Waking up in Vegas: Five Things to Do that Aren’t Clubbing or Gambling

I have friends who swear by visiting Vegas once a year (I’m from Chicago – who could blame us when winter descends?). When my family went for a second time during Christmas a few years ago, we did it the right way: we camped out at the Flamingo and everyone was over 21, a far cry from a Motel 6 overnight where we had to stay at least 10 feet away from the slot machines. On our way to Mammoth Lakes to ski, we missed our chance to see the attractions in Las Vegas.

Five Things to Do

Our Vegas sojourn was brief – just two nights sandwiched between the Grand Canyon and a trip to see my snowbird grandparents – and included a night of pure hedonism with my sister and our boyfriends. A hazy gambling session at the Imperial Palace. Hitting the jackpot on a slot machine and winning $640.50 (which I put towards purchasing Camarón).  A round of Jägerbombs. Feeling less than splendid the following day when we explored the non-gaming attractions.

Vegas may be an adult playground, but there is far more to do than you think – and these attractions won’t break the bank.

Visit the Hoover Dam

I was not feeling my best when we took an hour-long trip down Route 93 back towards Arizona to see the Hoover Dam. A feat of engineering that lead to Las Vegas’s incorporation, construction on the hydroelectric dam – then called the Boulder Dam – began in 1930. I was hungover and grumpy, and I didn’t feel much like looking at a bunch of stone for a morning.

Hoover Damn

But the Hoover Damn wowed me. From the Art Deco design to the sheer power of a structure built nearly a century ago, it was worth the trip. The Hoover Dam can be visited every day but Christmas and Thanksgiving from 9am. Parking is $10 and tours run $15 for adults and $12 for seniors, children under 17 and military.

You can also get a glimpse simply by driving the 93 over the Hoover Bypass between Nevada and Arizona (cue the Fools Rush In screens stills).

Check Out Old Vegas

As a History Channel follower, my dad has always been fascinated by the history of Vegas, from a small town on a major railway just a century ago to the building of the Hoover Dam and its subsequent boom – did you know that the casinos and nightclubs catered to the predominately male contraction workers? Or that the Nevada state government legalized gambling as a way to turn profits?

Old Vegas

Old Vegas, located on Fremont Street just east of the Strip, boasts some of the city’s first casinos, announced by vintage neon signs, and a little less hedonism than the more famous Las Vegas Boulevard. There are also less seedy street performers and cheaper buffets. If you do gamble here, payouts are more frequent than the other big-name resorts.

Take in a Show

Entertainers have long set up shop in Vegas, from the Rat Pack to Celine Dion and Britney Spears. Casinos rake in big money by hosting Broadway shows, and while it’s not New York, Vegas is an awesome venue for catching a show.

New York New York Casino

Ever since working on my high school’s costume and makeup crew, coupled with a yearly tradition of seeing Broadway in Chicago with the women in my family, I’ve been fascinated with the Lion King Musical. I missed the opportunity to see it in Madrid, but my dad took us to see the smash musical at the famed Mandalay Bay Casino. And I cried (the Novio fell asleep).

Apart from the big money win, it was the highlight of our trip.

Chow Down at a Buffet

My one memory of a Vegas trip at age 15 (apart from my early-bird-gets-the-worm father arriving at 8am with a plastic cup full of quarters) was the dinner buffet we ate. My parents let us eat jelly beans out of ice cream dishes and as many chicken fingers as we could stomach before collapsing into a food coma at the Motel 6.

Vegas Buffets

Buffets have been around in Vegas for as long as its casinos. El Rancho Casino, the first resort built on the Strip, used its gourmet buffet as a way to defray costs, and because Las Vegas is home to a culinary revolution, and you can find everything from cutting-edge cuisine to fried chicken in buckets nowadays. We chose a hearty breakfast buffet at our resort before a long drive back to Arizona. It didn’t come cheap – we paid $45 per person – but as someone who misses weekly brunches, it was worth it.

Vegas.com lists Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan as its top pick (as does a college friend who calls Vegas home), with Bacchanal (Caesar’s Palace) and Studio B (The M) as its other favorites. All three offer different types of cuisines, ample seating and unlimited helpings.

Pay Homage to the City Lights at the Neon Museum

In its short history, Vegas has shone brightly – and I don’t just mean the lights from its casinos. But many of the iconic resorts that lead to the city’s boom have since been bulldozed to make way for newer constructions, and nearly 150 signs have been restored and laid to rest in a Neon Boneyard at the Neon Museum.

Neon Graveyard Vegas

Housed in the former lobby of La Concha Casino, the mandatory tour takes visitors to the Neon Boneyard and North Gallery and past signs from haunts of Vegas past. A guide narrates the tour, painting a picture of Old Vegas and how its legacy shaped the City of Sin today.

If possible, nab entrances for a night tour. Tickets run $18 for adults.

Have you ever been to Vegas? What are your favorite things to do?

Exploring Chicago’s Old Town with the Second City

“You know you’ve really made it when Lorne takes you out to dinner,” Margaret quipped, stopping short for effect while the 25 or so of us leaned in. “I’ve slept with him before, but have yet to get an invitation to dinner.”

She was, of course, talking about Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live Fame. And I laughed. I was at Chicago’s famed Second City, and the satirical, oft raunchy humor was to be expected.

chicao's second city tour

When I was a teenager, I never once complained that my weekend curfew was 10:30 p.m. during the school year – I‘d arrive home, switch on NBC just as the band was finishing up the opening theme and grab a bowl of ice cream. Saturday Night Live was always my Saturday date, and I grew up watching comics like Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan and Molly Shannon personify the immortal Spartans, Mango and Mary Katherine Gallagher.

My friends surprised me for my 18th birthday with a pack of Marlboro Lights and tickets to see a show at the e.t.c. stage of Chicago’s Second City. The show, Pants on Fire, was politically fueled and so hilarious, I had hiccups that my virgin strawberry daiquiri couldn’t cure.

Touring Old Town

Back home this summer, amidst wedding prep, the city of Chicago has become my escape (and my sister just moved back!). When searching for fun things to do with the Spaniards pre-bodorrio, I came across tours of the Old Town Neighborhood with improv artists from the Second City Theatre.

A gorgeous Chicago afternoon, a tour guide that actually had personality and one of the city’s most emblematic cultural pockets? And for $15 a head, it was a Chicago experience I could actually afford.

Tour Writer and Guide Margaret started by asked where we’d come from, adding insult to injury when she found out that my sister and I are from Bibletown and cracked a few jokes (well deserved, I might add). Shockingly enough, there were 10 of us from the hometown crowd and, much like those in attendance on show nights, we were the most vocal during the 90-minute tour.

Improv tours at the Second City Chicago

Margaret herself is a 20-year Second City student who took an improv class. Having a sound knowledge of the theater and its philosophy, the tour started at iconic 1616 N. Wells just like any tour – with the company’s history and its philosophy.

The Second City came to life at the University of Chicago thanks to a few beatniks who used techniques designed by Viola Spolin, a woman who dedicated her life to helping immigrants integrate into mainstream society. The games Viola played, eventually called Theatre Games, sought to relax participants and teach them how to react to different situations, soon became the foundation of improvisational techniques (and the club’s improv school). The Second City opened in the Old Town neighborhood in 1959 under the supervision of Paul Sills, Viola’s son.

Twin Anchors bar Chicago

The tour wound around a few residential blocks, past balloon house frames, old brick churches and local bars. Margaret pointed out favorite haunts of troupe members past, like Bill Murray, who recently stayed behnd to clean up after a Grateful Dead show in town. Like many Chicagoans or people who truly love the city, you keep coming back. She spun tails of some of the more famous alum like Gail Radner and Chris Farley before asking the audience for their favorite members – and then told stories about them.

We got a bit more hisotrical than I expected as we stood under Saint Michael’s bells, but the history lesson intertwined with humor and anecdotes was a winning combination.

scenes from Old Town, Chicago

Old Town is about as Chicago as it gets (and the same can be said about Second City). Being a stone’s throw from the skyscrapers of the Loop and in the shadow of the Sears (the skyscraper is a Chi Town original), the neighborhood was burned down during the Great Fire, becoming a vibrant part of the Northside.

“LIKE A PHOENIX!” were Margaret’s words. 

The tour ends back at Piper’s Alley, a mecca to comedy lovers, where you can read hate mail all the way up the stairs to the main stage. But as Margaret mentioned, it’s ok to fail in Chicago. It’s ok to rebuild (or build bleachers outside of the Trump and invite people to watch). It’s ok to keep doing what you’re doing and trust that someone believes in you.

balloon houses in Old Town

And it’s totally fine by us that New York thinks they’re better at everything – it was journalist A.J. Liebling who gave us our famous nickname as a nod to the Big Apple’s superiority anyway. Pizza and hot dogs? Fine, we’ll give those to you so long as you let us keep the lake, our sports and the best damn improv theatre in North America.

The Second City Neighborhood Tours are held rain or shine every Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. Expected to walk about two miles, and bring your sense of humor. Tickets are $15 and reservations are recommended.

What’s your favorite thing to do in your hometown?

Travel Products Review: Wallpapered Custom Map Canvases

My most beloved home decorations are the small things I’ve picked up from traveling around Europe and más allá – a Chinese zodiac garland I haggled for at a Beijing market, handmade pillowcases from a textile factory in Jaipur, a whittled bull from Slovakia that graces our mantle. And I save every single map of the cities I visit in a shoebox, which is the perfect size and shape for the tattered pages.

Wallpapered Map Canvas

When Rachel from Wallpapered got in touch to offer me a customized map canvas for my home or office, I had an immediate rearranging of our home office to accommodate the 60x60cm print.

In less than two weeks, we’d designed a custom map together and it arrived to my house, mounted on a canvas with a wooden frame.

The process

Rachel had me scour the site for a style, size and finish that I wanted, walking me through the process via email. Based out of London, this company has been transforming blank walls for just a few years with both map canvases and wallpaper, from countries to world maps and beyond.

With so many choices, I went back to the basics – I wanted a map of Spain.

Rachel was with me for every step of the design process – I prodded over colors, vinatge touches, regions and even how to hang the canvas in no less than a dozen emails! Everything was customized to my exact liking, though I’d have loved a vintage-y map (Wallpapered has since added a cool version of Old Castille!).

Close Up of Wallpapered canvas

When we’d settled on a design, Rachel sent the mock-up of everything that would be printed on the map, along with a to-scale picture so I could see just which cities and towns would be included.

The canvas

The canvas arrived literally days later from Blighty, showing up on my doorstep in mint condition.

But shame on me – I didn’t include the Canary Islands!

I dismantled the canvas a bit, pulling out the staples that attached the map to the wooden frame. The materials was pulled flat over sanded wood and came with hooks and instructions on how to hang. Ordering off the Internet can sometimes be a crap shoot (as in, you end up with crap!), but I was impressed with the friendliness of the service-driven staff and how great the product turned out!

Wallpapered Canvas

I’m still debating where to put the map. Just as my bedroom in study abroad had an enormous map of Spain, I’d like our map to be somewhere where I can see it as I plan jaunts around Iberia.

But the map will be put to use before I even head back to Sevilla- we’re naming our tables after places we’ve visited together in Spain! España has been the muse to our bilcultural, bilingual relationship, and she’s taking center stage with our wedding decorations. I’m psyched for our guests to see and read about all of the places where we’ve fallen for one another, and for Spain’s landscapes, villages and vistas.

Wallpapered graciously provided me with my map canvas and its journey to Sevilla free of charge. But don’t worry, if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t write about it! You can find your own map-inspired products on Wallpapered’s product showcase, or work with designers to create a one-of-a-kind piece.

How do your travels figure into your home decor? Leave me some inspiration in the comments!

Take the Grilled Cheese and Run: How a Desperate Family Committed a Christmas Crime

It was on my fifth Christmas abroad that my father decided to make us accessories to a crime.

Since moving to Spain, my family had made the effort to follow me around the globe. We’ve spent Christmas with the monkeys on the Rock of Gibraltar, making gingerbread in Germany and visiting the cliffside Monserrat Monastery near Barcelona. In seven years in Europe, I’ve spent just one Christmas in my native Chicago.

But in Killarney, desperation meant my father had to pillage a hotel cafeteria for the sake of his hungry daughters.

How a Family Stole in Ireland

I come from an Irish family (red-headed, freckled and deathly pale are my hallmarks). A family that marches in local Saint Parick’s Day parades. Still has ties to the homeland in Country Mayo. One whose prized heirloom fiddle cries with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” at weddings. In fact, my surname is synonymous with Irish sport. The Emerald Isle has always been my father’s greatest travel dream, so he booked round-trip tickets to Ireland for Christmas without asking anyone’s permission.

But this vacation was doomed from the beginning – satellite photos showed the entire UK covered in snow. This meant a seven-hour ground delay for me in which my mom texted me, “R U hungry? I bought u a bagel” followed 20 minutes later with “Srry ate ur bagel.” I arrived famished and grumpy, and having not seen my family for a year, they were less than thrilled at my reception.

Dingle Peninsula

And there was more: the frost meant the pipes were frozen solid, leaving us without running water to shower or brush our teeth. Roads were shut down on the Ring of Kerry and thus rerouted us more than once, and sites that claimed to be open during the holidays didn’t bother to post that the snow had them shut down. My sister even came down with the flu and missed seeing Cork and exploring Amsterdam on my family’s layover.

But our lowest moment came on Christmas Day, where we had to stoop as far as breaking the law to save the holidays.

cliffs of moher

Christmas Eve dawned bright but cold in Galway on a bustling shopping day. We awed at the Cliffs of Moher before heading to Limerick for the night. After we shared a hearty Christmas meal, my dad and I went to the bar for a drink. My vision suddenly became cloudy and my head began to pound.

Apart from inheriting a love of beer from my Irish father, I also got his tendency to get sinus infections while traveling. I called it an early night and hoped to be over it the next morning (because I also, luckily, got my mother’s iron immune system).

Having plowed through Angela’s Ashes on the long flight delay, I was eager to walk around Limerick that morning before setting off for the Dingle Peninsula. It was just as desolate and depressing as Frank McCourt describes – the morning still was interrupted by an occasional car passing by, or the honk of a goose. Squat, dilapidated houses lined the “historic” quarter.

Limerick Ireland

My dad chucked his map in a nearby bin, and we chucked the city.

Climbing into the car, I warned my family that we’d have trouble finding a place to eat on Christmas Day. Dad came to the rescue with a gas station English breakfast – soggy hash browns, pale grey sausages and a pack of cookies for good measure.

The ride around the damp Dingle Peninsula that morning was torture: every pothole sent a jolt of pain through my head and any time we stopped, I’d have to be coaxed out of the car. I grew hungry and restless to just stop somewhere and have something warm to drink, but storefronts were dark and the nearest gas station was back in Limerick. 

Galway Ireland

If I was grumpy and starving, my sister was far beyond that point. We passed the majority of the day in absolute silence.

Driving into Killarney, Mom spotted a sign for McDonald’s. “Don!” she squealed, “TURN AROUND! McDonalds will surely be open!”

After another strike, my dad pulled into a hotel nearby. We kept the car running to stay warm, but it took him 20 minutes to return.

He handed us each a Styrofoam plate with a steaming grilled cheese and french fries. “I told them we were guests at the hotel and that I’d check in once we ate, and they allowed me into the kitchen to make sandwiches,” he snickered as he put the car into first and sped off.

Guinness in Ireland

As I ate a tasteless grilled cheese and some cold french fries once we had safely escaped the scene of the crime. I smiled at my father, who was rifling through his suitcase for some more sinus congestion pills. 

Even at the most desperate of moments (and the most disastrous of family vacations), I knew my father would do anything for us, particularly if it included a good story and a plate of food.

Have you ever done anything desperate on your travels?

A Peek at Life in India: the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

From where we stood, halfway up the hill to the Monkey Temple, the waning light was turning ‘The Pink City’ a pearly, golden hue. The jagged skyline’s stack of buildings and telephone poles, a thousand candles, was like a fanciful birthday cake.

I scanned the horizon across Jaipur, noting the immense desert city that sat sprawled between mountains. We’d come because the city that had been painted the color of hospitality was rumored to be beautiful but gritty, busy but manageable. The Amer palace was the draw, but I had my eyes locked on the cake topper in the center of the cake – the Hawa Mahal.

Our tuk-tuk driver, Ali, warned us that the Hawa Palace was not really worth seeing. “It’s a house. A pink house. Better at Mughal market for the shopping.”

I’m sure you say that to all the ladies, Ali. Tu t’aime las filles, after all.

On our only full day in Jaipur, we did a whirlwind tour of the Fort, skipping the elephant ride as we climbed the hill on which the intricate palace sits before seeing the Janta Mantur observatory. While Ali tried to persuade us that it was better to skip the pink palace for a lassi drink and browsing the spice market, I couldn’t get over the pink lattice windows that peeked out above the city palace.

Like in many countries I’ve visited, the Hawa Mahal is essentially a fancy brothel, beautifully constructed living quarters that once included gilded doors and extravagant fountains against a facade that resembles a honeycomb. The five-story building is riddled with staircases, rooms, windows and lattice-work, allowing its inhabitants to see life on the streets below without actually being seen themselves.

Hayley and I saw a great deal of India from a tuk tuk, not quite on in a hit-the-pavement sort of way I had craved when we booked tickets. Even through the kindness of hotel owners, who helped us when we were scammed, through driving tuk tuk down deserted roads, to posing in pictures with sari-clad Indians in front of the Taj Mahal, I feel as though we barely scratched India’s expansive surface.

Like the women who once lived in the small bedrooms of the Palace of the Winds and could witness the trading and chaos, the wandering animals and the comforting hum of daily life in Jaipur, our India experience felt like theirs – someone not quite on the inside. I suddenly had the urge to skip Mumbai and stay in the Pink City, to consider India in the future. After five days, two train rides and countless interactions with strangers, I knew one trip to India would never be enough for me.

Ali was waiting for us at the Tripolia Bazaar, feet up on the narrow dashboard of his motorized tricycle. “So, very boring, yes?” he questioned as we climbed into the back and he sped off towards the spice market.

I somehow knew India had gotten under my skin in that very moment.

Have you ever wanted to learn more about a destination after you’d visited? Or do you see things and then mentally cross it off a bucket list?

My Biggest Travel Fiasco (or, the time I spent New Year’s Eve alone in Romania)

Budapest, Hungary

The clock reads 7:32 a.m. The man in the front seat is antsy, nervously playing with the manual lock system on the minivan. 

“Where are these people? Don’t they know we could be late for our flights?”

I assure Fidgety Floridian that the Budapest airport is quite small and easy to get through, but his wife isn’t convinced. She rolls her eyes and says, “We have the worst luck with planes. We nearly didn’t make it on the cruise.”

My flight to Tirgu Mures, Romania doesn’t leave for four hours, so I’m cool. I settle into the jump seat at the back of the van, wedged between luggage.

Three hours later, I’ve sailed through security and pursue the food options. I decide to wait until I land in Tirgu Mures, as I will need something to do for three hours before leaving for Madrid. My foot taps impatiently against the floor as we begin to embark. Wedged into an airport bus, I choose to stand next to someone who hasn’t showered.

For thirty minutes.

After which we are unloaded back  into the terminal and delayed another thirty minutes. I settle into my third book of my holiday break and return to tapping my foot again while doing the mental math: I have a one hour flight, a one hour delay and a one hour forward time change. I have just enough time to grab my bag, check in again and head to my gate once we touch down in Tirgu Mures. 

My foot taps faster.

In the air, I relax a little, as I’ve been assured that it will be taxi, takeoff, ascent, quick passage of the metal cart for snacks, descent, landing, taxi. Plus, I’ve snagged a seat on the aisle in the third row (thank you, Amazing Race, for teaching me how to get on and off planes quickly). Flipping through the inflight magazine for the third time, the captain announces something in Hungarian. Then, in English: Due to zero visibility in Tirgu Mures, we’ve been rerouted to Cluj, to which we have begun our descent. There will be buses on hand to take you to Tirgu, unless you’d prefer to stay in Cluj. We apologize for any inconvenience.

My heart skips a beat and I call the flight attendant, slightly panicked. How long until the buses arrive? Is it a far drive to Tirgu Mures? Will I have to go through customs here? I continue to fire, but she comes back with two responses: first, I don’t know anything about Romania and second, we are a point to point airline, sorry.

No shit. 

Cluj-Napoca Airport, Romania

Once on the ground, I call the Novio, fighting tears. Our New Year’s plans were to spend the night with his extended family which had come from London, Peru, Murcia and Madrid. He assures me they’ll come and pick me up from Madrid when I get in, whenever that may be. I hastily get through customs, and my checked bag comes barreling down the belt first.

My first stop is the tourist information counter. Unfortunately, the woman speaks limited English. There is no bus to Tirgu Mures out front, and I check my watch: with the time change, my flight closes in 90 minutes. I return to the desk and slow down: How long in taxi to Tirgu Mures? 

“One hour thirty, maybe two.” Remembering my Romania road trip, I think of the poor state of most highways in Romania and bite my lip.

Other travelers are taking pity on me, asking if there’s anything they can do to help me or if I’d like a lift to the center of Cluj. I rack my brain – I’ve been here before. It’s a large university city where we made a quick stop, and the food was cheap. A large, domed church with a fountain in front gets shaken from my head as I try to think straight.

The Cluj airport flies to many more destinations, including Barcelona and Madrid, I tell myself. If I fly out of anywhere, it will be here.

I have to say, I have never been a nervous flier. I always arrive to the airport early, pack my bag without liquids and know how planes work and why they just don’t fall out of the sky. Yes, I even pray to the Virgin of Loreto, patron saint of pilots (and I can’t believe I just admitted that). But now I’m antsy, channeling Kevin McCallister’s mother as I half-run to the Wizz Air ticketing office in the departures terminal.

The woman is quite nice and speaks English, and looks up flights to anywhere in Spain – Valencia, Alicante, Palma. Nothing more will fly out today to Spain, just to Budapest at 8pm, more than six hours in the future. She assures me there are flights from Budapest to Madrid the following day for a mere 145€, and the woman in the other information booth looks up overnight buses and prices for me.

Just then, a young Lufthansa worker touches me on the shoulder. Nothing is flying out of Targu this afternoon – there’s no ground visibility and they’ve already sent word that we’ll be getting flights bound for other destinations here, he tells me.

Feeling a stroke of good luck, I buy myself a cold sandwich and a warm Orsus beer and pace the empty departures hall.

For the next five hours, I jockey between the Wizz Air office, the check-in counters for news and the information desk. Passengers from other flights to Lutton and Beauvais pass through, looking at me as if I am in the movie Terminal. Time ticks by slowly, but I don’t pick up a magazine until several hours into the ordeal. Food doesn’t appeal to me, and even the nice Romanian girl who offers me tea gets a no, thank you.

The Lufthansa worker is nowhere to be found, so I ask another for help. Thankfully, he speaks English perfectly and makes a call. 

“We’ll know in thirty minutes, but I think you’re in luck. Just stay within sight.” Doing as I’m told, I finally start to try to occupy myself, returning to my e-book. Still distracted, another hour flies by and the Novio calls back. He tells me, pity in his voice, that no one could help him in Barajas, then, angrily, “And the call costs 1,15 a minute, joder!”

Just then, nice Lufthansa man steps out from around the heck-in desk with a long face. “Yeah, so, your flight will leave in 15 minutes. From Targu Mures. I’m sorry, the weather has cleared up.”

Well, crap.

Nice Lufthansa man turns into an angel when he gets on the phone with Wizz Air and scores me a new ticket, free of charge, for the misinformation he alleges I’ve received. An email in my inbox confirms this. I could hug him, but instead I give him the bottle of wine I was carrying home for the Novio’s family. One good deed deserves another, and he gladly accepts it, saying that he was made to work an extra eight hours with the influx of re-routed flights.

I grab my things and find a taxi after seven hours in the terminal. There is general confusion, as the taxi driver asks me which bus station I want to go to. I dart back into the terminal to find it completely deserted. I leave it to blind faith and nod when he asks the name of the company and just takes off, racing towards the city.

Cluj-Napoca City Center

We pull up to what appears to be an abandoned junk yard with a few plastic huts. “Bus!” the driver calls out and dumps my bag on the cold, wet ground. Never mind the vintage stein I’m bringing back…or the other bottle of wine.

Everything is dark. I can’t read anything. My watch read 8:22, or one hour, forty-eight minutes until the bus apparently passes. Music is playing at the hotel around the corner, so I go in and plead my way into sitting in the still-cold lobby, tired enough to want to cry, or just curl up and say to hell with an overnight bus.

Welp, turns out there was no overnight bus, or any bus or train on New Year’s Day, so I turn on my Internet data (happy Christmas bonus, Vodafona) and look up hotels, figuring it would be money well spent. There’s a Hilton.

There’s a Hilton.

The closest I can get to home is a Hilton, and they would definitely have wi-fi and breakfast. I realize, rubbing my eyes, I’ve barely eaten or even drank since 6:30 in the morning, adding to my drowsiness and overall pity party.

The Hilton glows green on the empty street, just a few yards from the city center. I practically collapse as the receptionist charges my credit card and writes down my information to the tune of 58€. Giving him the cliff notes of my sob story, he promises to call me a taxi.

Upstairs in my room, I’ve just taken off my bag when the phone buzzes. “Um, yes, my friend can take you to Budapest Airport tomorrow. It is five, maybe six hours. It will cost 250€. Yes?” Without even thinking, I say yes. Besides, I already did the mental math. If I waited another day, I’d have to spend another 58€ for the hotel room, over 300€ for the flight from Cluj on the 2nd, and then another train ticket from Madrid. 

I kick off my shoes and run the shower. I stare at the water and steam for about a minute before I decide I’m too tired to even stand under the jet of water. The clock says 11:23 p.m., a full 15 hours since I left the dock in Budapest. I should have arrived to Spain three hours ago.

My night is sleepless, punctuated by fireworks, whatsapps from well-wishing friends and a very nervous mother. My in-laws send pictures of themselves eating my 12 lucky grapes, and all I can think is, vaya suerte. 

Rural Romania

The driver nods his head at me as I slip in the back seat of his car. He punches something nervously into his GPS and I wish him a happy new year, surprisingly sunny, given the circumstances and the money I am about to fork over to him. It doesn’t seem that he speaks English, which both relieves and disappoints me.

One thing I can say since my road trip through Transylvania and Mures: the roads have definitely gotten better. We speed out of Cluj along the E-61 towards Hungary, and I am flooded with memories of my trip. The intricately carved wooden crosses on the side of the road, the haystacks behind homes and the women in black fly by as we take the twisting roads west.

There’s definitely a common theme amongst Romanians – they’re all so damn nice, and it’s amazing what a terrible night of sleep did to me – I feel 100 times better and pray to the travel gods that I will be back in Spain on the first day of 2014.

Romanian-Hungarian border

The driver is nervous. He backs his car up, pulls it back in, changes positions, smokes his smokeless cigarette pipe thing. I’m sipping down water in small amounts, not sure if he speaks enough English to know I need a pit stop. After seven long minutes (for him, not me), the guard approaches the car and hands me back me passport and Spanish residency card.

On the first day of 2014, I’ve already got two freshly stamped entries in my passport. Every cloud…

Budapest, Hungary

Once we’re into Hungary, the roads become straight and the hills disappear. While I can understand some words in Romania because of its Romantic language roots, Hungary has me completely stumped. All I can make out is the ever-dwindling number of kilometers between our car and the airport.

The driver drops me off right in front of the terminal. I’ve given him a tip of close to 30€ (after all, he charged me in Romanian leu and that conversion is not easy on a sleep-deprived brain) for his trouble on New Year’s Day, and he shakes my hand firmly after helping me put my heavy bag on my back. I thank him on the only word in Romanian I know, multumesc. Thank you very much.

My phone picks up the wi-fi immediately in the airport, and I re-book a train ticket for 9:30 p.m. I have three hours before my flight, which will give me time to finally have a beer, get checked in and get through security…and maybe eat fast food and not feel ashamed about it. Spanish permeates my consciousness and I relax.

Once on the plane, the sky is a dreamy pink with streaks of red until night falls.

Madrid, Spain

As soon as the plane touches down, the first thing that comes to mind is Manolo Escobar’s famous Spain anthem, Que Viva España. My phone is turned on before we reach the gate, and I send whatsapps to everyone I know. I feel like I’ve returned to a place where everything makes sense and where language is no longer an issue. I get Spain. 

Time seems to pass by in three seconds as I grab my bag, transfer to terminal 4, hop on the cercanías line and make it to my train – the last of the day – with 20 minutes to spare. Being a holiday, my car was only half full, so I could curl up across both seats and sleep for two hours. Stepping onto the platform and seeing ‘SEVILLA – SANTA JUSTA’ as I take a deep breath reminds me that I am, at long last, home.

Sevilla, Spain

I arrive home five minutes to midnight on January 1st. The travel gods heard my plea, it seems. I’ve traveled, by my estimate, over 3900 miles in 40 hours. The Novio hasn’t changed the sheets in two weeks, but I hardly notice as I sleep, finally, in my own bed for 10 hours.

I’ve since recounted the short version of the ordeal to my friends. While some are shocked and glad it didn’t happen to them, I can say this: I am relieved that I am a seasoned traveler and that I’ve watched my parents navigate standby and weather delays like champs. My nerves and even my tear ducts were put to the test, but I got home, unscathed (just poorer). Had I been new to international travel or unaware of European flight compensations, I may have made rookie mistakes.

One thing I have realized? I am not cut out for round-the-world travel. While it seems challenging and fun, I’m too accustomed to my comforts and hate wearing dirty clothes (there, I admitted it). I can handle when things don’t go as planned, but I don’t like it because I am not spontaneous. I like feeling grounded. I like the feeling of familiarity. I like having wi-fi and no roaming data (my bill came yesterday…ouch).

That’s not to say that I won’t travel for extended periods of time – I most certainly will travel as far as my body and my salary will take me, and have big dreams when it comes to doing it. But I think I’ve finally mató el gusano. The idea of round-trip travel is no longer a little tickle that flares up once in a while.

The idea of becoming an expat in another city or another country? THAT is the new gusanillo.

Have you had any travel disasters recently? I’d love to hear them, and if they’re Spain-related, feel free to send me the story for publishing!

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