I had no excuse for being unprepared, but I did almost no research to figure out how to get to Moorea.

No joke, my knowledge was like: “Uhhh, isn’t Moorea a different island? Do I need a ferry?”

The answer to that is yes. You do need to take a ferry. But first, you need to get to the ferry. When I asked the woman at information, she told me to take the bus “that way” (pointing to the left) “to the market, then get off and walk.”

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But first, bask in my photography skills. Ooh. 

Seriously, those were my instructions. So, I headed up in the pitch-black (it was about 4:30am) to the bus stop, waited for fifteen minutes on the wrong side, then another fifteen minutes on the correct side after I realized the bus I wanted had just driven by.

I finally made it on the bus, which looks like many of the buses we have in the US. That is: decrepit, worn down, and utterly devoid of information. Obviously, I was already supposed to know where I was going, and nobody spoke any English to help me.

At this point, my plan was to look out the window and, like, hope that I’d see something resembling a market so I’d know when to get off.

It didn’t exactly work like that. After about twenty minutes, I noticed we seemed to be heading into some sort of downtown, and at one particular stop a ton of people got off. I took that as my cue and disembarked, where I found, to my immense surprise, that I was right!

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So, so right.

I even managed to find my way to the ferry, where I purchased a ticket to Moorea, and spent the next two hours drinking an extremely French cappuccino and paying 4 euro for access to internet. Boo.

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My first glimpse of Moorea

Next post is the Hilton Moorea- see you guys soon!

-Carissa “Seriously Why Aren’t I Tan” Rawson

¡Hola Mexico! An All-Inclusive Experience: Part 2

Hello Dear Readers!

Today is the day for the rest of the photos. Are you guys ready?

Our incredible spa deserves its own little photo set:

These people were so good that we went back twice over our four day stay. You can see me in the photo above drinking hibiscus tea and trying to look inconspicuous.

These photos don’t do the food justice. Believe me when I say it was phenomenal. I mean, come on, filet mignon! 

We also took photos every night in this blue-lit pavilion, in which Chrissy looked like a regal goddess and I looked like I accidentally walked into the photo.

Overall, we had an amazing time, and let’s be real, we’re already planning to go back.

Until next time!

-Carissa “Less Guapa” Ragland

¡Hola Mexico! An All-Inclusive Experience: Part 1

Hello Dear Readers!

I’m writing this to you on a plane, as most of my recent posts have been. By the time you’ll read this, I’ll be in an entirely different country, but as of now, I’ve just returned from Playa Del Carmen and my first ever trip to Mexico.

That entire last phrase is italicized because I’m actually from southern California, and yet had never driven the hour or so south to go visit our neighbors. This, despite the fact that I make a habit of flying around the world.

Anyway- I went down to Mexico for the very first time! And when I say “Mexico,” I mean “I drove straight to an all-inclusive resort and stayed there for the entirety of my trip.” I wouldn’t say I got the ”cultural experience,’ but I did have an amazing time.

Even better, this time I wasn’t alone! One of my best friends, Chrissy, came to meet me, and we had a blast catching up on girl gossip (boys!) and general life experiences.

I’ve got to say, I really needed a vacation. *cue world’s smallest violin.* Spending this time at this resort was probably one of the best trips I’ve ever had. All-inclusive resorts are all about excess, and boy did we exceed. Pristine sand, 80 minute massages, and unlimited ice cream were all part of our incredible vacation experience.

Now, the hotel was called the Barcelo Maya Palace, and it was one of about five in a sprawling complex that encompassed huge swaths of Playa Del Carmen’s beaches. Sorry, let me amend that, it was the best of about five of these resorts, which meant that our daily dinners consisted of things like filet mignon and creme’ brûlée, and we had tons of fun dressing up.

I’ve got a lot of photos, so I’ll split them between posts. Here are the first few:

Don’t we look good playing dress up?

-Carissa “Not even a little more tan” Ragland

A Tahitian Paradise

Hello Dear Readers!

So, I’ve come to admit that I…*may*…have a bit of a traveling addiction. One of my first posts on this website detailed my schedule for the upcoming year, and back in January I thought my schedule was jam-packed.

Well…I’ve since added a few new trips, the most recent of which is a five night stay in Tahiti. You may wonder why/where I get my ideas for travel, and honestly it’s an amalgamation of flight sales that I find, good opportunities for reward points redemptions, and sometimes even just places I want to go.

So how did I come to the idea of Tahiti? Well, I’ve mentioned before that American Express has offers that it passes out, some of which come in the form of a statement credit, some in the form of bonus points, etc. A couple months ago, they came out with an offer that gave you 20,000 membership reward points if you spent $1,000 on Air France. I’ve gotten a similar offer to this before (Spend $1,000 on Japan Airlines for 20k bonus points), and I’d been sitting on this offer for a while. I actually received it on a few different cards, but I obviously don’t have multiple thousands of dollars to be throwing around.

Anyway, it was the final day for the offer, and I’d been chewing on some different ways I could use it. Scrolling through Air France’s website, however, I saw that they had a monthly special on direct flights from Los Angeles to Tahiti for a cool $1000 round-trip. So, redeeming this offer, I bought the ticket and received 25,000 total membership rewards points (including the bonus categories rewards for purchasing airfare), which equals- at the minimum- $500 worth of airfare on American Express. I can also transfer it to other partners in order to get better value for my points, but I usually prefer to keep things simple.

Having booked my flights, I needed to find a place to stay. In case you didn’t know this, Tahiti happens to be…fairly expensive. However, there are quite a few different hotels out there, so I had plenty of options.

Hotels

Hilton Moorea

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You all know that I’m very partial to Hilton hotels, (It’s the status, really) so the first place I looked was at the Hilton website. Well…it’s not cheap. The Hilton Moorea is currently going for $1500 for a two night stay:

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However, there are often times when the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal will offer you lower rates on the hotel than the hotel website itself. Such was the case of the Hilton Moorea, where after much searching I found the same 1000sq ft bungalow pictured above on Hilton’s website for a mere $677 for two nights. ($772 after taxes) That’s a savings of 54% off the original price. (This works much the same way as Priceline, in that you get a discounted room rate by booking through a third party.) Even better, however, is that Chase allows you to redeem Ultimate Reward points at a value of 1.5 cents each if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, meaning that the two nights only ended up being 52,000 points total.

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For reference, the total amount of points required to redeem on Hilton’s website is 396,000.

Since the Hilton was such a splurge, I didn’t want to stay more than the two nights. Thus, I needed three more somewhere else, but where?

Intercontinental Moorea

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The next hotel I looked at was the Intercontinental Moorea. Again, there are tons of hotels in the area, but this one had the benefit of being amazing and also near to the Hilton, so my transportation between the two wouldn’t be a problem. Paid rates for a room here for three nights equal out to about $1000:

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However, back in January, I got the IHG credit card by Chase. Its sign-up bonus is 60k points after 1k spend in the first 90 days, and after my spend was done, I had a total of 70k points sitting in my account. The Intercontinental Moorea is redeemable for a total of 40,000 points a night, or you can use a combination of points + cash in order to redeem a stay. IHG works differently than other hotel chains with its cash + points offers, in that it has you “buy” points at a reduced rate and then make a full award redemption, as you can see below:

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The combination I chose was points + cash, in which I spent 80,000 points and $200 in cash for all three nights. Since I was 10,000 points shy of the 80,000 I needed, I transferred over points from my Chase Sapphire Reserve card to cover the difference. And then I booked my room! So, all told, I’ll be staying a total of five nights in Tahiti, at some really awesome hotels. My costs are as follows:

Costs
Flight: $1,038
Hotels: $200
-Total Cost: $1,238

In return, I am earning 25,000 American Express rewards points, which equal out to at least $500 worth of airfare. In addition, I’ll be earning thousands of Flying Blue miles on Air France, which I’ll put to use when I move to Scotland later this year.

Were I to pay completely out of pocket, my total would be this:

Costs
Flight: $1,038
Hotels: $2499 ($1511 for the Hilton, and $988 for the Intercontinental)
-Total Cost: $3,537

That’s 65% off! I’m pretty excited, as I’ve heard amazing things about both of these hotels.

Also, have you guys looked at the map of Tahiti?

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Looks remote enough for me!

-Carissa “Basically living on a beach” Ragland

When Things (Don’t) Go Right: Minibussing Through Jordan

Hey All!

I’ve been frolicking away the last few days here in Amman, Jordan. (Ok, and the Dead Sea) and I have so much to tell you!

So, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this to you guys, but the place we’re staying in is a little…cold. It’s in the nicest part of town (which I did for safety reasons, obviously), but is…a basement. Yes, it’s a very nice basement, and has lots of hot water and also a gas stove, but it’s a little like putting lipstick on a pig.

Thus it was that yesterday, David and I (ok, I) decided to make a spontaneous trip to the Dead Sea. The Hilton Dead Sea just opened there a few weeks ago, and I was pretty anxious to get my grubby hands all over the awesome new stuff there.

We were one second away from ordering an Uber out front of our apartment, when our overly zealous host offered us tea and lemon juice. Thus, we found ourselves engaging in awkward small talk in his really rich, really nice, house.

Pause here for a moment, because I feel like you guys need to know something. Half the reason I came out here was for the opportunity to practice my Arabic skills. And you know what? Almost no one can understand me. This isn’t just because of the crap way they taught me Arabic. (Modern Standard) This is full on proper speech and everything and still, everyone looks at me like I’ve grown three heads. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it has something to do with my particular skin color and gender. Very frustrating. Such was the nature of this conversation.

Anyway, since we didn’t want to be rude, we spent a half hour drinking lemon juice, at which point our host told us not to bother with a taxi, because the minibuses were so much cheaper and more effective. Do you see where this is going?

He drove us clear across town, and insisted on speaking with the bus driver himself in order to ensure that we were taking the correct bus. (We were planning on just waving goodbye and taking an Uber anyway). Thus, we found ourselves crammed in the back of a minibus, where I self-consciously held my shirt closed and still 10 Arab men stared lustily at me.

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After the bus emptied out

After two more hours, we finally found our resort, and things smoothed out from there, which I will illustrate to you in a series of photos, because let’s be honest, I’m lazy:

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Breakfast with a view
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Because dignity is overrated

Now we’re back in Amman! And looking forward to more fun times ahead.

-Carissa “Black Beauty” Rawson