Cuba Day 2

Oh what a day! I woke up bright and early because my Airbnb host wanted to make sure that I was OK before she left for work for the day! I figured I’d start my day instead of sleeping for another hour as intended.

I read a bit on my Kindle, then got ready for the day. The minute I walked outside, I was wishing for a jacket! It was chilly and slightly misting. I was surprised. Not the best weather for my first day in the Caribbean. Oh well!

I walked to the park where Rafael and Claudia had told me that I could buy internet. I made it there easily, but couldn’t find anywhere to buy ETECSA cards. Dozens of cars were on the street, but they clearly were not where you purchased cards from.

I approached a woman who was sitting by herself, and thankfully she spoke English! She told me to walk two blocks to the west to find ETECSA to buy cards. Three blocks later, I gave up. West was the opposite direction of Old Havana, where I intended to spend my day. I figured I’d find something along the way.

I almost got hit by a bus, but finally made it to the Capitol building. Hm. Where to go from here? I found Central Park, the meeting place for my Airbnb tour, yet I still needed to locate ETECSA. With time to spare, I typed it into Google (I had downloaded Google Maps of Havana and so I was able to search without Internet) and found that the Obispo location for ETECSA was not far.

The masses trying to get internet at ETECSA.

At ETECSA, I was very confused by the process. What a nightmare! I was told I needed to sit and wait. So I went to sit. There was a man directing everyone where we were to sit. He ignored me so I chose my own seat. Somehow, everyone was called before me. Even people who had come in after me!

Everyone was waved through quickly to the front desk, one after another. Finally, I sat up front, irritated with the whole situation. It had been almost 20 minutes. He glanced at me, and instead of waving me to the front of the office, he sent me to the very back. Why did I have to wait? No clue. Why was I sent to the back of the building instead of the front, along with everyone else? No clue. It’ll remain a mystery for forever.

I was asked how many ETECSA cards I wanted. I replied, “20, or however many you can give me.” I was hoping to get a week’s supply all at once. She told me, they could only give 3 per person, but I could come back in an hour for three more. Fine. Whatever. I let her see my passport and paid her 3CUC (1hr=1CUC). With that, I had internet. With only 30 minutes until my tour started, I set out to find a hotspot right away. Central Park happened to be one, so I sat there to be online and wait. I assured everyone that I was alive, and sent them some pictures to appease them.

Central Park

At 10:30, I stood up and began to look for my guide. I finally approached a man who was standing alone and asked if he was the guide. He told me that we were expected to have 6 other people in the group! We waited for almost 20 minutes, but no one else showed. So I got my own private tour of Cuba!

My guide, Fernando, was fantastic. His English was the most impeccable that I had encountered thus far. And even as I write this at the end of Day 1, it remains the most impeccable. He formerly worked as a translator for the government, which is a part of the reason his English was so superb. He was incredibly knowledgeable and told me so much about Cuba! We covered a lot of ground in two hours. And luckily, at this point, the weather had gotten better. Sunny and no more drizzles.

At the end of the tour, my feet were SCREAMING. I had tried to wear my Birks hoping to avoid that ugly break-in period. Bad call. I definitely did not avoid it. I headed back up to ETECSA to grab more internet. Once there, it was a much quicker process! He sent me back very quickly. I realized the ETECSA store WAS an internet hot spot, so I stayed there for almost an hour, catching up on internet usage. Then it was time to head to activity #2.

With my feet very nearly bleeding, I made my way towards the Arts District of Havana. Halfway there, I decided I needed food. I had forgotten to pack my snacks in the morning (yes, I travel with food), and hadn’t eaten since my flight the night before. I stopped at a cart on the street and bought a banana!

I walked to Jesus Maria 20, the bar at which we were meeting, snacking on a banana. I leaned against the wall, and realised I was 15 minutes early! I could feel that the ocean was close by, so I decided to walk over and see it while I waited. As I was about to go, a man stopped me and tried to tell me something about my banana. Due to his poor English and my poor Spanish, I didn’t get what he was saying. I felt bad. However, I asked for the garbage and he was actually kind enough to throw my peel out for me!

And so, now banana-less, I walked to the ocean. Halfway there, I was stopped by a man who wanted me to eat at his restaurant, some John Lennon place. He was super nice and friendly. His wife was from Chicago so he was excited to meet another Chicagoan! I told him I’d try and come back and headed to sit by the ocean.

At this point, I needed to do something. I pulled out the flat sandals that I had in my bag in case my Birks failed and threw them on. It was a WORLD of difference. With happier feet, I headed back to the bar.

At the door, I showed security the screenshot of my Airbnb experience and asked if I was in the correct place. He told me yes and sent me up the stairs to the rooftop! I walked up and hesitantly showed the waitress the same picture.

She smiled and pointed me towards the table where a girl was seated. I walked over and introduced myself, thinking she was the photographer! She said, “Oh I ordered some food, I hope you don’t mind.” And I was ecstatic because despite the banana, I was starving! I ordered a hamburger and we made small talk.

A few minutes into our stilted conversation, another girl showed up with a camera. It turned out, the girl who I was sitting with, Marcela? She had also booked the experience! We each believed the other to be the photographer! However, Lisi was our real photographer.

Lisi held conversation with each of us as our drinks arrived (Marcela had a mojito, I was boring and just had a water!). Then she invited us up to the upper level of the bar to start the photo session. As we were ascending the spiral staircase, our waitress delivered our food to the table. Marcela and I decided to keep taking photos and wait to eat. She went first, and then went down to eat, then it was my turn!

The rooftop mural at Jesus Maria 20.

Lisi and I then went down to join her while I enjoyed my hamburger! I have NO IDEA what was on it, but it was delicious. And, it was only $6! We chatted for awhile, then asked for the check and began taking more photos in the bar. Finally, we were ready to go!

We hit the streets, looking for fun murals and street art to pose with. We had the best time with Lisi, and the three of us all hit it off. After taking several photos in the streets, we wandered into an art gallery. Lisi wanted to take photos of us in the gallery. It turns out we had just missed salsa lessons! However, the band had hung around. The next thing I know, Marcela is salsa-ing around the gallery like a pro, and it was a full on dance party!

The Art Gallery

And all of a sudden, I’ve got a guy trying to teach me how to salsa, as Lisi is snapping pics of my inadequacy and Marcela’s grace! It further proved that I cannot dance. Oh well. I tried, and had an absolute blast!

From there, we headed to take more photos with street art. I ran into my banana vendor friend, who was super excited to see me again, and very very friendly. So that was fun. After posing with many other murals, I glanced at the clock to see that it was 4pm! Our photo session was from 2-4. I looked at Lisi apologetically and told her I felt horrible that we had gone over.

However, she told me that she wanted us to get all of the pictures that WE wanted. The Experience promised that we would get to see the Capitol, and since it was included, Lisi wanted to make sure we got pics there. I am so so grateful to her for sticking with us crazies!

My feet had been faring much better up until now, but as we were picking our way through the chaotic streets of Old Havana, I felt it. The blister popped. Instant, horrible pain. I refused to say anything and simply limped along beside them, trying to keep my gait normal.

We reached the Capitol and I told Lisi to go ahead and shoot Marcela first, as I wanted to deal with my foot. Ugh. I looked down to see the blister to end all blisters on the sole of my foot. Thanks Birks! I stuck a bandaid on, knowing it was a futile attempt.

Lisi snapped some pics of me in front of the Capitol, and then we walked (I limped) up to the very front of the Capitol, where she took even more pictures. At this point, I threw my Birks back on, hoping they would help support my blister rather than antagonize it, as my flat, unsupportive sandals were doing. It helped, but not much.

I very nearly was hit by a car as I was crossing the street, but I survived! And so ended our photo shoot. Lisi gave us tons of recommendations, and we all took a selfie! At the end of it all, her photo count was upwards of 700 photos of us. Oops. But the results were absolutely amazing. Of the three photo shoots I did while in Cuba, Lisi’s pictures were my favorite.

Marcela wanted to check out a clothing store Lisi had mentioned, so I tagged along with her. Clandestina is a Cuban clothing brand, and they had some amazing stuff! I felt bad that both my budget was so tight, and that my suitcase had so little room to spare. Marcela bought a super cute t-shirt, and we chatted with the employee about wifi and where to find it. And about what their lives were like without it! It was a fascinating conversation.

We decided to get dinner together at El Dandy, a restaurant that had been recommended to me several times. However, when we crossed the street to head in, the doors were locked! We were told that there was a meeting going on, and the restaurant would not open for 30 more minutes, if we wanted to wait and come back.

I realized the ETECSA was not far from where we were, so I decided to head up there and told Marcela she was welcome to join! We each bought 3 more ETECSA cards (this time I got waved STRAIGHT back with no sitting and waiting! — moving up in the world), and sat down to utilize their wifi. Before we knew it, we had been there for nearly 40 minutes! We were able to connect on social media, exchange pictures and videos, and catch up with our social medias, emails, and messages! Time well spent.

Then we headed back to El Dandy. We were stopped by a man who wanted to sell us tickets to a salsa festival! Marcela was excited because she thought it was the one that she was going to, and she wanted me to get tickets and join! If not for my foot’s bloody condition, I totally would have.

However, she soon realized that what the man was talking about was different from the salsa festival she had bought her tickets for. She decided to think it over and see if she’d rather go to his. We went to sit in El Dandy, and she decided that she wanted to get tickets to this different one!

We ate a delicious dinner. I had carnitas with a traditional Cuban drink called Canchanchara. It was STRONG. I shared with Marcela and she agreed! I couldn’t finish it. After dinner, we asked the friendly security guard for directions to buy the tickets for the salsa festival. I told Marcela I would walk with her to do it. However, his directions confused us even further. we decided to first go to her Airbnb, so I would know how to find it tomorrow. (441 Villegas). After she showed me her place and swapped out her purse, we headed to look for salsa tickets. We realized it still wasn’t the right place, and she gave up on attempting to go to salsa for the night. We said our goodbyes and finalized our plans to meet up for tomorrow (making plans is REALLY hard when you have no way to contact the other person day of!), and that was that.

I decided to walk up to Central Park to connect with my parents one last time and let them know I was alive. Due to my foot, I was definitely taking a cab instead of walking the nearly 3km back to my Airbnb! I got online at Central Park, and touched base with home and the rest of the world. Then it was time to find a cab.

I approached a group of men and asked for a taxi, showing them my Airbnb address. They all looked befuddled. I tried to explain, it’s not far from here, I walked this morning! After several minutes of head scratching, they quoted me 10CUC, a price that my screaming feet happily agreed to. I climbed into the cab and bid Old Havana goodbye.

However, that was not the end of my day! My cab driver took me to the wrong location. I put it in Google Maps and showed him that we needed to be heading the OTHER direction on Padre Varela, the street I was staying on. We did a U-turn and headed back my way. All of a sudden, we were passing places I’d passed on my morning walk. Irritated, I handed him his 10CUC and said I’d walk. Luckily it was less than a block away!

Home at last. I took a shower, very gingerly, as I protected my poor foot. Fun fact: my Airbnb shower was clearly not pictured online due to its size… I hardly fit! 12 inches from the curtain to the wall, and less than 3 feet wide! I pancaked myself in and faced the curtain, trying not to move at all, because any move I made simply glued the shower curtain to my wet body. It was an experience.

I crawled into bed, ready to sleep for years.  Just checked my step counter– I walked over 10 miles today. It’s fine, I’m fine. Why did I not eat more? I should be starving. And super thirsty. Hm. I resolved to not walk nearly as much any of the following days, my feet were in rough shape.

Cuba Day 1

I arrived at O’Hare International Airport by 10:50a.m., driven by my mom. I didn’t mind being so early to my 1:30p.m. flight because I was flying out of Terminal 3, American Airlines. Why is this a perk? As an authorized user on a AAdvantage credit card, I’m able to get into the Admirals Club, American’s lounge. They don’t have a lounge in the international terminal, so flying out of Terminal 3 is always my preference! It’s pretty amazing. I breezed through security and wandered up to sit and work.

I worked for about an hour, and then at noon I got up to get lunch. They provide complimentary food and drinks, so I indulged with pita chips and hummus, followed by chocolate chip cookies. After that, it was time to board my flight! I headed to Gate H17, where boarding took no time at all! I was super impressed.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I realized that no one was sitting in the middle seat of my row! This allowed me to stash my super over-sized personal item under the empty seat, giving me plenty of legroom. I appreciated that, a lot.

However, it took AGES to get off the ground due to the lovely de-icing process the Chicago winter requires. When we were finally in the air, I napped for the first 40 minutes, and then woke up and read several books on my Kindle.

Once we’d reached altitude, I tried to take a sip from my LifeStraw bottle which I had filled before takeoff. Bad call. The water bottle had pressurized as we ascended and when I opened the straw, water came gushing out like a geyser. I was extremely grateful that no one was next to me. It was a long, wet flight to Miami.

As we touched down in Miami, it started to downpour, delaying us even further. I began to panic, thinking I would miss my connection. I finally got off the plane at 6:20p.m., with gates slated to close for my flight to Havana at 6:44p.m.

My arrival gate was E30, and my departure was at E5. I assumed it would be easy. No such luck! E30 is in Miami’s satellite terminal. However, some luck was with me, as the minute I reached the shuttle, it was arriving. I scurried through the station at the main terminal to find that, for once in my life, I was lucky! E5 was the VERY FIRST gate. The line to board was massive, even at 6:35, ten minutes til doors closing.

I stood in line for a period, but then realized I needed to go to a separate counter to get my Visa! I hustled up to do that. I was really bummed when, instead of the $85 price advertised by American for Visas, I was charged $100! Granted, it’s only a $15 difference, but it was still more than I was expecting to pay. Irritating. However, the process was so easy. I simply handed over my passport and then the credit card, and I was ready to fly.

This was the point when I started to have a nervous breakdown. I was heading to a foreign country, where I did not speak the language, where I knew NO ONE, where they had no cell service, to spend one week alone. Who let me do this?! Why was I here? Panic was setting in and tears were welling in my eyes.

I couldn’t admit my weakness to my parents. They hadn’t wanted me to go in the first place! As I boarded, I texted my sister, “Freaking out a bit. Who the heck decided I could go to Cuba alone for a week?” Good sister that she is, she had no idea I was Cuba bound and offered no helpful advice. So much for her making me feel better.

I was trying not to let the tears fall. I could do this. No, I couldn’t. I texted my last resort. Polly. The older sister I never had. She immediately responded and reassured me that everything would be fine, which was exactly what I needed to hear. I let a few tears fall, but then sucked it up, deciding I would not let myself cry again until I arrived at my destination. And I didn’t.

Visa in hand, I jumped back over to the boarding line and boarded JUST before they ran out of overhead space (lucky me!). The flight was honestly, the worst flight of my life. I was miserable. My stomach was all wonky, and I don’t normally get motion sickness on flights! And the flight was SUPER turbulent. It was a nightmare. I downed some Advil and forced myself to eat some fruit leather, thinking it was maybe due to the fact that I hadn’t eaten much all day.

When I got off the plane I was feeling slightly better, but still not 100%. I was exhausted. And I still had to clear customs. I followed the signs and all the people into the absolute CHAOS that is the Havana Airport. When I say chaos, I mean CHAOS. It’s a nightmare. And I thought going into the country was bad? Wait until you hear about my departure.

Unlike organized customs at any other country, there are no roped off lanes. You just walk to wherever the heck you want and wait for an agent to call you. Then, you’re lucky if they speak a lick of English! Despite what I had read about them asking if you wanted your visa or your passport stamped, she didn’t ask me and simply stamped both.

Once through customs, you go BACK through security. Convoluted, right? You’re required to empty your pockets/take off your belts and jackets, but thankfully shoes can stay on. I passed through security where I was stopped by yet ANOTHER checkpoint.

Although, I believe this one is temporary. Upon receiving my visa in the US, I was given a form from the Cuban department of health to fill out, questioning what symptoms, if any, I had felt in the past 15 days. This was, I believe, due to the coronavirus. We had to stand in line AGAIN to hand over our health forms! Nothing complicated was required, at least from me. I simply handed her my form and kept moving. I did see some people get stopped though!

Finally I was into baggage claim. I’ve never been so glad that I did NOT check a bag… This looked like an absolute nightmare. Nothing in Cuba is automated, so bags are manually unloaded from the plane, which takes ages. I was so glad I didn’t check one! I followed the signs for “nothing to declare” and in front of the exit sign, a girl in a military uniform stopped me.

She asked something in rapid Spanish, and I did not catch it. I simply said, “I’m sorry, I…” and she cut me off with a laugh and waved me through. And I was in Cuba!

And here was where the madness truly began. Hundreds of people crammed into the smallest area, waving signs and ready to welcome family members. I saw a sign for “cadeca,” which I believed to be a place where I could exchange money. I brushed through several groups of people and asked the security guard if I could exchange my money. He shook his head and said to go outside and to the right. As I turned to go, I was stopped by a man wearing a yellow shirt  who was asking me questions in Spanish. I said that I spoke no spanish, and apologized. He asked in English if I needed a cab.

I replied, yes, but I first need to exchange my money. He took me outside to the left, to the exchange place, and told me he would be waiting down the street. Strange, but okay. Maybe this was how Cuba worked?

The nicest woman and her husband and child were in front of me in the slow moving line. I was approached by a man wearing a yellow “taxi” vest, who spoke little to no English. Upon realizing our conundrum, she stepped up and helped translate for me and him! With their help, I realized the man who had spoken to me earlier offering me a cab, was NOT an official taxi driver. They told me to make sure I got a cab from someone official, and that it would cost $30 to get from Havana Airport to Centro, where I was staying.

I finally exchanged my money and headed over to what I thought was a place where I could buy wi-fi cards. I had been told to buy them at the airport! However, the place was not what I thought. I went inside to ask. At this point, my yellow shirted taxi man approached and was like, “I thought you needed a cab and were going to come with me!” And I told him, “Sorry, I need to do some stuff first.” He followed me around as I queried different airport employees about ETECSA.

Finding out I could not get it at the airport, I was bummed. I decided to try to text my parents and let them know I was alive. I wanted to reach them and let them know I was okay!

However, my phone had no service. Defeated, I approached a lady in a yellow vest to ask for an official taxi. I told my yellow shirted follower that I was going to get a cab from her, and was stunned when he backed off with no argument. I was expecting him to be way pushier, and am so grateful that he was not.

While trying to get to the woman, another young man came up and was like, “Do you need a taxi? Can I help you? Are you meeting someone?” After many “No, thank yous!” I finally reached the taxi lady. I did not want to trust anyone who was not official.

I felt like such a jerk when I realized he was an official driver who was helping her out. She took my address and helped me into a cab with a great driver! We set off for Centro Havana. I don’t know why I had forgotten this wasn’t America so quickly…

I forgot that most people and places drive manual transmissions, something that makes me incredibly motion sickn due to the slightly more jarring motions than those of an automatic. Especially city driving. It was another miserable section of travel.

I inquired if there was a place to stop for ETECSA on the way to my apartment, but he told me that everything except ETECSA in hotel lobbies would be closed. When I followed up asking if there was a hotel on the way, he sadly told me no. I was resigned to the fact that my parents wouldn’t hear from me, and just hoped they’d believe I was OK.

While in the cab, I counted the money I had been given at the money exchange. I was HORRIFIED to find out that the exchange rate was even worse than I thought! I had been told 1CUC=.87USD. and was expecting a similar conversion. I took the stack of bills I was offered without counting them then and there, a rookie mistake.

I counted my bills in the cab and found that I had only been given 240CUC for the 300USD I had converted. I wanted to cry because I assumed the exchange rate was worse than I thought. I was going to have to forgo many meals. However, upon arriving in my Airbnb I would find that this was not, in fact, the case.

The exchange rate wasn’t bad, it was exactly what I thought it was. I was meant to receive 260CUC. The girl had miscounted. And this is how I lost $20 on my first day out.

Anyways, back to the cab ride. He brought me straight to my Airbnb, where I stood for several moments, trying to get in. I started to panic thinking no one was home and I had no way in and no way to contact anyone! However, after I rang the bell two times more, someone came to the door!
I was greeted by Rafael, a friend of my Airbnb host who was out of town (and had warned me of this beforehand). He carried my suitcase upstairs for me and showed me to my room. I then went out to chat with him and the other host, Claudia.

They had me sign in and took my info, and told me a bit about the area. When I asked about the internet and if ETECSA places would be open in the morning, Rafael was curious as to why. I explained that my parents would be freaking out because I did not contact them and tell them I was okay.

The next thing you know, he and Claudia are lending me their phones to communicate with my Mom. They even allowed me to call and speak with her instead of just sending a “Hey, it’s Maysie, I’m alive” text. And with that, a giant weight was lifted off of me. They knew I was safe.

It was time for bed. I had to be up early in the morning to find ETECSA! And so ended my first day of solo travel.

Apostle Islands Kayaking Tour

It’s finally time to write about the great sites I’ve seen in Wisconsin, particularly way far up north. The first thing I want to talk about, and my personal favorite, is the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Man, oh man. I honestly could’ve spent an entire summer exploring this place! It stunk that I only had a few hours to check it out. But hey, I’ll take what I can get. 

The “cave” that we got to kayak into.

Driving away, after our tour, I told my stepdad that I liked the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore more than I liked the Grand Canyon. I mean, I hardly got to see the Grand Canyon, and I didn’t see much of the Lakeshore either, but of the two, I can tell you, personally, I’d rather be up north! I think I probably need to spend more time at both, though. 

We chose to do a half day kayak trip through Lost Creek Adventures. We wanted to see as much as possible in our limited window of time (4 days, covering 1300 miles), and this seemed like our best bet. I knew going into it that I really enjoyed kayaking, but my experience was limited to less than an hour at a time and on very small bodies of water. But I thought this would be a great opportunity! 

Lost Creek is located in Cornucopia, right across the road from Lake Superior! However, you don’t launch from there, they actually bus you a bit down the road to launch from a different beach. We arrived early, so we went to check out the water conditions to kill time, and got to see these gorgeous shades of blue on a placid Lake Superior.

I booked online, and read all of the FAQs and information they provided so that I could be 100% prepared for our excursion. One major question we had was, do we have to wear wetsuits? On their website, it lists that they have them if you want them, and that they’ll make you wear them depending on the weather. Lake Superior is, after all, the coldest of the Great Lakes! Unfortunately this also meant that due to the lake, the air wouldn’t be super warm either. We were nervous, as the weather was listed as hovering just below 60 degrees on the day that we were going out. It seemed cold to spend hours on the lake. 

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I called to ask if they were required (I really did not want to wear one), and they told me that it really did depend on the temperature of the water. So we were resigned to the fact that we might have to get one! We arrived the morning of dressed in numerous layers. I wore a sports bra, a sleeveless top, and a light sweater. I also had a windbreaker in the car in case it seemed particularly cold. For pants I wore a pair of leggings. My shoes were gym shoes, because the website said not to wear open toed shoes. This was definitely not enforced–almost everyone else wore sandals! At first I was upset and wishing I had worn sandals, but then I realized my feet would’ve gotten cold and sandy and was grateful for my Nikes. 

We asked right away about the wetsuit situation, and they went to check the temperature of the water. They informed us that we were not going to need to wear any! We each got a life jacket and did a “get to know you” activity, so that we could meet the guides and the others who would be going out. Then we all loaded up into a van and headed to the launch point.

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They showed us how to step into the spray skirts and get situated into our kayaks. They explained paddling and what to do in different situations. And with that, we were off! Lake Superior was amazingly placid the day that we went out. We couldn’t have asked for a better day and better weather. I found myself stripping out of my jacket before we even launched, and tying it around my waist. The sun kept me plenty warm, and kayaking for 3.5 hours was way more of a workout than I imagined it would be, so I was sweating from that, too! I actually ended up splashing myself intentionally several times, just to feel the cool water. 

One thing that didn’t occur to me before booking the trip was that I get INCREDIBLY seasick. It’s really bad. Any sort of rocking motion. I’ve felt nauseous before at work from swaying back and forth at the copier (yeah–it’s bad). It’s insane how bad I have it. I really, really, lucked out with how calm the lake was. I don’t even want to think about what the alternative would have been! The guides even kept remarking on how calm it was and how rare it was for it to be as perfect as it was. 

The whole tour itself was awesome! Our guides were incredibly informative and just great guys! They were super knowledgeable and great company. Towards the end of our outing, one even put on a show, flipping over a few times in his kayak for us to see it. I can’t even imagine the core strength that takes. The tour involved us kayaking along the shore and getting close enough to touch the rock formations. There were other tour groups out kayaking, which did delay us slightly, but it really wasn’t bad at all.

I brought along my phone in a waterproof case (that also would float, in the event that I dropped my phone in), and had it on a lanyard around my neck. This allowed me to feel free to take pictures while we were out and about! 

I would do the tour again in a heartbeat. Actually, I would probably opt to do a full day tour instead of just the 3.5 hour one! They also offer one that checks out the shipwrecks of Lake Superior, and that sounds AMAZING. But it is exhausting. I didn’t realize how exhausting it would be to kayak for such a long period of time! Especially with 2 other people in your kayak, one of whom was not paddling. It’s tiring. I looked it up, and with my height and weight, kayaking for 3.5 hours burns almost 2000 calories! Yes, we did stop for McDonalds on our way to our next stop. Oops! 

Lost Creek Adventures did a great job of showing us around Lake Superior, and I had a blast on my first sea kayaking adventure. I can’t wait to be able to do it again!

Cologne + Marburg, Germany

I closed out my European adventure by visiting the German cities of Cologne (Köln) and Marburg.

I woke up relatively early and hit the road for Cologne. I was able to get there without incident (which was, as you know if you’ve read my other blog posts, a miracle in and of itself). Because I’d had issues with parking in nearly every city I had visited, I had done research the night before on the parking situation in Cologne. I was NOT going to be caught unaware again and end up stuck up another alley. Nope.

Cologne is home to many Christmas Markets. Thanks to my handy German Christmas Market website, and the City of Cologne’s website, I knew where the three markets that I wanted to check out were. They were all relatively close by one another, so I figured I’d try and park in the middle of all three. The Parkhaus Heumarkt looked like it was perfectly in the middle of all three markets, according to my Google Maps!

I entered that into the GPS, and was able to get into the lot with no trouble. Also, there was a TON of available parking. Not only was I able to get a prime spot, but I was also able to pull through, negating the issue of having to back my car out in tiny European parking garages.

I walked up the stairs to exit the parking garage and walked out to realize… Parkhaus Heumarkt is the most conveniently located parking garage to ever exist. You exit the garage and find yourself in the center of the Wiehnachtsmarkt! It’s perfect! As it was not yet 10a.m., of course the “Old Market Christmas,” where I had emerged, was still shut down. That was totally fine! My plan was to first check out the Lindt Schokoladen Museum. It opened right at 10, so by the time I walked down there, it should be open! I headed that way slowly, taking my time checking out the empty market.

The Old Town Market is known for their gnomes. According to the Cologne website, “Legend has it that the Heinzelmännchen (house gnomes) performed all sorts of different jobs for the locals of Cologne: they prepared the sausages for the butcher, sewed the clothes for the tailor, and baked the bread for the baker. And so the winding alleys of the “house gnomes Christmas market” are differently themed, just like the guilds of days past.” The Old Town Market was totally and completely gnome-themed. It was spectacular!

From there, I made my way down to the Schokoladen Museum. I walked along the river, enjoying the near perfect weather. I was at the museum about 2 minutes before it opened. Something I found interesting was that I wasn’t the only one! No, people were outside waiting for the doors to open well before 10a.m. I found that interesting.

Once inside, I paid for my ticket, which was I believe 9EUR for students. They offered coat check, but it was 1EUR, and I was feeling cheap, so I skipped it. And I didn’t feel too hot in my coat, or uncomfortable walking around in it. One review on TripAdvisor had said that the museum was uncomfortably hot. I definitely did not think that was the case! I wore my coat and was fine, the whole time.

The museum is very cool! When you get your ticket, you’re given a small piece of chocolate with it. I received a strawberry cheesecake chocolate. It’s not anything I ever would’ve bought myself to try, but it was surprisingly delicious! I’m glad they gave me something different, it was the perfect first piece of chocolate for my day.

The museum walks you through the history of chocolate and where chocolate comes from. The first few rooms you walk through detail how chocolate grows, where it is grown, and how it is brought from where it grows to where it is sold. It’s really fascinating.

Then, you get into the machinery. You’re able to see the chocolate making process. At first I just thought the machines were pretend, or for show. But no. They’re legitimately making chocolate, and it’s amazing to watch!

At one end of the room, they have a giant chocolate fountain. Now, the website does make it sound like you can dip whatever into it and have as much as you want. In actuality, this is not the case. There is someone standing there (actually, the fountain itself does not open right at 10a.m. No one is there to set it up/serve people until 10:20a.m., and a posted sign explains this). This person dips wafers into the chocolate and hands them out to anyone who wants to try! Of course I tried one. Delicious!

The machinery is also super cool. I could’ve watched the chocolate-making process all day. At one point on the machines, they have it set up so you can push a button, and a robotic arm will grab you a piece of chocolate off the assembly line! Amazing! I may or may not have done it more than once… But no one else was around, so it was fine.

From there, I headed upstairs. In this area, you can see them making chocolate by hand, instead of watching the machines turn the cacao beans into chocolate, as you do downstairs. At one station you can watch them make intricate molded chocolate. It’s very cool. They also kind of explain the history of chocolate molds.

Here, you’ll find another one of their main attractions. You can have a chocolate bar custom made for you! I was really tempted to do it, as it is quite affordable (4.95EUR per bar), and I thought it would make a great gift for my brothers. However, it takes about 40 minutes for them to make the bar! I wasn’t sure how much longer I would be in the museum for, and I didn’t want to commit to that. I decided to raid the chocolate store on the first floor instead.

From there, I checked out a few more exhibits that delved even further back into the history of chocolate. This area explained about the Mayans and the Aztecs and their relation to chocolate, as well as discussing how piracy had to do with chocolate. So much fascinating history!

Then, I found out, that wasn’t even all! There was a third floor to the museum. I headed further up the spiral staircase to check it out. I’m so glad I went up there! This is where you can learn about the different chocolate brands. They have information on Milka, Kinder, and even things like KitKats upstairs! They also feature a Lindt Easter Bunny display, which I loved because every year I get at least one Lindt chocolate bunny. Makes me think of VeggieTales!

Finally, it was time to head out of the museum. On the way out, of course I had to raid their chocolate store! I left the Schokoladen Museum about 22EUR poorer, but I did have a ton of chocolate to bring home with me for a chocolate tasting party. My brother had told me, “I expect some high quality chocolate to come home with you,” and I hope I didn’t disappoint.

I really think half of my suitcase on my return trip was chocolate… The other half of it was comprised of the mugs that I bought at each Wiehnachtsmarkt I visited! In Cologne, I knew that I was going to be visiting three Christmas markets, and I wanted to choose the best mug out of the three. I knew that I didn’t have space for a mug from each individual market, and by this point in my trip, I was running low on Euros.

My first stop post-chocolate museum was the Harbor Market of Cologne. This is a newer attraction. I was super excited when I was researching it because they have pirate ships that serve the glühwein, cocoa, and sell mugs all out of the ship! I knew it was something that I wanted to check out while I was in Cologne.

The Harbor Market wasn’t too exciting, though! I felt that it was very small, and the mug was terribly disappointing. I knew right off the bat that I did not want that mug to be my souvenir from Cologne. I continued checking out the market for a little bit before deciding to walk up to the market at the Cathedral (Dom). It was really easy to walk to the Dom without using Google Maps, because the building is GIGANTIC. It is Germany’s most visited landmark, and it towers over all of Cologne.

I simply walked north along the river until I seemed to be close to the church, then turned down side streets until I found myself in the Dom Market. Holy smokes. This was probably one of the busiest markets I visited. It definitely did not help that it was a Friday. Maybe it would have been better to visit on a Tuesday or some other random weekday.

It seemed that a lot of people were starting their weekends early. For some reason, there were literally hundreds of British teenagers running around and being obnoxious, so that made me not want to stay for long. I wandered through the market slowly, and the minute I saw the mug, I bought one because the mug was super cute and pictured the Dom, which I feel makes it even more souvenir-y. After I got my mug, I made my way to the base of the Dom.

This is one HUGE church! The Strasbourg Cathedral was massive. Even the church in Wiesbaden had been impressive, but the Dom in Cologne is simply unbelievable. I knew that I had to get a picture of myself in front of it, so I lurked around until I heard someone who spoke English, then whirled around and begged her to take a picture of me!

Once I had my picture, I headed back into the crowded market. There was an artist sketching these flags in front of the Dom. It was really neat! You could approach him and ask him to do your countries flag, and he had a little list he would consult and then he would draw it! Passers-by would drop change onto their country’s flag. I absolutely would have left some change, but he hadn’t done the US, or even the Philippines, so I just kept walking.

Once back in the market, I stumbled upon this little area where you could have pictures taken for charity. The girl working was super sweet! It was 2EUR to have pictures taken either with the professional camera, or with your phone. She offered to do both for me, and I gladly donated 2EUR. Unfortunately, I was unaware that the camera would take so long, so my first picture is far from glamorous! Instead of 3 – 2 – 1 – FLASH = picture being taken, it was 3 – 2 – 1 – FLASH – 3 – 2 – 1 picture! It was really slow.

Luckily, there was no line, so I donated another 2EUR (I needed to start getting rid of my Euros, I didn’t want to have to exchange them), and took a better picture! Then the girl also snapped a few with my phone. She was so sweet.

I wandered around and made my way back out of the crazy crowded Dom Market. As soon as I was away from the crowds, I felt like I could breathe again! It was just so packed in there, it was insanity.

From there, I headed back to the Old Town Market, where I had parked. I figured I would grab some food and head out. It was so much better at the Old Town Market! Less than half of the crowds that the Dom Market had, and it was literally less than 3 blocks away (although I’ve learned, a “block” is not really a valid measurement of distance in Europe–the streets are all too weird for that!).

I had a blast wandering around the Old Town Market! There was so much to do and see. They had ice skating and all sorts of other fun attractions, but I kept it simple and just got a bite to eat and then walked around. My lunch was absolutely amazing!

After lunch, I noticed that the mugs at the Old Town Market were also amazing… And of course I caved and bought one. As I mentioned above, the Old Town Market is known for it’s gnomes! The Old Town Market is unique because they sell many different mugs. Each mug has a different story and a different gnome pictured on them. I took my time and chose the ice skater princess of Cologne. I wouldn’t know that she was the ice skating princess until later, of course, as it was all in German. But I liked the mug and she was the one who caught my eye first!

With my mug in hand, I went and watched the ice skating for a bit, just taking in the day. I decided to get a waffle for the road and call it a day. The waffles in Cologne, oh. my. goodness. Deliciousness! I got a waffle with chocolate drizzle and whipped cream, and it did not disappear. After inhaling it, it was time to hit the road for home.

I almost left the parking garage without paying–I don’t want to think about what a nightmare that would have been! Luckily, I quickly realized I needed to pay and threw the car back into park, got back out and went to find the kassenautomat (where you pay). Once I paid, I was on my way home!

I couldn’t figure out what was up. My car GPS (a boy), was saying very contradictory things to what my phone GPS (a girl), was saying. I finally got irritated and followed the girl, trusting her to guide me home. I’m cruising down the A3 towards Frankfurt, thinking, “huh… Weird that it wants me to take the A3 so far south! I would’ve thought I needed to take B49 to get back home.” Finally, once I’m seeing signs for Limburg, I realize. Something is truly not right. I shouldn’t need to be this far south to get back to Wetzlar! I pulled over at a gas station and it turns out, the reason for the contradictory instructions is because the girl was taking me to the same address in a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TOWN. Oops! Added about 45 minutes to my return trip, but it was still an easy drive flying back up the A3.

Once I made it home, we hit the road for Marburg, which was about a 35 minute drive. I was grateful to not have to drive into Marburg myself, as Marco had mentioned that parking in Marburg could be a headache. I’d had enough parking headaches during my trip!

We actually did experience parking headaches once we got into Marburg. The garage that we had wanted to park in only had 3 spots left as we reached it, and of course, three cars were pulling in. So we drove around for quite awhile before finding parking! Once parked, we decided to go check out the light show that they were advertising for. This was the opening night of their Wiehnachtsmarkt, so there were tons of special things happening, such as this light show.

We got there about 10 minutes early and just waited for the show! It was interesting… I was expecting a Christmas light show, like the kind that are all over in the States! It was definitely not a Christmas light show, but an interesting, thought-provoking light show about the concept of time. It was really enjoyable, but not what we were expecting! We had a dinner reservation for 6:30p.m., so we headed that way next.

Marburg reminds me of Seattle. If you read my Seattle post, you’ll know that Seattle is built onto a hill. Pike Place literally is on a hill. There are 6 stories of the market. Marburg is similar. You can climb the stairs to get to the next “level” of the town, or there are elevators that people will wait in line to take to the top because the city is literally built into a hill. It really did remind me of how Pike Place is set up in Seattle.

We took the elevators up and then walked to dinner at kostBar. This restaurant was SO COOL. And absolutely delicious! You get to eat in an old wine cellar-like area, and it has the greatest ambiance. A great dining experience.

After dinner, it was time to check out the Christmas Market! Because it was opening night, the market was absolutely SLAMMED. So many bodies crammed into one small area! It was hard to keep track of the kids, it was so busy. We rode the ferris wheel, and that was really neat. The ferris wheel does not charge riders, but a donation is appreciated.

After the ferris wheel ride, we went and got the mug from the Marburg market and made our way back to the car. Luckily, our car was parked right next to a grocery store! I was able to stock up even more on chocolate (I’m not even kidding, I think Kinder chocolate is my favorite thing on this planet). Once I had all the chocolate I could handle, we headed home!

And so ended my whirlwind European adventure. I had the absolutely best time and can’t wait to go back!

Copper Falls State Park, WI

One of the first things I wrote about when I started my blog was about my trip up north last summer. I then became embroiled in writing about all these other things, and I totally forgot that I hadn’t written about my trip to Copper Falls State Park, in Northern Wisconsin. I chose to not include it when I initially wrote about the trip because my post about the Upper Peninsula included places I hadn’t gone to on that specific trip, and because I was focusing on the U.P. as a whole. So it felt right to keep Wisconsin sites separate. 

Copper Falls State Park – Mellen, WI

Copper Falls was such a hidden gem! When I learned that we were going to be heading up north with a seven year old in the dead of summer, I knew that we would need to have some stopping points. It was actually his first road trip that was longer than 3-4 hours.

I hopped onto Google to check out fun outdoorsy places that we might be able to stop and run around while on our drive. Copper Falls came up, and it seemed like an interesting place to stop! Now, I browsed very briefly and didn’t take note of anything beyond that there was a trail to see waterfalls, and that it was basically directly on our way up to the Apostle Islands.

We arrived at the state park and paid the fees to get in. Once we were talking to the employees there, we learned that it was not, in fact, a place where you could drive your car up to the waterfalls. No. It was a 1.7 mile hiking trail to see some waterfalls.

It was the weekend of the Fourth of July. It happened to be almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny, that day. I had dressed for sitting in an air conditioned car for 7 hours, wearing black leggings, flip flops, and a cotton t-shirt. My brother and step-dad were dressed similarly. None of us were prepared for the hike that ensued.

Upon learning it was more than a one-and-a-half mile hike, I knew I needed to change my shoes. Old Navy flip-flops, as good as they are, were not going to be the best shoes for hiking 1.7 miles. I quickly threw on some gym shoes and we headed up to the trail head. Despite it being the Fourth of July weekend, the trails actually weren’t all that crowded! We wanted to hike the trail called “Doughboys Trail,” which would allow us to see 3 different features of the state park, Brownstone Falls, Copper Falls, and the cascades.

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Right when you enter the trail head, you have the option to simply walk the loop around and see all the waterfalls, or you can first climb the sixty-five foot observation tower to get a lay of the land. We decided that it was entirely too hot to be doing that many stairs, and opted to skip it. We headed straight to Copper Falls, enjoying the nice walk through the trees.

Copper Falls

As you can see, much like Tahquamenon, Copper Falls also has the rust-colored water due to the tannins. It’s so interesting to see water that color! The walk to Copper Falls was very relaxing as it was relatively level ground and shady.

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After viewing Copper Falls, we continued down the trail towards Brownstone Falls. This is the point where I began to believe that I was going to die. I was so sweaty and disgusting from the heat! This is also when our walk became a lot more challenging, as there were now stairs to maneuver up and down. Everyone is always like, “you’re young! It’s way easier for you to do this, this, and this,” but honestly? I thought I was going to eat it on the stairs. The stone was slick even on a hot, dry, summer day! I actually read their website and it states that in the winter they have to close portions of the trail because the rock stairs become far too slick.

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The first set of stairs we encountered.

We detoured from the trail a bit to walk down to the shore of the river to skip rocks and take pictures.

We quickly headed back up to cross the bridge, where we discovered that what goes down must come back up. We were confronted with even MORE stairs, this time, heading upwards. This was the point where we all started to die. None of us have any sense of distance, so we’re thinking, “Man, has it been 1.7 miles yet? It must have been!” Unfortunately, nope! We were barely halfway. The sun was beating down and killing us. But what an adventure!

The stairs of death. (From left to right: looking up, looking down)

As you can see from the pictures, we really did have the whole place pretty much to ourselves, despite it being a holiday weekend. We did run across a few other groups of people occasionally, but for the most part we were alone on the trail. The next thing we came across were the cascades.

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The Cascades.

After seeing the Cascades, we finally found Brownstone Falls. These ones were the hardest to see clearly from the trail, and I would’ve loved to go closer, but you can’t set a bad example for a seven-year-old! Oh well, I’ll just have to go back one day!

Finally, we made it back to the parking area! We were melting. I felt so disgusting, all I wanted was air conditioning and some cold water. There is a small concessions area, which is air conditioned! They also serve ice cream and other cold drinks, which is the perfect way to end a hot and sweaty hike. We got some cold water and ice cream, and got back on the road towards the Apostle Islands!

Copper Falls State Park was so amazing, I would go back in a heartbeat. I’d love to go explore it some more one day!

How I Find Cheap Flights

One of the questions that almost everyone asks me is, “How do you find such cheap flights?!” I found and booked both of my European flights for around $300, I did Florida for $95 round trip. I booked a ticket from Chicago to Cebu, in the Philippines for $420 round trip. And those are just trips I’ve booked. I once found a flight from Chicago to Vegas for $27 round trip, but I was unable to book it. There are so many deals out there, you just need to know where to look!

I’ll be honest. It’s not easy. I do a ton of research to make sure that I am getting the very best deals. But I do have some tricks to help you out!!!

Secret Flying

This is my holy grail. I have turned so many people onto Secret Flying that I feel like they should be paying me with how much traffic I must have given them! Secret Flying is a website, but it is also an app, and there is a Facebook page. Basically, they do the work of finding cheap flights for you.

If you follow/like their Facebook page, you’ll simply see them posting deals, such as “Johannesburg, South Africa to Frankfurt, Germany for $500 round trip with ______ airline!” They’ll post a description of whatever flight deal they’ve found, and then post the link to their website. If you click the link, you can find more information on this deal on their website. On the website, it will give you more concrete details, such as the dates that this fare is applicable on.

That’s the thing with Secret Flying. They’ll find you great deals, but you’re obligated to fly on the dates that the fare is available for! I’ve gotten lucky and I’ve been able to make the dates work several times, but that’s not always an option. So I’ve had to let some great fares slip through my fingers, such as the Vegas fare I mentioned above.

The website is great on it’s own, as well! You can go online and enter the city you’re hoping to leave from, and it’ll give you all of the deals they’ve found leaving from your city to basically anywhere! And then you can play roulette and just choose a location to go based on what you want to pay.

The Secret Flying website

If you want to be even fancier, you can download the app. I downloaded the app because with the app, I never miss a deal. On Facebook, you don’t necessarily get to see everything that everyone you follow posts. I worry that I’ll miss an amazing deal. With the app, you can create an account and tell it which airports you want to track. I set mine to track Chicago O’Hare. Any time they find any sort of deal leaving from O’Hare, I get an instant push notification. So I don’t miss any deals! I really like the app.

Secret Flying is a great resource for anyone who wants to travel! The only thing is, you can’t be super picky. With Secret Flying, you fly on whatever airline they find, on whatever dates they choose. If you want to upgrade from Basic Economy or Economy to Business or First Class, you’re definitely going to end up paying typical travel rates (although you can sometimes find business/first class deals through Secret Flying). However, if you know how to look, you can sometimes be flexible with the dates and airlines that Secret Flying provides you. And this is where my other favorite website comes into play…

Google Flights

As much as I love Secret Flying, Google Flights is almost more fun! It’s embarrassing to admit how much time I spend playing around on Google Flights. It’s just fun for me to see all the places that I could go, and then I mentally catalog the prices that I see, so that I can know if I ever spot a better deal.

Google Flights is a website that you can visit on your phone or on your laptop. I recommend viewing this site on a desktop or laptop only, because it can lag and be a bit annoying to try and use on your phone. Also, with the computer, you can see all of the features that it provides, such as a map!

If you go to Google Flights, you can enter in your departure, and then the place you’re looking to travel to. If you have specific dates that you are looking at, you can enter those. Once you’ve filled in all that information, Google Flights will pull fares from basically every airline out there. Then it’ll calculate which one will be cheapest on the dates that you want to fly, and tell you to select that specific flight. If you’re like me and picky about your airlines, you can narrow it down and select to view flights only on specific airlines, such as only viewing Delta, or only viewing American. If you’re less picky, you can also choose to view all OneWorld flights, or all SkyTeam flights. Or, you can just go with whichever airline is cheapest, if you’re not at all picky.

Google Flights will then tell you which website to book through if you want the cheapest deal. For example, when I booked Chicago – Cebu, I had to book through Expedia to get the $420 price. If I booked through China Eastern (the airline itself), the fare would’ve increased to $600ish. Same for my Paris trip. I booked through British Airways to get the cheapest price. If I booked through American (the partner of BA who was operating the flights), it would’ve tacked another $400 onto my ticket prices! Insanity. The Google Flights website also handily provides you with the cost of checked and carry on luggage for each airline that you’re flying. It’ll give you a cost breakdown from the flights, and then warn you if the airline has additional costs for baggage. Super handy.

Now for the part of Google Flights that I like to play around with! If you can be flexible with your travel dates, you can select your location and the dates you tentatively want to travel. Then you can open the calendar of dates, and Google will tell you, “well, if you leave two days before the date you chose, it’s $410 instead of $420,” or “if you go in September vs. going in May, you’ll save $400!” Dates where the fare is considered better than usual will have the price in green. This means you’ve found a deal!

To get even further into playing around with Google Flights (and this is what I spend all of my time doing, oops!), you can go in and select your departing airport, and then just leave your destination field empty. Then you can go to “flexible dates,” and specify if you’re wanting to go for one weekend, for one week, or for two weeks of travel. You can have it set to search for those parameters six months away, or you can narrow it down to, “Oh, I want to travel from Chicago to anywhere for one week in May.” You can only look six months in advance, but it’s still fun!

Google Flights

And this was where the map that I mentioned above comes into place. If you’re exploring destinations, you can literally look at a world map. Each airport will be a dot with the price displayed of how much a fare is from your departing airport. It gives you an idea of how many places and how many options are out there! It’s super fun to play around with.

Anyways, I really love Google Flights. It has a nice, clean, easy interface, and is very user-friendly. I always double check any Secret Flying deals on here! And this is what I meant when I said you can kinda fiddle around with Secret Flying deals. If Secret Flying says that you can pay x-amount to fly from Chicago to Rwanda on November 6-18, you can check those dates in Google Flights. You may be able to get the same, or a very similar deal, on dates near those that work better for you! It’s always worth checking, if you find a deal that you’re interested in but you’re not positive you can make the dates work.

Other Ways I Save

Google Flights and Secret Flying are my two biggest “travel hacks.” And there are many other sites out there that do things like this, such as SkyScanner, StudentUniverse, Momondo, and Scott’s Cheap Flights. I just personally like Google Flights and Secret Flying because I find them the most user-friendly and easy to use.

However, there are also other things I do to try and spend as little as possible on flights! And these are just little “extra” things I do, they’re not going to save nearly as much as doing your research and using Google Flights and Secret Flying are, but you’ll be able to save something! As my Grandpa says, “Keep an eye on your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.”


One thing I do is use Rakuten! It used to be called Ebates, but now it’s called Rakuten. I always thought this was a scammy/gimmicky thing, but I’ve saved so much money! Even if you’re only getting 5% cashback, you’re still getting 5% of your $500 flight back into your pocket. I also double check the site RetailMeNot to see if they’re offering cashback. Groupon, as well. Because you can stack the cashback! Make sure to double check that you’re using any sort of cashback credit or debit card when you book, too!

My credit card offers 5% cashback on PayPal purchases at certain points during the year. And they have 1% cashback on all other purchases. So what I do, is I pay for my flight through PayPal, with my credit card. Then I’ll get 5% cashback on my card because I used PayPal, and also 1% because I paid with my credit card. There’s another 6% back on top of the 5% Rakuten saved me!

It’s nothing fancy, but those are my other ways of saving some money on my flights! The final thing I recommend is making sure that you sign up for any sort of mileage/rewards program with the airlines you fly! That can also help you save once you’ve accrued some miles!

Hopefully these tips will help you travel for a little bit cheaper! I can’t say enough good things about Google Flights and Secret Flying. They’ve helped me out, and I hope that my spreading the word about them will help others out!


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Heidelberg… Oh boy. This was an adventure! Despite the nightmarish morning that was my arrival in Heidelberg, I think it may be one of my favorite places that I visited!

I was excited to visit Heidelberg, as all the images I had seen of it looked beautiful! I found a photographer through Airbnb experiences (which was something I had never used before), who would take photographs of you exploring Heidelberg for an hour and a half. You’d get all of the images for only $40! The deal seemed too good to pass up. As a solo traveler, it was hard to get good pictures of myself on this vacation. I thought this would be my one opportunity to get some good travel pictures, so I had to do it.

I spoke with the photographer, Ieva, the night before. I had realized Heidelberg was farther from Wetzlar than I thought, so I asked if we could push our appointment from 10a.m. to 10:30a.m. She replied that we could, but to keep her posted on where I was in the morning, because 10 would be better.

Alte Brücke, the bridge where I was meant to meet Ieva.

Despite the early morning traffic jams of the A5 outside of Frankfurt, I made it down to Heidelberg by 9a.m. No problem! I had also done my research and found a parking garage which was supposedly only a ten minute walk from where I was meant to meet her, at the famous bridge of Heidelberg. Of course though, at first, I missed the turn off at the roundabout to get to my parking garage. I figured I was early enough that I could just cruise around and check everything out. I turned myself around in a Rewe parking lot (what is it with me and Rewes?), and drove back along the river.

At about 9:20, I decided I should head to the parking garage. I went through the roundabout to discover that I had to go through a really LONG tunnel with no sidewalk to get over to where the parking garage was. Google said it was a 10 minute walk to the bridge, but I didn’t know if it wanted me to walk through the tunnel, and I had no way to check that info.

So I decided to bypass the parking garage and try to find parking closer to the bridge. Bad call. Ugh. What a nightmare this became. I drove past the garage and took the next right, wrongly assuming I could just “go around the block,” and end up back where I started. Poor, poor, poor, me. The worst decision of the trip.

This “alley,” that I turned down was a nightmare. I call it an alley because it was a very narrow, one way road. One side was completely lined with parked cars, the other side of the road was all buildings. On top of that, it was all cobblestone, and on a VERY steep grade. It was a massive hill that I was driving up. I got to the top to find out that “going around the block,” was really not an option, as a massive truck was blocking the rest of the road.

Admittedly, what I did next (or tried to do next), was not my best idea either. I became convinced that I could do some sort of 39 point turn and get my car turned around to drive out of there. There was adequate space (maybe). So I started slowly inching around. Put the car in drive. Move an inch. Put the car in reverse. Move two inches. I got my car about a quarter of the way turned around, when all of a sudden, an old man starts SCREAMING at me in German.

The gist of it was, “You CAN’T turn around here! NO. LEAVE.” At this point I’m starting to sweat, worried I’ll be late to the pictures. I had messaged her that 10 was fine, and never had heard back. So I wanted to be accurate and get there on time at 10. And now I was stuck up an alley with an old man yelling at me. Finally, I decided I had no choice but to back down the alley, 100s of meters, down this narrow cobblestone hill. The old man guided me down past his house (well, he yelled at me until I got it right), and from there, he death glared at me as I inched my way down the hill.

Oh god. I’ll have nightmares. I was sweating. No idea what my plan was to get out of this one. Thank GOD I had ParkPilot with sensors on my car. I made it halfway down the alley and stopped when I saw another guy. I hoped he spoke English, so I leaned out the window and asked him which way I should go once I got down the alley. He gave me directions (in English), to get back out to the main thoroughfares.

After I got out of that alley (ugh), I escaped and made it back out to the tunnel and back to the bridge where I needed to meet her. I had still not heard anything, so I desperately started trying to call her. And of course, I had no service and couldn’t get any calls out.

I was about to cry. I crossed the river and looked for parking. No luck. Every spot anywhere remotely near the bridge was completely full. I drove through town looking for anything, with no luck. I somehow ended up on top of a mountain, nowhere near the center of town, and still had no luck finding parking. The fact that I spoke no German did not help because all of the signs were in German so I had no idea where I legally COULD park.

I was going to give up. I thought I would drive back along the river, and if I didn’t find anything, I’d just pull up along the side of the road, play spot the photographer, and tell her, “sorry I wasted your time. Keep the money. I can’t find parking.” Magically, a spot not 50 feet from where I needed to meet her was open!!! I could not believe that something was finally going my way.

Confession: I can’t parallel park. When I found out that I was going to Germany, where I would likely need to parallel park at least once, I begged my Mom for a crash course. Which I failed. It was so stressful and I hated it. Luckily, the spot I chose was a great one! It was the very first spot in the line of cars, so I only had to back in around a pole, as opposed to trying to fit between two cars. I did it, albeit sloppily, and raced over to the bridge to try and find the photographer.

It was 10:32a.m. I was two minutes late and felt awful. I hoped she had not been there since 10! I finally was able to get a call through, and she came over to meet me. From there, I had an absolutely magical photoshoot! We explored the bridge, and then walked into the stadtmitte and checked it out.

At this point, I realized… The parking garage I was originally supposed to park in? If you’re DRIVING to the city center, you need to go through the tunnel. The way the city is laid out, once you’re through the tunnel and into the city center, you can easily walk to the bridge. Google hadn’t lied. If I’d just tried it and parked in the garage, I would’ve been fine. Ugh. Well, I got free parking! It came with a lot of stress, but it saved me a few Euros, I guess.

Schloss Heidelberg looms over the Christmas Markets, which I think is pretty awesome!

After my photoshoot, I checked out the Wiehnachtsmarkts in Heidelberg! There were two, one of which was completely open for the day, the other which was partially shuttered. I still enjoyed checking them both out though. And I got my fourth mug!

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From there, I decided I wanted to check out Schloss Heidelberg, or the Heidelberg Castle. I’m so, so glad that I decided to do this. It was a highlight of my trip! The Bergbahn (funicular) was right near the stadtmitte where I was wandering around. So I walked over and bought a ticket. They do have a student discount, which was great because it saved me a few bucks.

I then walked right onto the funicular with virtually no wait! Pretty great. We then rode up to Schloss Heidelberg! We got off and walked towards the castle. I took my time and checked out the views before “entering” the castle.

Now, I had never been in a true castle before this one, so it was amazing! It felt so magical, despite the fact that the courtyard was filled with modern technology. It really felt like a fairy tale.

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The Courtyard

I walked out onto the patio/balcony that overlooked the town, and was amazed by both the views, and by the architecture of the palace as well. It was just stunning. I would give anything to be back there right now!

The front of Schloss Heidelberg, facing out over the town.

After checking out that area, I headed down to the “wine cellar.” Schloss Heidelberg is home to the world’s largest barrel ever filled with wine. It’s MASSIVE. It’s when I see things like this that I wish I was not solo traveling. I would have loved to snap a picture of me next to this thing, for size comparison. I had to settle for a selfie of me next to it (proof I was there), and a picture of the barrel by itself!

Largest barrel ever filled with wine.

After checking out the barrel, I read the information that was posted near it. I learned a lot about the wines of the castle and about the barrel itself. I also found out that they had a souvenir wine glass from the castle that they could fill with wine that was made there! Of course, I had to get a glass.

I wanted to try the Riesling. The region is known for white wine, and honestly, I’m kicking myself for not getting the wine that I truly wanted. I asked the bartender for his recommendation and he recommended the red, because it would “make my heart healthy.” The wine was good, but I still wish I would’ve gone with the Riesling or at least the white, because I think either of those would have been better based on the region. Oh well. Next time.

I enjoyed my wine, then decided it was time to go. I had a 2 hour drive to Strasbourg to make, and I wanted to get there before night fell. Of course though, I got sidetracked one more time on my way out of Schloss Heidelberg! The castle is also home of the Apothecary Museum. This was a surprisingly interesting place. Very cool to check out, with free admission. It was a fun way to end the day. From there, I boarded the funicular to head back down to town and walked back to my car.

The Apothecary Museum

With a surprisingly heavy heart, I said goodbye to Heidelberg. I truly did fall in love with it, despite the nightmarish start to my day.

I even got the pictures back the same day! It was just an amazing experience, I truly had the best time there.

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Stay tuned for a blog post about my visit to Strasbourg!

Extra! Extra! A Day in the Life of a Background Actor

I recently had the opportunity to work as an extra on the NBC show, Chicago Med. When I moved down to the city freshman year, I told myself I’d do it. They film out west of the Loop, and I figured since I was closer to it at school, this was my chance.

Flash forward to 2 years later and I’m realizing I’m that graduating and likely moving back to the suburbs in May. And I still hadn’t gone and tried to be an extra! I committed and started applying to all of their postings.

Chicago Fire, Med, and PD have a shared casting call page on Facebook called ‘Chicago Fire Extras’. They post whenever they’re looking for extras, which is super frequently. I had been following the page for probably 3 years? And I submitted for parts occasionally, but was never contacted.

This year I applied several times hoping for my chance, and was about to give up when they finally got back to me. They wanted me to come in as an extra on Friday and Monday to play a med student in the NICU. I applied for both dates because I was “available” for both, although I only really wanted to work one.

I emailed back immediately saying that I would absolutely do it, but was it possible to choose just one day and not do both? Not because I didn’t want to do two days, but because I was hesitant to take two days off of work. I knew one would be fine and not an issue.

They got back to me and said it was no problem, and then gave me some more information regarding what to wear, what to bring, etc. I was told to call the hotline between 11a-1p the day before (Thursday), for more information.

I set my alarm on Thursday and literally called right at 11a.m. They don’t tell you what time you need to be on set in any emails, so I was hoping it would be available on the hotline at 11a., because that is how you get your call time info! I was disappointed to find out that it was just a summary of what to bring and wear (again), and then told you to call back after 10p.m. for the call times. They needed you to call in at 11a.m. and confirm that you were still coming. Which is why they have you call twice. Once early to check in, and once later to get you your call time. If they got the information earlier, a message saying, “call in now,” would be posted on the Facebook page.

It’s pretty inconvenient to find out what time you need to be on set at 10p.m. if there is a chance you might need to be there at 5a.m.! So this is definitely not for everyone, and it’s a big part of what held me back from doing it in the past. I like having a solid plan early on. I don’t do last minute, it stresses me out too much.

I was able to find out my call time at 6:30p.m. because they got the information a little bit earlier, but that isn’t always the case. There also was the chance that they could change it later that night, or even in the morning!

My call time was at 7a.m. With the trains and buses I would need to take to get there, it would take an hour and fifteen minutes to get there. So I needed to leave my apartment by 5:30a.m. If they updated the call time between 5:30-7a.m., it would have been brutal. I got lucky and that did not happen!

I got to Cinespace, where Chicago Med films, by 6:40a.m. It took me 3 trains and a bus to get there from Rogers Park, but I did it! I was really worried that people would be mean or rude because I had heard extras are the lowest on the totem pole and often treated as such.

I was greeted warmly by almost everyone! No one looked at me funny or was harsh to me. When the bus dropped me at the studio (the 157 drops you literally IN FRONT of where you need to be), I wasn’t sure what entrance I needed to go in, or even if I was in the right place, because it is quite unassuming.

I hesitantly approached a security guard. He was so nice and directed me down the alley to the entrance I needed to be in. When I got confused again, someone else helped me. And so on.

They provide breakfast when you show up in the morning. And when I say breakfast, I’m not talking free continental breakfast at a hotel. No. Not even close! Med provided pancakes that were cooked to order right IN FRONT OF YOU, juices, eggs, bacon, and more. All of it looked fantastic, but I unfortunately wasn’t super hungry, so I passed on it.

Once the clock strikes your call time (for me, 7a.m.), you line up to get your non-union voucher. This is how you’ll get paid. They write down the time you checked in, then they’ll hand it over to you. It comes with your name and role filled in, but you’re responsible for filling out details such as your address, birthdate, and social security number. I had been told to bring a passport or my Social Security Card, but was never asked to present either item. I mean, if you don’t have your social memorized, then I guess it would be important to bring your card!

Also, if it’s your first time, you will need to fill out the “starting a new job” tax forms. They rush you about it, too. I was handed the forms and she goes, “ok just fill out the highlighted portions,” and they try to hustle you to wardrobe. And you’re sitting there trying to decide how many allowances and everything! I just hope I got it all filled out correctly. It was stressful. But, you only have to do that the first time you work. If you ever want to go back after that, you never need to do it again.

Once you’ve got your waiver (which has carbon copies for later use), you head outside to wardrobe. They’ll take your voucher (to see your role so they can know how to dress you), and then they hold onto it until you return your props/outfit that way, if you don’t return it, you won’t get paid! OR if you return it missing some items, they know exactly who you are and can dock your pay accordingly.

Oh, did I mention the pay? The standard rate of pay is $104 for 8 hours. If you have different qualifications (i.e. you’re a stand in, you’re a real life EMT, doctor, or nurse), there will be a pay bump. I’ve seen it around $184 for 8 hours, sometimes even greater. Then sometimes you’ll get a special ability bump on top of that $184. Like, a paramedic will be paid $184 for 8 hours, and then on top of that, they’ll get an extra $25 for being a paramedic. If you go over 8 hours, then it’s time and a half. If you’re under 8 hours, you’re still guaranteed the full 8 hours pay, which is super nice.

After you’ve gotten your outfit, which for me, was a set of grey scrubs and a lab coat, from wardrobe, you go change. Different “roles” get different outfits! Pink was nurses. Darker red was doctors. Beige for med techs. Grey for med students!

Then, once you’re changed, they’ll take you for props. As a NICU med student, my props included a stethoscope, an ID on a lanyard, a pen light, and a pen. Easy. These are things that if you don’t return them, they’ll take the cost of whatever it was out of your pay. Part of why they hold onto your voucher.

Most of your day will be spent sitting. We were asked to bring chairs from the area where we ate onto stage 1, that way we could sit closer to where they were filming and they wouldn’t have to come as far to find someone for a scene. So we grabbed folding chairs and sat on stage 1 for probably 90% of the day.

For our first scene, almost all of us were brought out. All of the scenes were in the NICU. I was paired up with a super nice person (Nikki if you’re reading this, you are awesome!) who had (thankfully) done this many, many times before. We were told to stand at the counter near where one of the actors would enter the set. We would talk there for 10 “beats,” then head into a room. After 10 beats, she would leave. After another ten, I would head out to go “check something on a computer,” and after 10 or so beats of checking the computer, I’d walk into a hallway and off the set.

Honestly, it was super reminiscent of high school theater programs. We all had to walk off set, and cram into a small space where we would not be seen. And the minute we were out of sight, there would be whispering and giggling going on. Even from the actual actors! It really was strange how similar it was to high school theater. A bunch of people crammed into the wings, goofing off silently, and waiting for someone to yell “cut.” That was my first scene. (Season 5, Episode 11, if anyone wants to watch!) I believe it was Scene 17.

Now, they basically line you up against a wall and choose who they want for what. Then, if you’re lucky, they’ll explain everything to you in great detail. I was lucky I got paired up with someone who knew what she was doing! The PA in charge of us was very very brisk. She did not bother to explain the meanings of “first team,” “second team,” or “on a bell,” or even what a “beat” was.

  • First team = principal actors and background actors
  • Second team = stand ins
  • On a bell = when they’re about to start filming
  • Beat = basically a second. Why not call it a second? I don’t know.

So the first few run throughs were scary as I gathered my bearings! One thing I didn’t know (because I’d never done it before), is that everything is ABSOLUTELY SILENT. When you see extras talking in the background on tv? They’re actually not. You’re silently mouthing words to each other because you’re not allowed to actually speak. The microphones will pick it up. So our conversation? She would move her lips nonsensically and I would nod and mouth “ok” every time we ran that scene. It got old really fast!

The PA would constantly go, “I see everything, guys,” and readjust us. I was initially supposed to walk off into a hallway. When she noticed she could see us standing there in the shot, we were told we needed to get completely off set. And this was when I got the high school vibes. When we all got yelled at (including a principal actor), and told to get off the set. And then we all would cram in there and giggle. Stuff like this happened multiple times to many different people!

When I say “silent,” I mean “SILENT.” The very first rehearsal for a scene, she got upset. Our feet were too loud when we walked. So we tried again quietly. I guess when we did that, people looked too much like they were trying to tiptoe and move quietly which meant they were not “walking with purpose”. So she stopped again and made us all put booties over our feet. You know, the kind you wear when the carpet has just been cleaned? Those.

Then, Nikki I were stopped again to remove the booties because they realized they were in the shot! You could see from our heads to our toes when the main actor walked onto set because they wanted the look of the whole suit + shoes on him. Everyone else had to keep theirs, but ours were taken away.

We did that first scene (talk talk talk – walk into room – wait – walk out of room – check computer – walk off set), more times than I could count! Once it was done, we were all taken back off set and lined up against a wall. Then, we waited. And waited. They grabbed a few people and filmed another scene, while we all just sat.

From there, it was more of the same. Sitting for a long while. Then, they moved the cameras and were filming from a different angle. And we had to go back out and do our exact same thing again. But then, we finally were all led back to stage one to sit in “holding” on the chairs we had brought. We got back to find out that they had brought out snacks for us! In the morning there had been tea, coffee, and drinks, but now, there was a whole bunch of candy, and snacks like goldfish and granola bars.

We sat there for a LONG time. Honestly, that was the majority of my day. I got paid $104 to do nothing but walk back and forth for an hour or so. The rest of the time I was free to sit and be on my phone, or read a book. Which I did. You can also bring your phone on set. I was able to spend a lot of time on my phone while we were waiting for second team to finish lighting, or for the actors to get situated. It wasn’t an issue. But your phone needs to be on silent. Vibrate is not an option because the mics will pick that up, too!

We sat in holding for a long time. A couple of times, they’d come grab someone, but it was never me. Finally, we were brought back out. We had to learn new “parts”. This time, I was standing at a computer. I was told to look busy at the computer, then after 10 beats, walk over and talk to the nurse at the desk. After 10 beats, walk in and check on a patient. Done.

We made it halfway through the first shot, and all of a sudden all of these guys are waving hands at us extras. They’re completely silent because the cameras were rolling, but everyone is flashing “stop” with their hands and mouthing “no more”. Turns out, extras weren’t even going to be seen! We were just unnecessary noise.

They had us all go sit down off set, but not back in holding while they shot the scene. So if you do watch S5 E11, know that when she’s saying, “Patrick IS the father,” I’m right there, hiding inside either a patient’s room offscreen, or in the waiting area! After they were finished, they were like “oops, sorry guys,” and herded us back to stage 1. Where we sat, again.

Finally, a long while later, they came back and asked for the same 12 people who had just been up. Us. They were filming from a different angle and now needed background actors. We would actually be seen and utilized this time. At this point, I also got a text from casting. They really needed me to work Monday as well, if it was possible.

So I emailed my boss, and explained the situation. Luckily, she was fine with it! And I let casting know that I would, in fact, make it back on Monday to reprise my coveted role as a med student.

We went in and got to our “first mark” (where you start out at during a scene). I was prepared to be at computer, talk to nurse, go to room. However, the PA in charge of us had vanished! All of a sudden, some other guy comes up to my nurse and goes, “hey, this girl (not me), is going to approach you and ask for directions. Help her out for this scene.” And part of my actions disintegrated. I looked at the nurse like, “if you’ll be talking to her, what the heck do I do for 10 beats?” So I improvised! Actually, 94% of us improvised because the PA was gone, and no one told us no.

I instead worked at the computer for 10 beats. Then walked to check on a baby for 10 beats. Then I walked back to the computer and checked for 10 beats. Then I walked and checked on a different patient until they yelled “cut” (less than 15 beats). And no one stopped me, so it clearly worked! Other people improvised when we realized that her “plan” sent 4 of us into one room at the same time. So we all kinda changed it up so it seemed less crazy and odd. It worked out well!

We spent FOREVER on that scene. They kept having to change the lighting or work with the actors or something or other! At this point it was around 1:30 and we still had not gotten the “hot lunch.” Many of the seasoned vets were saying, “ohhhh they’re going to send us home now so they don’t have to feed us.” I was pretty bummed and really hoping that wasn’t the case!

Anyhow, we finally finished shooting that scene and headed back to Stage 1 to sit. Awhile after that, they came out and said, “thanks guys, you’ve been great. Please take your props back and carry your chairs back upstairs.”

So we all went to return our props, and then brought the chairs upstairs. From there, we changed out of our scrubs/lab coats/etc. Wardrobe had gone to lunch, so we had to wait to return our stuff. It was fine, because they had HOT, DELICIOUS, CATERED LUNCH! I talked to some of the vets again and they said that Med, PD, and Fire feed you better than anything else in Chicago. I ate steak, mashed potatoes, bread, and mushrooms. For dessert? Half a slice of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, and a chocolate chip cookie. That alone made the commute out to Cinespace worth it!

After we ate, wardrobe was back and we were able to head out and return our costumes. Since I was returning on Monday, they flagged mine and set it aside for me to reuse. They also returned my voucher. Then I had to go back inside to have them write the time I checked out on my voucher. They keep that and give you a carbon copy. And you’re done!

My next day on Chicago Med was more of the same. Luckily, a lot of the people who had been on on Friday were back again on Monday, so I knew a few people going in. I felt that we did a lot more on Monday, as well! I spent far less time sitting (maybe only an hour total?), and most of my day was spent in the background of scenes.

Fun fact: the episode I’m in was obviously in the NICU. The storyline of the episode (S5E11) revolved around a couple of pregnant women. Guess what their baby was named? She was named Mazie. I seriously think it must’ve been fate for me to end up scheduled on this episode. On another note, it was SO confusing, as everyone was constantly saying “Maysie,” in reference to the baby. I got terrified every time my name came out of the director or any of the higher up’s mouths. I always thought they meant me!

On Monday, the PA was also fantastic. I said I was thrown in on Friday? On Monday, he walked us through every little thing. When we all showed up, he took time to suss out who was new (not me at this point) and went through a spiel explaining all the terms and what we needed to do. He also would explain each thing that they did during filming, which was so amazing! He gave about a 15 minute lecture on how everything would work and what the day would be like. I wish I would’ve had that my first day. The girl PA who was in charge of positioning us on set was also much more chill, I actually enjoyed talking to her and didn’t feel ridiculous for asking a question.

I think I was also in more scenes on Monday. On Friday, the first day I worked, we sat for probably 3 hours doing nothing. I know for a fact it was a long time because I managed to read two books on my Kindle (thanks Kindle Unlimited), and still end up with time to be bored on Friday. On Monday, I don’t think I ever had the luxury of sitting for a whole hour and doing nothing.

I was in many scenes doing so many different things. Luckily, in a few of them I did get to sit, so I wasn’t on my feet all day! I spent some time flipping through files and looking busy doing admin work at the desk. Then I spent some time sitting at the computer and directing another extra who was lost in the hospital. We seriously must’ve beaten the world record for the longest silent conversation. The scene was so long! And we had to silently talk to each other for the whole thing. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life, silently talking to a random guy whose name I never even got!

In another one of my scenes, I had to go speak to a doctor, then run into one room, grab some supplies, and walk them across to another room. Then, provided the scene was still going, I’d walk a few laps around the area. I really liked our PA, she just let us do what felt natural and didn’t try to overload us with instructions!

After filming those few scenes, we got to eat another fantastic meal. This time, it was stuffed flank steak, broccoli cheddar soup, roasted cauliflower, and lasagna. I topped that off with a cookie and a few brownies! Yum.

All in all? I had a fantastic experience! I’m really bummed it’s over and am hoping to get to be an extra again one day soon.

Most Important Things to Know Before Your First Day:

  • Don’t be embarrassed if you’re bringing a duffle bag of clothes. I was so worried it would be total overkill. They told me to bring: 2 business outfits, 2 long sleeve shirts, and a pair of gym shoes. I also had to bring business appropriate shoes to go with the dressy outfit! The easiest way for me to carry it was in a duffle bag. I thought I would look like I had too much stuff. Ha! Nope. People had full on suitcases. The best part is, most of it never even needs to be worn. You bring it “just in case,” and according to the veterans, you’ll probably never need it! I definitely didn’t need to use anything I brought with. Will I bring it again next time anyways? You bet! Never know if you might need it. And if you’re the one extra who actually listened and did bring the suit? Maybe you’ll get lucky and end up getting extra pay for doing something else, or even ending up with a bigger role! Who knows? So always be prepared.
  • Do some googling and learn the lingo! You may get thrown in the deep end like I was.
  • Know that background actors start moving around before everyone else. They’ll call out “background,” and that’s your cue! A few seconds later, everyone else starts going.
  • Be absolutely silent. Seriously. For some reason, I was expecting loud sets. I don’t know why, but because of the way they edit it or mic the people on TV, I felt that they’d be much louder in real life. In reality, they just sound so loud because everything is SO quiet on set. Most of the scenes I was in, the actors spoke quietly enough that I couldn’t even hear most of the conversation.
  • Have some idea of who the people in the show are! I don’t watch Med so I was clueless. At one point they came out to the lineup of us background actors. He goes, “Who kept walking behind Yaya in the scene? Who? Who?” And I’m going, “who the heck is Yaya?” She’s one of the main characters on the show! Luckily, I wasn’t who he was asking about. But after that, I made a point to know the names in case another question like that came up, and it was directed at me.
  • Bring stuff to do! Most of your day will be sitting and waiting. I brought my Kindle and that helped save my phone battery. Of course, I also brought my external charger (no outlets in holding), but I tried to use my Kindle to conserve phone battery as much as possible.
  • Pay attention! At one point, a guy came into holding and said, “three medical.” He said it so quietly half of us missed it. And he grabbed 3 people before I could even volunteer. If you’re paying attention, you can volunteer right away to spend time doing more actual work!
  • Have fun!! I had so much fun doing this, and I would totally do it again if it was easier to get to and you got more advance notice. You meet awesome people, too, so don’t spend the day with headphones in and not trying to talk to others.
  • Bring layers! Stage and holding were both FREEZING. When you’re in holding you can layer up, so make sure to bring layers. Likewise, if it’s hot, make sure you’re able to take a few layers OFF. I’ve heard it’ll either be super hot, or super cold.
  • Only wear what wardrobe gives you/tells you to. If they don’t give it to you, don’t wear it. A girl who was also playing a med student got scolded pretty harshly. She had layered a black long sleeve under her scrub top (nurses are told to layer long sleeves under scrubs). However, med students are simply supposed to wear a scrub top + lab coat. They got SO mad that she was wearing something they had not given her, and made her go change.

If you have any questions about working as an extra, let me know! I’m not an expert, by any means, but after 2 days on Chicago Med, I know some. So if you have any questions that weren’t answered by the above, just reach out!


Wiesbaden was my first solo adventure in Germany. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go on my first day alone, but I knew that I wanted to stay relatively close to Frankfurt/Wetzlar. I had picked up my rental car the night before, but had not yet driven major distances on my own. I had also not driven on the autobahn yet!

The night before, I researched and decided on Wiesbaden and possibly Mainz, because they were close by each other, and relatively close to where I was staying. However, I woke up and the first thing that I did was Google the Christmas Markets to double check the hours and locations.

To my surprise, I found that the Wiesbaden Market, called the Twinkling Star Market, did not officially open until 6p.m. that night. I was really bummed and not sure I wanted to drive an hour and a half to not even see the Wiehnachtsmarkt! Mainz did not open until even later in the week.

I did some quick Googling on the German Christmas Markets website. This is a super handy resource if you’re following my footsteps and going on a Christmas Market tour of Europe! I narrowed my search to look for only open Christmas Markets in the German state of Hesse. This search yielded only one reasonably close option, Rudesheim am Rhein. I decided that I would still drive down and check out Wiesbaden, and possibly Mainz, because there was a palace in Wiesbaden I was interested in checking out, and I figured I’d at least do that. Then, I could drive on to Rudesheim and see their Christmas Market if I still needed more to do.

With this plan in mind, I hit the road! Of course, the second I turned onto the autobahn, it started to DOWNPOUR. Typical. I’m driving on an overcast day in a foreign country on a road with no speed limits, and the weather is AWFUL. The worst part was when I took the “scenic route,” through a tiny town called Ehrenbach, which had these super twisty roads that were perched atop hills. Driving across those hills, you felt like you were going to fall straight off the road into the valley below! And of course, I’m struggling to go the speed limit of 70 on these roads I don’t know, and at this point, thicker fog than I’ve ever seen in my life sets in. The poor Mercedes behind me was not thrilled with my crawl through these roads. Oops!

But I made it through! I got into Wiesbaden, and for whatever reason, I decided I no longer needed the GPS. I could just look for a little “P” with a house over it, which meant “Parkhaus” which translates to “parking garage”!

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The Parkhaus symbol. I spent a lot of time looking for this while I was in Germany!

After about 2 minutes of driving with no GPS, I decided it was stupid, so I pulled over and tried to search for a parkhaus close to the stadtmitte, or the city center. Once I entered a random parkhaus into my GPS, I started driving again. At this point, I saw a sign for a parkhaus, assumed it was the one I was looking for, and pulled right in without thinking twice. I walked out to find that I was actually parked inside a grocery store! A Rewe, to be specific. I figured it was fine, as long as I paid for parking I could be there! And if not, I’d buy a candy bar or something to appease them, if it was “customers only” parking.

The not-fully-open-yet Wiehnachtsmarkt in Wiesbaden!

I slowly meandered my way up the streets, towards what I assumed was the stadtmitte. After walking for about 5 minutes, I again, decided it was dumb to wander aimlessly, and I turned on my GPS to get me to where I needed to go. I got to the stadtmitte and immediately saw the “closed” Wiehnachtsmarkt. I wandered over to check it out. Most of it was closed, but the “bar” was open! I was able to order my mug full of hot chocolate. Mug #3? Check.

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Mug #3

From there, I slowly walked further into the city center. I found their massive Marktkirche. This is a neo-gothic church located on the Schlossplatz of Wiesbaden! It’s a beautiful building. I made my way there and, to my surprise, found out that there was another Wiehnachtsmarkt at it’s base! And it was fully open! I snacked on crepes filled with Kinder chocolate and slowly meandered around the market. I was looking for the perfect Santa to get as a gift for my step-dad, who collects Santas!

The Wiesbaden Wiehnachtsmarkt was massive. And luckily, as it was the middle of a day on a Tuesday, I had it pretty much to myself. I took my time checking out every single stall. I found a fun rubber ducky for my little sister, and I found a few other little knick-knacks as well. Then, I found it. The perfect Santa. There was an old Russian nun selling matryoshka doll Santa Clauses! Of course, she spoke absolutely no English, so it was fun trying to figure out how to pay her. But we figured it out!

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Matryoshka Santas

With my Santa in hand, I decided it was time to hit the road. I still had plans to visit the palace, and to try and stop in Rudesheim. However, those plans were not meant to be. I walked out of the market in the direction of where I had parked. The parkhaus that I had put into my GPS was the City Parkhaus II. Even though I had parked in the Rewe, and I knew I had parked in the Rewe (although I didn’t know the name at the time, I just knew I had parked in a grocery store), I was convinced I had parked in City Parkhaus II! So I walked over there and realized, “wait. This is not where I parked!” And promptly realized I had no idea where my car was. I recognized some familiar stuff, so I started walking and trying to find things I had passed before.

That fruit on the corner? I walked past that on my way in! So I followed little signs like that, hoping to find my parking garage and my car. The GPS showed me that I was near a grocery store with a parking garage, so I made my way there. Of course, again, that was not my parking garage. Finally, I recognized where I was! I was by the bus stop that was across the street from my grocery store. Sure enough, there was the Rewe, right across the street.

I walked in and went down to the parking garage. I then realized, I had no idea how to pay for parking! So I went back up into the Rewe and asked an employee if she spoke English. When she told me she did, I explained that I was parked below and did not know where to go to pay. Just my luck–she had no idea either! I feel like maybe she just misunderstood what I was asking, though.

There was a sign posted by the parking garage door. Of course, in German. So I tried to get online to translate it, and naturally, there was no internet! Thinking quickly, I tried to see if the Rewe had wi-fi, and luckily enough, they did! There was a little Internet cafe in the store, so they did allow one hour of free internet. I signed in and immediately translated the sign. I needed to go to the Kassenautomat to pay. This was located in the garage. I made my way down there again, paid at the machine, and headed out.

Since I was in the parking garage with no service, I decided to use my car’s GPS to get out of the city. Bad, bad, BAD idea. I punched in the address of Palace Biebrich, the other place in Wiesbaden I wanted to see. I got out of the parking garage, and following the directions of the GPS, turned left down a street. Turns out though, the street is blocked off not 50 meters in! I’m now down this alley, and I can’t back back out because the one street is a main street. I needed to devise a plan to turn around.

One side of this alley is completely lined with barriers, cutting off a lot of space. The other side has these gigantic planters on the sidewalk. Let me tell you, I’m glad my car had the ParkPilot feature! I don’t think I could’ve gotten my way out of there otherwise, I was really starting to sweat. I finally made it out of there and put the directions to the Palace into my PHONE GPS, which I trusted far more.

I made it over to the Palace Biebrich, where thankfully, they had very massive, very free, parking spaces! I really enjoyed that. I spent some time wandering around the grounds and taking pictures. Palace Biebrich is a cool baroque building, built in 1702. It was a cool place to check out, as it overlooks the Rhein! However, shortly after I arrived, it started to rain on me.

I decided to call it a day and head home. I didn’t really want to be out driving after dark, because I was a bit wary of the Autobahn still. Rudesheim am Rhein would have been fun, but I’m glad I decided to not push it. After all, I covered 135 miles on that first day, just going from Wetzlar to Wiesbaden. That was plenty for my first day out.

I took the scenic route back again, because despite the fog, Ehrenbach had beautiful scenery! Of course though, it got foggy and rainy again on my drive so I couldn’t even enjoy it. Oh well! I made it to and from Wiesbaden in one piece, with only a few minor parking incidents. I think my first solo adventure in Germany was quite a success.

A Guide for Your First Trip to Universal Orlando

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In September, I was able to cross another item off my bucket list. I was able to make a trip down to Universal Orlando. I’d dreamed about going for as long as I can remember.

I read the first Harry Potter book in first grade. And the next books in quick succession (with a short break before I was allowed to read six and seven–Mom thought that the deaths were too much for a 3rd grader). Naturally, Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter topped my vacation bucket list for years. But we were always a Disney family. We went to Orlando many times, but always for Disney. When I finally was making my own money, I decided I wanted to splurge on a trip to Universal. Here are some of the things that might be helpful to know if you’re going to be taking your first trip to Universal! These are just 4 key things that I personally wanted to know before going to Universal for the first time. If I was curious about these things, I assume I’m not the only one, so I figured I’d put this information out there.

1. Bring a water bottle!

I went in September when it was 95+ degrees, every single day. Each day I was there seemed hotter than the day before. I had read that Universal allowed you to bring a water bottle in, and that most places would provide you with water if you asked. This is actually true!

I brought a refillable water bottle, and had it filled numerous times at all sorts of different places around the parks. They’re really accommodating about it. They also will give you ice, if you ask. Then, your water stays cool for way longer. This saved us so much money. If we had needed to buy water every time we were thirsty, the trip would have become exponentially more expensive. You don’t even have to purchase an item to ask them to fill up your water, you can just approach any place they serve food or drinks and ask!

2. Along the same line of thinking, bring snacks!

Fun fact: You’re actually ALLOWED to bring food into the parks! That amazed me. Most places, even small places up by us, don’t let you bring anything into the parks because they want to charge you ridiculous prices and make you eat their food and spend more money in the parks.

Universal does have tons of food options, but they’re crazy pricey. The one day that I bought actual food, I paid like $10 for an order of chili-cheese fries. $10 for an order of fries was definitely not going to happen every day.

One day, I brought in a Tupperware of cookies. Another time, we brought in a thing of Pringles. You can bring in pretty much anything. We also brought granola bars. I think they don’t want you bringing whole meals in (they do have a list of what’s “acceptable” on their website, but snacks like we brought? Totally fine!

This is another great way to save some money.

3. About the lockers…

This is my one bone to pick with Universal Orlando. The locker situation can be a huge hassle. When I was doing my research before going into the park, I tried to find info about the lockers online. It’s kind of hard to find concrete information. I was really just trying to figure out if my bag would fit into the small lockers that are free, or if I needed to put money aside to pay for the larger lockers.

Basically, what happens is, on many rides, they won’t allow you to bring your belongings on the ride. They force you to stow it in lockers so that you don’t lose it on the rides, etc. I mean, I get it, but also, it’s a pain when all you want to do is get on the ride! Especially for rides with long lines.

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Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is located in the castle.

The first ride that we did that required lockers was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This was an absolute nightmare. If you read my other post, you’ll know that the ride itself was already terrible for us. The locker situation was just the cherry on top of the cake.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, first of all, has terrible signage. I felt bad for the employee. Nobody at the entrance of that ride knew what the heck was going on! The lockers are down a different path from the entrance, and they’re confusing to find. And not only are they hard to find, the whole locker area is pandemonium.

They recommend sending only one person in to put stuff in the lockers, that way the space isn’t overcrowded. This is absolutely the way it should be done, otherwise, there are too many people in the small spaces and it becomes chaos.

Each ride offers large lockers (which cost money), and small lockers, which are free. Easy peasy, right? Wrong. The set-up for the lockers at Forbidden Journey is not ideal. The space is tiny, and it’s very dimly lit. Then, 400 parents plus their 600 screaming children and strollers are all also squeezed into the small, dark space. It’s 0% enjoyable. The lockers at Forbidden Journey are also different from the lockers for any other rides we did (Men in Black, Rockit, Hagrid, The Mummy…). These lockers actually use your FINGERPRINT to unlock/lock them. Every other ride we did, you used your park admission ticket.

A note about this. If you’re going to lockers and you see that they do not require a fingerprint to lock/unlock them, then BRING YOUR PARK TICKET WITH YOU ON THE RIDE. We went from Forbidden Journey to Hagrid’s. Forbidden Journey required a fingerprint, Hagrid’s did not. I didn’t think twice about it.

I shoved our stuff into the lockers at Hagrid’s, and then got up to get on the ride. Then it hit me. If you don’t use your fingerprint to unlock the locker and get your stuff back, how do you do it? These rides use your park ticket’s bar code to lock/unlock them. So, you need to keep your ticket ON YOU, if you want to be able to get your stuff back out. Oops!

We figured it out and got an employee to open up the locker for us. But it was a big pain. So just pay attention to what you’re doing! I’m not sure what I preferred, the fingerprint situation, or the ticket lockers. With a fingerprint, it takes longer as you have to scan your finger (which takes forever) to lock and unlock the lockers. But as a girl, I liked the fingerprint situation because I didn’t have to hold onto my ticket for the duration of the ride. We waited in line for over two hours for Hagrid. I had to hold my ticket that whole time because I had no pockets. Then when I was on the rides, holding the ticket in my hand wasn’t really a feasible option. So I had to stick it either in my bra, or into the waistband of my leggings.

Then, all I could think is, “Oh I hope this ride is quick, it’ll get super sweaty and gross against my skin.” Then I’d get off the ride and hastily take it out of wherever I’d stowed it, and desperately try fanning it in the humid Florida air. I think functionality-wise, it still would scan fine if it got gross. But I also wanted to keep my ticket as a memento of the trip, so preserving it was important to me. If you’re a guy? It’s easy, guys have pockets galore! But not me.

Something else to note: The lockers will start charging you if you try and leave your stuff for free all day. I tried to research this, and the internet had told me, the lockers hold your stuff for the current wait time of the ride, and some change. Then, you’ll start being charged. I believed this to be true, but we rode Hagrid 3 times (and it took longer than the wait time advised), and the attendant assured us that we could just leave our stuff and not be charged. And we weren’t! But I’m not sure how that whole thing works. Just don’t leave your stuff in there for hours and hours and hours on end, or for the whole day, and you should be good.

The small lockers: a guide.

As I mentioned, the small lockers are free for the duration of the ride. Now, the question is: What size are the small lockers?

I brought this backpack with me to the parks. Inside the backpack, I had a small Tupperware of cookies, a plastic refillable water bottle, my wallet, my sunglasses, a phone charger, small cosmetic bag, and more. It was stuffed to the brim. On top of that, we brought a small drawstring bag which had another bottle of water, more snacks, a wallet, and other small items. I was able to fit BOTH of these bags into one locker.

It took some doing! After we did it once, we established how to do it the rest of the times. There’s plenty of space in the lockers, they’re plenty deep, they’re just very narrow. So I needed to remove items from my backpack to make it fit because it was too fat. Once the items were taken out, they all fit back in around the backpack in the locker. Easy. If you’ve got time and patience, you shouldn’t have to pay for lockers.

Also, each person can get a locker. So we could’ve gotten separate lockers and had more space without squishing our stuff as much, but it was easier for me to just run in and deal with it, that way we both weren’t trying to squeeze through the masses.

To sum up the lockers:

  1. The small lockers are free, the large lockers you have to pay for.
  2. Send ONE PERSON in to put the stuff in the lockers, don’t send everyone in, or it’ll be chaos.
  3. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey requires a fingerprint to lock/unlock lockers. The other rides, from what we saw, do not.
  4. If a locker requires fingerprints, you don’t have to bring anything on the ride with you. If it uses a ticket, KEEP YOUR TICKET WITH YOU. This is how you will unlock the locker when you’re done.
  5. The lockers will start to charge you if you leave your stuff for too long.

4. Virtual Rides and Motion Sickness/Migraines

When I found out that virtual rides were a thing, I panicked. I get motion sick very easily, and I also am prone to migraines. I tried to research virtual rides and migraines/motion sickness, and couldn’t find a lot.

So if anyone is like me and scouring the internet for information on this topic, here is my experience with the virtual rides at Universal Orlando.

I’ve been struggling with motion sickness for my entire life. When I was a kid, getting into a car for more than 20 minutes was hard. I’ve been known to be sick on a five minute drive to somewhere I’ve driven a thousand times. It was really bad. Amusement parks always make me nervous because I never know how I’ll do.

I started getting migraines in high school. I’m really good about knowing my triggers, but it’s hard when you go to somewhere that you don’t know anything about. It makes it a lot harder to try and prevent a migraine. You want to enjoy the rides and try new things, but you don’t know if the ride might cause a migraine. Everything becomes a risky endeavor when you’re dealing with migraines and motion sickness.

I told myself that I would try one virtual ride at Universal Orlando and see how it went. I was hoping against hope that it would be great and that I’d be able to do them. Unfortunately, I was very wrong.

The ride that I chose to try was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The entire ride was really rough. I could handle it if I had my eyes closed, but even that made my queasy because moving around without seeing what was happening made it really difficult. You’re strapped in, sitting up, and the sound actually comes through right by your ears. Then the chair tilts and whips around while screens in front of you are projecting the “ride” of you flying around Hogwarts with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I found it very dizzying, and to me, it was almost like trying to watch a 3D movie in theaters without the glasses. Unfortunately, this ride helped me to determine that virtual rides are not for me.

The nice thing is, if you’re like me, you can tell the attendants at the front of the line that you don’t want to ride it, and they’ll just allow you to walk through the lines. This is really nice, because you don’t feel as though you’re missing out on as much. You can still see the ride and all of the theming that Universal has set up, but then when you get to the point where it’s your turn to get on the ride, the attendants will just direct you towards the exit of the ride. Which is great! Then you also don’t have to deal with the lockers.

Even if you’re riding the rides, it’s kind of fun to ask to walk through and just check it out. That way, you don’t even really have to “wait” in line. And you get to enjoy some a/c!

Forbidden Journey was the only virtual ride that I tried. I didn’t want to risk ruining a good day with a migraine or nausea, so I opted not to ride any other virtual rides. And I think I made the right call for me and my body. I still enjoyed the parks and had a good time!

The only other ride that made me feel sick, nauseous, or dizzy, was the Men in Black Alien Adventure ride. I was apprehensive about doing this ride. It had warnings for dizziness and other things that made me nervous. But, we were assured that it was not a virtual ride, so we figured, why not?

If you suffer from migraines and/or motion sickness, Men in Black Alien Adventure may not be for you. Although, if you love Men in Black, definitely ask to walk through the line! It’s super cool.

The ride itself is pretty tame. It almost reminds me of the Dark Knight at Six Flags, or Ragin Cajun (which I only just found out is no longer there, thanks Google!). Okay, well, that determines how long it had been since I’d last been to a theme park prior to visiting Universal. 2013. Wow.

Men in Black reminds me of those because it’s very jerky with several small spins. It’s not bad until you get to the very end. You end up spinning quite a bit while strobe lights are going off. I just shut my eyes and got through it. For that reason, I don’t recommend it if you get motion sick as easily as I do, or if strobe lights give you migraines like they do me.

Those were the only two “virtual-ish” rides that we tried. I steered clear of all the other virtual rides after The Forbidden Journey, so I can’t speak as to how the other rides are if you suffer from migraines or motion sickness. You’ll just have to make a judgment call! Worst case scenario, you spend the entire ride with your eyes tightly shut, wishing you were anywhere else. It’s less than 5 minutes of your day and your life, so it’s manageable!

These are just some things that I think might be useful to know! Sure they’re kind of niche tips and advice, but there have to be other people out there who are curious about the locker situation, or are nervous about what a “virtual ride” is going to be like at Universal Orlando. Hopefully these little anecdotes and tips are helpful to anyone planning a trip down to Orlando!