Hot Ho Chi Minh, Or: The Saigon Sweats

Hello Dear Readers!

I’ve been very busy this last month attempting to get my life together as I transition from student to *gasp* a real-life adult!

No, I’m not looking forward to the change. But alas, time creeps onward and as it’s nearing my 29th birthday I feel I should at least make some effort to settle my life.

But before that, let’s talk about Ho Chi Minh!

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As most people probably know, Southeast Asia is generally very inexpensive, and Vietnam is no exception. This was lucky, as Harrison and I were spending two entire weeks, and our itinerary consisted of “literally anything I could find.” All told, our entire week in Ho Chi Minh totaled just under $300 for the both of us, and included a trip to the Mekong Delta, the Cu Chi Tunnels, two full food tours, an acrobatic show, and a motorbike tour of Ho Chi Minh’s slums. It’s a good deal, is what I’m saying.

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Also really cool

Such low costs enabled us to pig out on all the food, and I made it a personal mission to try out all of Ho Chi Minh’s best restaurants.

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Creepily

It’s also important to note that Vietnam is…warm. More than that, it’s humid. I’m talking, 105 degrees and 100% humidity humid. I spent our entire trip three feet away from Harrison and threatening him with death if he got any nearer. Luckily for the both of us, he didn’t try, as the “Saigon Sweats” (as he termed them) had an even worse effect on him than me.

So yeah, maybe don’t bring your first date to Vietnam. It’ll be sweaty and not in a fun sexy way.

One of our very first stops in Ho Chi Minh was the Heart of Darkness Brewery, which is absolutely an expat bar and I loved, enjoying an excellent British Sunday Roast in true Vietnamese fashion. Before you all complain, we did eat mostly Vietnamese food, including some really wretched things we tried on our various food tours.

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Authentic

Most of our first day in Ho Chi Minh was spent wandering the city, getting a feel for the area around our hotel and attempting to acclimate to the weather. (Lol)

We spent ages walking around the city actually, including an accidental trip into the ghetto and a really ingenious ride on public transport back out. What struck me most about HCMC is probably the amount of markets- the sheer volume of them- and their size. Regular grocery stores aren’t really a thing. Markets are everywhere, for every different type of item, and we spent a significant portion of time wandering through them.

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So
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Many
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Markets

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Also, in case anyone young (me) doesn’t have some firsthand memories of the Vietnam war and its effects- it’s still very much alive in Vietnam. This is evidenced by Ho Chi Minh’s War Remnants Museum, formerly named the “Exhibition House for U.S. and Puppet Crimes,” which showcases the “U.S. Aggressive War in Vietnam.” Basically, the communists won and ever since have set up this museum filled with downed American Aircraft and grim images of Agent Orange and its aftereffects. As a former U.S. servicemember, I was more than a little uncomfortable (and pissed), and insisted that we leave once we had explored a few of its halls.

The rest of the trip was quite enjoyable, however, and quite a few Vietnamese folk made certain to explain to us that “We love Americans!” in an effort to be friendly.

Next up are the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta, so stay tuned.

-Carissa “Always an Airman” Rawson

Phu Quoc

My project is done, my internship is drawing to a close, and I’ve yet to regale you all with stories about Vietnam.

Pine no more, because today we’re starting.

So, Harrison and I spent a total of two weeks in Vietnam. The first week was in Phu Quoc at the J.W. Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay, which I had booked specifically because it’s themed as an an ex-school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And if you guys know me at all, you know I love me some Witchcraft and Wizardry.

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I used a free seven night certificate to book the hotel, which meant that our stay was technically free.

I say technically because while the room was paid for, our various activities were not. And it was very much a resort, with cooking classes, yoga on the beach, bike rides around town- you name it, it was available. And we did most all of them.

But before I talk about the activities, I want to take a minute to show you guys this hotel. It’s really up there in terms of design and architecture, and has some of the coolest theming I’ve ever seen. It only opened late last year and had been on my list ever since, so I was really stoked to go.

Now like I said before, we stayed at this hotel for a total of seven nights. That meant we had seven days to kill with various activities:

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Wishing I was dead after a ridiculously difficult bike ride to a bee farm
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Learning how to make Vietnamese coffee
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Attempting- poorly- to cook Vietnamese food

And seven days to swim in the water and enjoy the pools:

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And eat some intensely confusing “science” food:

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There’s not a ton else to say about the week, as we did what most people do during beach vacations: we relaxed.

Though we did end up going one night to the Phu Quoc night market, which Harrison loved and I nearly threw up in due to the dried octopus and various other unsavory scents.

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UUGGGHH

Tomorrow, Ho Chi Minh and the hundred thousand things we did there.

-Carissa “It’s Over!” Rawson

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

A Thousand Photos

Hello Dear Readers!

Before I get deep into my Vietnam posts, I wanted to show you guys all these extra photos that I have. They span from the month or so after Cairo and before Hong Kong, during which I spent two weeks in Edinburgh and two weeks in California visiting family.

Enjoy!

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When I got back to Edinburgh I tried to do all the things I hadn’t yet done.
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These are from my visit to the cat cafe.
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Edinburgh Botanic Gardens
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Celebrating post-exams at the Dome (and Eleana’s birthday!)

 

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Shahnaz’s birthday at the Edinburgh Craft Beer Festival
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Took the first train out of Waverly Station. Ended up at Sir Walter Scott’s house in Tweedbank
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Business class back home to California, for which I squatted overnight in an airport like a hobo.
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The Hotel Del Coronado!

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My little sister, Jill, whose baby Charlie is almost due!
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One of my best friends, Monica, came to visit. I will literally never live this karate photo down.

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-Carissa “Help Me I Have a Travel Addiction” Rawson

Fancy First Class

Hello Dear Readers!

I’ve just spent the last two weeks in Vietnam and have now safely arrived to Tel Aviv. For those of you who don’t know, I’m volunteering to teach Arabic at an NGO for the summer while I finish up my Master’s degree. Tel Aviv is a beautiful city, so I’m glad to be here.

Now, before I start telling you guys my adventures about Vietnam (and Hong Kong), I need to tell you all how I got there. This is a points and miles blog as well, after all.

So.

Marriott has what’s called Air and Hotel packages. These cost 270,000 Marriott points, and in return you receive 120,000 frequent flier miles from the airline of your choosing and seven nights at any category 1-5 Marriott hotel. I’m not expanding much on this because as of August first these packages are being highly devalued, so it’s not worth it to spend time discussing these. Suffice to say that I redeemed my points and chose to receive my 120,000 miles into my Alaska Airlines account.

I did this for many reasons, not the least of which is Alaska Airlines’ extremely lucrative partnerships with other airlines, which means you can get a lot of value out of redeeming their miles. Additionally, they’re considered some of the highest value miles (as opposed to, say, Delta), so they’re worth going for even if you’re not located in an area very conducive to Alaska flights. (Like me, in the Middle East).

Alaska has some really good award chart redemptions, (see their chart here for the ‘sweet spots’), and I redeemed 70,000 of my 120,000 miles in order to fly Cathay Pacific first class to Ho Chi Minh with a two day stopover in Hong Kong (Alaska will allow you to make stopovers for free on award flights, which many other airlines don’t do). This one way ticket would have otherwise cost me over $8,000, so I consider these miles well spent.

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Not including my onward flight to Ho Chi Minh

Cathay Pacific is meant to have some of the best first class services out there, so I was more than a little jazzed to be spending 13 hours on board this flight. I know, I know, who wants to climb onto an airplane for a long ass flight?

This girl!

And literally everyone else who loves champagne and filet mignon and other fancy whatnots. Here are some pictures for you to enjoy (yes, I’m bragging.):

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Look at my poor attempt to capture how luxurious it was!
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Three windows all to myself. Seat 1a
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Did you guys know caviar is disgusting? I tried it because come on I had to, but I couldn’t even finish it.
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They even give you pajamas to keep!
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The flight attendant smiled at me knowingly after I asked for my sixth glass of champagne.
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Coming in to land at Hong Kong, refreshed and ready to sweat it out.

-Carissa “Already Back in Economy” Rawson

Luxoriffic Luxor

Hello Dear Readers!

As is surprising to no one, I’m currently in an airport waiting to start the very long journey to Hong Kong. I’ve got a few things left to tell you guys about Egypt though, so buckle in. Today we’re going to talk about Luxor, where Joni and I spent a whirlwind 2 nights before heading back up to Cairo.

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The gorgeous view from our hotel room.

Now, when I vacation I do it either one of two ways. In one, I get up at the crack of dawn with a full day of activities planned and very little sleep involved. In the other, I arrive to a hotel and literally do not move until check-out, whenever that is.

This was the first type.

So it was that Joni and I rose for the fourth day in a row at 3am, dreaming longingly of sleeping in until 6. Alas, our hot air balloon ride was due for the sunrise, which is ludicrously early in the Middle East.

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We need sleep!

It was so cool!

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We soared over the entirety of Luxor, catching glimpses of the Valley of the Kings (King Tut’s tomb!), the Valley of the Queens, Hatshepsut’s Temple, and throughout it all, the Nile winding its way through the ancient city.

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For those of you who don’t know, Luxor is considered one of the best places to go see ancient history, much better than Cairo, and has some of the best preserved tombs in the world.

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So it was that after the hot air balloon ride we met up with our private guide, who spent the entire day showing us around.

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Ok, so. You guys know that Egypt is cheap, right? I’ve spoken about it enough that it should be old news by now. So when the tourism office at the Valley of the Kings wanted to charge us $15 for the ability to take photos, I flatly declined. I mean come on, our guide for the entire day was only $20. I didn’t need no stinking photos.

Or so I thought. I really underestimated how cool the tombs were- definitely photo worthy. And once we got down there, I saw all kinds of people taking photos. So I thought to myself, “hey, I’m gonna do it anyway. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Well, boys and girls, the worst that can happen is that one of the guards can seize your phone, demand you open it, scroll through your photos, and then try to shake you down for a bribe in order not to report you to the photo police.

I pretended not to understand him and Joni and I ran like hell out of the tomb, afraid that he was chasing us. We stuck to postcards after that.

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Behold! The Offending Photos!
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They aren’t even any good. 

But it was cool!

-Carissa “Lawless” Rawson

The Pyramids Round Two

Hello Dear Readers!

It’s been an atrociously busy last month, with no end in sight. In a little over a week I head for Vietnam, with a two day stopover in Hong Kong (Disneyland Hong Kong! Dim Sum!). Harrison and I will be spending a total of two weeks in Vietnam, with the first week at a beach resort and the second in Ho Chi Minh, the capital city.

But I digress. First I need to finish telling you guys about Egypt.

Ahh. Egypt. Land of smog and noise and traffic and history and beauty. The locals have written volumes about their love-hate relationship with Cairo, and I have to say after living there for six weeks I completely agree.

Hence, when I got back from my week in Israel, I was dreading the return to the city. Life is so difficult there compared to anywhere else. But Joni was coming to visit so I needed to get back there and get going.

I’ve got to tell you, coming back there and going full tourist was a better experience than just living there. (As I would imagine is true for any city). All told, Joni spent five days with me in Egypt, and we saw many things, including the Pyramids.

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Here we go again

You guys remember my Pyramid story, right? Well I knew she couldn’t fly all the way from California and not see them, so I reluctantly returned to the scene of the disaster, prepared for the worst. Luckily, in the two weeks since I had last been, the Egyptian government banned solicitors from historic sites in an effort to boost tourism. I thought it was a farce, until we showed up and the aptly named “tourist police” were parked all around the area, ensuring no wayward hawkers made their way past the barriers.

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Practically empty

It made for a much more pleasant experience. And no, we didn’t go inside. You literally could not pay me to go back in there. But we did ride camels, and I had a nice dicker with the camel owner over the ride in Arabic, which Joni thought was impressive and in reality consisted of about the same five words repeated in Arabic over and over again. (No! 15 guinea! No more! I’m not paying!)

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We also went down to the Sphinx, which I managed to miss the first time around, so I’m glad I got the chance to see it. While there we found a tour guide who took the best photos- enjoy!

-Carissa “Where Do I Even Live?” Rawson

Flying the Sinai

Hello Dear Readers!

Finals are over, all my papers are turned in (with the exception of my dissertation, which isn’t due until August), and my time in Edinburgh has come to a close.

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It’s bittersweet, but mostly bitter. I don’t feel like I’ve had enough time here, but time moves forward and there’s nothing I can do but go along.

Enough of the moping, though. I haven’t finished telling you guys about Egypt- which was certainly one of the most interesting experiences of my life. After our classes ended we had an extra two weeks in the country itself for…um…studying…purposes. Obviously I took this to mean it was an excellent time to travel.

Now, Harrison and I haven’t seen much of each other recently as we’ve both been extremely busy. So once I knew I had a week off, I thought “Hey! I’ll make the short jump from Cairo to Tel Aviv and go visit him for a week! How hard can it be?”

Well, the answer is: really hard.

In case you guys aren’t up to date on your world politics, even though Egypt and Israel are at “peace” they still reeeeeally hate each other and make it as difficult as possible to connect between the two countries.

This goes for air travel as well as land crossings, so when I attempted to find a direct flight between Cairo and Tel Aviv, I was met with a big fat zero. Honestly, I tried everything I could, but none of my trusty sites served me and in the end I was forced to conclude that I’d need to fly to Turkey first and connect down to Tel Aviv, with a total journey time of around 16 hours each way to make it some three hundred miles.

And then. In a dark, empty, corner of the internet I found mention of a flight. Of an airline, kinda sketchy and secret, with no website and only a hotmail email address with which to contact them. Legend went that they operated once daily a direct flight form Cairo to Tel Aviv and vice versa.

I emailed them and was met with silence. So I had Harrison call their Tel Aviv office (yay for speaking Hebrew!) and they informed him that the only way I would be able to purchase a ticket was in person, in Cairo, in cash.

So when I got to Cairo I rolled up to Egyptair’s office, the parent airline that had purchased this small, secret airline (Air Sinai), and which sells the tickets for this flight. Of course, since they own the only flight in town the ticket price was exorbitant. And yes, I had to pay in cash. I enlisted the help of my friend Shahnaz and together we crept into the Egyptair flight office clutching a wad of bills the size of a baseball.

When I informed the flight agent I wanted a ticket to Tel Aviv, her eyebrows nearly flew off her head, but she let me purchase it and sent me on my way with a paper ticket. (Did anyone know they still made those?)

The morning of my flight I made my way to the Cairo airport, where the flight board registered one flight to Tel Aviv with no specific airline attached. I made my way to the ticket counter, waaaay in a back corner, and stood in line for an hour waiting to check in as the one harried ticket agent attempted to deal with every single person on the flight.

And the plane.

Well, you know that they hate each other. And you know that the Sinai is generally regarded as a lawless wasteland. And maybe I hadn’t mentioned this yet, but the plane flew directly through the Sinai on its route to Tel Aviv.

So it was that I boarded an unmarked plane parked at the wrong end of the airport and flew through the ungovernable anarchy of the Sinai Desert. Twice.

And I made it!

-Carissa “I’m Only Brave Until I’m Stupid” Rawson

Nicosia- The Last Divided Capital: Part 2

Hello Dear Readers!

Did you enjoy my story about the hammam? I mean, it was certainly an experience. Right?

Anyway, after we finished at the bath, we wandered around the Turkish side of the city, eating in a random bookstore cafe and going to see the whirling dervishes, which sounds really cool but in actuality is a bunch of men twirling in circles for hours at a time.

The Turkish side is so so different from the Greek. I can’t stress that enough.

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Me in a mosque

In the evening Harrison and I went to Pivo Microbrewery, had a few drinks (and he ate a literal rack of ribs), and then wandered down to a bar so he could teach me how to play backgammon.

I’m not going to say he was going easy on me. But I will say that I won a few times. I prefer to think of it as my own cleverness and expertise.

The next day we spent entirely on the Greek side, wandering into an abandoned art district near the wall, which was utterly surreal as it was a sunny Saturday and literally no one was around.

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Artsy

We ended up playing more backgammon, eating Oreo cheesecake (authentic Greek Oreo cheesecake) and having a wonderful time before heading to the airport and flying our separate ways.

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I’m a winner!

Gosh I sure missed Egypt. I swear.

-Carissa “Backgamon Superstar” Rawson

Experiencing a Turkish Hammam

Hello Dear Readers!

As I told you guys yesterday, we crammed as many things as possible into our two day trip to Nicosia, which meant that on Friday we rose bright and early in order to make the most out of our time in Cyprus.

One of the first things we did was head to the Turkish side, which is radically different from the Greek side. To put it simply, the Greek side is European, with all the normal chains, stores, and brands that you’d expect to see strewn across Europe. In contrast, the Turkish side is decidedly foreign, with small shops shoved everywhere and boatloads of Ray-Bons, Guci, and Louise Viton for sale at very good prices.

They also have a famous Turkish Hammam, one of two in the city, which we stumbled upon and decided, “Hey, when in Rome!”

We walked in and it happened to be mixed hour, so we paid up, got our covering cloths, and made our way down to the hammam itself.

So. It’s a bath, right? You shower yourself and get all sudsy and everything. And it’s public, right? Well, they gave Harrison a pair of shorts about the length of regular swim trunks. Me? I got the standard covering cloth, which covered the very top of my bottom and the very bottom of my top. And nothing more.

So in we walk, him all comfortable and confident and me hunched over like a troll to make sure all my bits stay covered. It’s pretty empty, just one other man, and we head to one of the separate areas to start bathing. It’s going pretty well, I’m relaxing and everything, and when we finish we head to the heated marble plinth to await a scrubbing from a formidable Turkish woman.

As we’re laying there more people wander in. Excuse me, more men wander in. It is mixed hour, after all. And one of these men, upon seeing us lying there, gets this huge grin on his face and comes to lie down.

He lowers himself to the marble, his teeny cloth tucked betwixt his legs, and props his head on his hand. He’s utterly at his ease, this jovial Turkish man for whom the hammam is a normal part of life. He’s like a Greek god with a beer belly, and his roving eyes keep flicking between Harrison and I, working as he tries to puzzle out our relationship.

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An accurate approximation of our Turkish friend

Fortunately, a few minutes later the woman comes in for my scrubbing, and she proceeds to scour me until I have absolutely no skin left. She also asks me to flip over to my back without a covering on my front, which I do while acutely aware of my nakedness. Luckily nobody but her was watching, but damn if it wasn’t uncomfortable.

After I was done, Harrison took his turn, and she was much nicer to him, not forcing him to be naked whatsoever, a fact that I will envy forever.

Afterwards we changed back into our clothes and headed out, cleaner, more cultured, and grinning with glee at our luck of stumbling into the hammam.

Also, Harrison took a surprise photo of me walking out of the hammam, which he hates and I use to torture him, because it’s a constant reminder of how seriously dorky I am. Enjoy.

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Heeeey you guuuuuys!

-Carissa “Cultured” Rawson