Amsterdam is the capital city of the Netherlands, known for its coffee shops, canals, bikes, tulip blooms and red light district. It was the first stop of our summer vacation. Growing up in a pretty liberating country, the United States of America and then to move to a very modest country, Qatar, can start to weigh on you after awhile. So I decided that a visit to Amsterdam for some fun was long overdue. Darryl and I flew into AMS on Friday, June 7, for the weekend, and my sista Michele and her husband Charles met us there. We were first timers to this city that everyone talks about and we couldn’t wait to explore.
Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very welcoming. It was cold and rainy and our hotel was located outside of the city center. We stayed at the Residence Inn in Houthavens. It is a nice hotel overlooking the docks, with a mini kitchen, bed and sitting area. There is a bar, restaurant, pool, gym and spa. We cooked most of our own food in the room and breakfast was included with our stay. The hotel staff were very friendly. In fact, everyone we encountered in Amsterdam was friendly. It’s a very chill country.
We really only had 2 days to explore and one day was a complete wash but we made the best of our visit. On the rainy day, we visited a few coffee shops and supermarkets. In the evening, the weather let up some and we went out into the Red Light District. We weren’t aware that this was a holiday weekend in Amsterdam and it was quite crowded. Everywhere people were smiling, laughing, smoking or drinking, gawking at half naked women in front of red curtains or going in to establishments in search of something more. We decided to take in a show, it was rather boring until I coerced my husband into becoming part of the show. That made the 50 Euro price tag worth it in the end. Sorry, no photos allowed.
On our second day, it warmed up some and the rain held off. We were able to enjoy our booked small group canal cruise and tour. There were only two other couples besides us. I highly recommend this tour which came with drinks and snacks. Besides James, our guide, was very nice and knowledgable. You can book this tour by clicking the blue link above. It was an Airbnb experience. This was a much easier way to see some sights around Amsterdam.
We also took in some sights by foot and shopped on 9 streets. We tried Stroopwafel; they’re truly delicious when you get them fresh.
At night, we went to the Ice bar. It’s very touristy but it was a fun experience. You can purchase your tickets online using the link above and you get 3 free drinks. You will need them to warm you up.
We never got around to riding a bike or visiting Anne Frank house. Does that warrant another trip to Amsterdam, probably along with a few other reasons. We had a good time visiting this city but it was only the beginning of our month long trip to Europe.
Suggestions, Tips, Recommendations:
Where to stay: This depends on what you want. I do recommend the Residence Inn if you don’t want to be in the city center. However, when I return, I will stay somewhere in the city because uber trips add up. By the way the Ubers are super fancy, Audis and Mercedes.
Vegan Eats: Vegan Junk Food was the only vegan restaurant I tried since it came highly recommended by a friend. I had a burger and loaded fries which were delicious. The supermarkets have a lot of vegan food as well. This was my first time trying Beyond Meat. My husband cooked it up for me and it taste like a grilled burger. I think it was meat.
Sights: If you want to visit Anne Frank house, buy your tickets online 60 days in advance when they are first released. You can also get them online on the day of your visit if your lucky and are amongst the first 100 online to purchase them. Some tickets are sold on the same day on the website at 9am, they say, but I went online both days around 8:50 and there was already a queue of 100+ people. Needless to say I wasn’t lucky but good luck to you if you choose this route. I do not recommend it.
The IAmsterdam sign moves around, however, we spotted one near the Sky Lounge but we never made it there. If you want that picture go there. You can also ride the swing and get a great view of the city from up there. The weather prevented us from doing this.
Definitely check the weather when visiting Amsterdam and pack a jacket. Be prepared to walk or bike around to take in the sights.
On Monday, I drank a cup of coffee with no sugar and guess what I survived. I’ve also just completed my 2nd 4 day streak of no sugar and it’s getting easier. At first, I didn’t think I felt any different, but last night I went out to dinner and enjoyed a full plate of pasta (which I never do) and topped it off with a Krispy Kreme donut and as soon as I got home I felt extremely lethargic. Carbs turned into sugar and took over my body and my body was not used to that.
This has been my year (school year) of self-care, regular spa and nail appointments, exercising, relaxing, detoxing, healthy eating. Since I’ve been hearing so much buzz around sugar intake and how it affects our bodies, I decided to give it a rest. My vegan diet is already very limited but I’m always trying to find ways to be better and healthier. This seemed like a natural progression.
I started on a Sunday, since my husband does the food shopping on Saturday. But then on Monday, I received a care package from my sister from home. It included all kinds of goodies and sugar, butterscotch krimpets, peanut chews, sour patch candies, starburst, etc… and Cinnabon opened up here in Qatar. I mean could this be any harder?
I went cold turkey Sunday morning-Thursday afternoon. I didn’t even eat fruit. The menu consisted mainly of vegetables and soups, snacks were raw vegetables, air popped corn with nutritional yeast and activated nuts. I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t easy.
Over the weekend I did eat a few sweets, a couple of mini peanut chews. But during the week, I was completely sugar free. By the end of the second week, the desire for sweets decreased tremendously. I didn’t feel like a drug addict denying myself as I did in week 1.
During this short time, I have learned several things. 1. I had a slight addiction to sugar. 2. There is a lot of sugar in products that you wouldn’t believe and I will check content labels for carbs and sugar more closely. 3. You can enjoy things without sugar. I actually got used to drinking tea without sugar. I think I’ll stick with it. 4. You can have energy without sugar. I never felt tired while staying away from sugar. In fact, I think I had more energy. 5. Sugar-less items cost more -surprise! Why does eating healthy cost more than the alternate when there is less ingredients?
I don’t plan to give up sugar altogether but I do plan to be more conscientious of my sugar intake. I’ve read that natural sugar is actually healthy, like the sugar found in berries and melons. I’ll try staying away from sugar during the work week and enjoy a treat or two over the weekend.
There is a lot of information out there about how enjoying a diet with reduced sugar leads to many health benefits and I believe them. Craving sugar the way I did the first week, was not a good sign. Going two weeks without it gave me a lot of insight. I don’t need as much sugar as I was consuming. Someone once told me, “my body is a temple, if I take care of it, it will take care of me.” Listen to your body, it’s the only one you get!
(If you haven’t read part 1, you can access it by clicking here)
Before I traveled to Sri Lanka, I spoke to several people who had been prior, read blogs and researched websites to find out all I could. I went with a wealth of information and still was unprepared. I hope my thoughts, tips and suggestions will help someone going to visit after me.
Sri Lanka is an island located South-East of India. Below is a picture of its’ location on a map. It is relatively cheap and easy to get to from the Middle East, just a short 5 1/2 flight from Qatar. It is a Buddhist country, but is home to many cultures, ethnicities and languages. It is famous for its production of cinnamon, rubber and tea. It is a developing country.
Once you arrive
You must obtain a visa to visit Sri Lanka. If you are not from a SAARC country, the fee to obtain a visa prior to arrival is $35 USD. You can apply here. You can also obtain a visa on arrival. Before going to the Immigration window and standing in that long line for nothing (like I did), look for a small window that says visa, go there. Show your passport and pay $40 or 15800 Sri Lankan Rupees (SLR) That’s what they charged us even though online it says $35 for a tourist visa. Note that you are required to pay in USD. The following countries and categories are exempt from the visa requirement:
The Republic of Singapore.
The Republic of Maldives.
The Republic of Seychelles
Crew members of flight / ship
Children under 12 years of age
After you get your visa and proceed through immigration (the agents are not very nice btw, sort of like the government workers in the USA), it’s probably a good idea to purchase a sim card. They are pretty reasonably priced in the airport and they will set it up for you. Mine worked very well, the entire time I was in Sri Lanka and I had great wifi.
The Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) is its’ official currency. One LKR is approximately 0.005 USD and 0.020 QR. USD can go very far there. Some places accept USD but many do not. We exchanged some QR for LKR before we went but found out very fast how very fast the money goes. To help you better understand let’s go back to the visa price above. In LKR, one visa was 15800. (In the picture above, my husband is holding 10300 LKR) Now double that for two visas, and that’s quite a lot of money to carry around and that is just for one transaction. You would have to carry around quite a lot of paper if you intend on using cash for everything. Of course, you could use credit/debit cards. We used our debit card quite a lot at the ATM and accumulated too many withdrawal fees. Every time we took money out, we were charged between 200-400 LKR or $4-$8 USD. This is a pretty big chunk and remember you can only withdrawal so much each time.
Pay for what you can in advance, before even going, eg… hotels, drivers, excursions. This way you decrease the amount of cash you have to carry.
Find a bank/ATM that you can withdraw large portions of LKR with a minimal ATM fee. Halfway through our vacation we found Hatton bank that allowed us to withdraw double the amount that Commercial bank did and with half the ATM fees.
Use credit/debit card rather than cash in as many places as possible but check your bank for international transaction fees first.
Carry USD to use when possible and to exchange while there because you will get more bang for your buck.
I DO NOT recommend driving in Sri Lanka. It’s crazy. I think I only saw 3 traffic lights in the entire 9 days that we were there and we moved around quite a lot. A few times I thought, ‘this is it’, because we were almost run off the road. They also drive on the opposite side of the street of Qatar and the U.S. One day we were in Ella, Ella is very mountainous, and it rained so hard, we had to dodge mudslides.
We had a driver. His name is Rifaan. Here is his contact information: Coconuttaxitours.com, instagram: coconut_taxi_tours, #+94716285486. He was an excellent driver. He stuck with us for the entire trip, offering suggestions of places to go, where to eat and translating . He even invited us to his home to meet his family whom cooked us a wonderful Sri Lankan dinner. He booked all of our rooms, which is better as natives get better rates, and made purchases for us. I felt completely safe with him. Call him for anything Sri Lanka related. Thank me later.
There is many things to see and do in Sri Lanka and several things to consider. When packing keep in mind that you must be modest when entering Temples. You can not wear a head covering of any type and your shoulders and knees should be covered. When visiting mosques, your head must be covered as well as your knees and shoulders. Long comfortable pants and a scarf should be your staple. In most places, people remove their shoes.
You will have to pay a fee when visiting most sites, the prices ranged from 600 to 5500 LKR. The fees for locals are way less. The Fee to climb Lion Rock is $30. The fee to climb Piturangala was only $3. That is one of the reasons we chose to climb Piturangala instead. Both offer great views but I can only speak about the climb to Piturangala. (You can read about it by clicking here) Maybe one day I’ll go back and climb the other and make comparisons. Better yet, if you’ve climbed both or either, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave them in the comments area.
If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka and climbing one of the famous sites, be sure to pack hiking boots or good old sneakers. If you plan on hiking in the early or late hours to catch a sunrise or sunset, take a flash light with you. The paths were generally dark even though there were lightbulbs, none were on and we couldn’t see our way. Thank God for cell phones. Take some extra water too. I love to watch new days begin and end, so I like to hike during those times. It has been my experience that hiking before sunset is usually less crowded.
If you plan to see the 9 Arch Bridge try to time your visit when the train comes. Then stay after the train passes, when most tourist start to leave. After the train passed, I left and then halfway away from the Bridge, I noticed that most people had left as well and I could have taken better pictures had I waited them out.
The train ride to Ella is a must do. From what I’ve heard, it is very difficult to get tickets, easier if you know a local that can get them for you off the black market. We were in 3rd class and we lucked up because you can sit at tables with windows in 3rd class or choose to hang out the door but you’ll still have a seat. Second class was over crowded and we met a family who was in 2nd class that had to stand for 4 hours. I can’t speak for first class. Third class also comes with friends, roaches. Right after we ate our food, they started appearing everywhere. It grossed me out, thank goodness we didn’t have far to go and our driver had our luggage in his car. Other than the roaches, it was a very delightful ride.
I highly suggest researching accommodations on several booking websites before actually booking rooms. Pictures can be deceiving. We stayed in a variety of places, from a couple of homestays to a shitty room, to 4 star resorts. Our driver booked our rooms and for the most part they were okay but if I go again, I will be sure to pick my own, take his thoughts into consideration, and have the final say.
The rooms in homestays are pretty big in Sri Lanka but the homes themselves lack tlc. Of course, some are better than others. But if you are on a tight budget, homestays are the way to go. Some cost as little as $10 a night and most include breakfast. Also don’t be fooled by a number of stars. I’ve learned through traveling that 5 stars around the world have different standards than the U.S.
If you stay in Sigiriya, I recommend, Hotel Sigiriya for a mid range budget. The rooms are adequate with good A.C., hot water, comfy beds and nice bathrooms. They have a good breakfast buffet, a great view of Lion Rock, a beautiful pool and is in the perfect location. You may even see an elephant walking around. You are sure to see monkeys but watch your food around the pool.
For a wonderful time in Mirissa, stay at Imagine Villa Resort for a mid range budget. The rooms are large with good A.C., hot water, comfy beds, nice bathrooms, sitting area and balcony. The grounds offer a big pool, beach and pretty good cooks too.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful country. If you travel around, you can see rainforest, jungle, tea plantations, the beach and mountains. On the other hand, you will also see people dumping or burning their trash on the side of the road. You may see men urinating in the streets. You will see animals living very close to people, some free and roaming, others in chains. There is A LOT of bugs, from ants, small to giant roaches, to spiders and some other things that I didn’t recognize. The weather was great when I visited in late December with a fair amount of rain. The people seem genuinely nice but manners are different than what I’m used to. They do stare unapologetically. There are so many things to do and see in Sri Lanka. After 9 days, we were Templed out though; they are everywhere. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check a few out though, they are beautiful. If you are considering a trip to Sri Lanka, definitely go. If you’ve already been, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
It feels like this school year should be further along than what it actually is. Between all the packing and unpacking and repacking and re-unpacking and moving to a new school building and shifting classrooms and constant changes this school year feels infinite. Thank God, winter break is just two weeks away. But outside of work, it seems the flashy newness of my host country is wearing off and after two and a half years I’ve settled in. So now what… Well I’ve started checking things off of my ‘Things to Do Before I leave Qatar’ list. This doesn’t mean that I’m leaving tomorrow, because I have signed on for another year, but next year may be my last for several reasons unless there is a major change in my position, because a change is overdue.
For our anniversary this year, Darryl and I stayed at the famous Torch hotel and had dinner at Restaurant 360. It rotates so you get a full view of Doha. The hotel is very nice. The rooms are all powered through the Ipad and you can set the mood in the room by changing the color of the lights. The food at the restaurant was delicious but the service was slow. However the view was great.
For his birthday, I took him to Nobu- a well recognized Japanese restaurant. Although the lightening of the interior is a bit darker than my taste, the food is amazing. I could not resist the Black Cod Yuzu Miso dish, so my fake veganism re-appeared.
Last week we went to see Creed II in the Seven Star Novo Theatre in Souq Wakif. It is very similar to a First Class Flight on Qatar Airways with reclining leather seats and partner pods. You even get a blanket and satin covered pillow. We received a welcome non alcoholic drink upon arrival and ordered some food that was bought to our seats. Had I known, this movie theatre was so luxurious, I would have dressed better. Oh the movie wasn’t half bad either.
A few days ago, my girlfriends and I made a visit to the beach that is literally down the street from my house. We had a small picnic and some girl talk. It was the first time I actually sat on this beach and I’ve been in my flat for 6months. There was a nice amount of people there enjoying the cool weather and I decided that I’d frequent Al Wakra beach more often. Besides, I always wanted to live near the beach.
Over the weekend, Darryl and I along with another couple (Britney and Quahn) went Kayaking in the Mangroves of Al Khor. I didn’t know kayaking was so much work. But it was nice to be out on the water, and for a little while, I felt like I was on vacation.
I don’t know how much longer I will be in Qatar; I’m thinking 1-2 additional years Max depending on the situation. But before I leave there are still a few more things on my list that I plan to do before I go because once I leave here, I don’t plan on returning. In the meantime, I’m off to see another part of the world. Nine Days in Sri Lanka, coming right up. Stay Tuned…
I’ve cruised before but this was my first time cruising with Carnival and here’s my observations.
On June 2, 2018, my oldest son graduated from high school and I took him on his first cruise as his gift. I also took my niece and her girlfriend along with us as they had recently graduated college. We boarded the huge Carnival Horizon on June 5 anticipating 8 days of fun in the open water. The first few days of sailing were at ‘at sea’ days as we made our way to the Caribbean from New York. These days were spent by the pool, drinking, eating, enjoying and participating in shows, partying, relaxing, walking around the ship and taking photo shoots, enjoying Zumba on the deck, late nights in the jacuzzi, watching movies on the big screen under the stars, watching sunsets and spending time together.
On our second day at sea we got some unfortunate news. One of the passengers suffered a heart attack and we had to turn back and sail toward North Carolina to meet the Coast Guard to air lift the passenger to land. Due to this, we lost a day of traveling and had to miss one our port of calls- Turks and Caicos. This was very disappointing because I had never been to Turks and Caicos and was really looking forward to it. Even worse is the fact that Carnival did not give us anything in its place except a 20% discount voucher to cruise with them again. So we made the best of our extra day at sea by exploring the ship. Zamir rode the sky ride that I chickened out of at the last minute after seeing another lady having to be rescued once she got scared after starting the ride. I was not about to be embarrassed like here.
We did make it to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Zamir and I decided to explore on our own. We happened upon a beach and spent some time there. Then we enjoyed a tasty treat and walked around the cobblestoned streets of San Juan where we took some fab pictures and purchased souvenirs.
Our last port of call was Dominican Republic. This was the highlight of our cruise. We did the Big 3 excursion: Thrill bus ride, zip line, and beach. The zip lining was amazing and so much fun. There was the possibility that I would have a panic attack and chicken out but I was not about to do that. I’ve wanted to zip line for a long time, so I just thought about the fun I was going to have and went for it. As I climbed higher up the steps toward the first zip line, my heart began to beat so loudly, I thought others in the line would hear. I was not quiet about being nervous and everyone was cheering me on, so I strapped on, watched my son zip across the trees, leaned back and went for it. As my heart dropped a little, I allowed myself to enjoy the ride. I opened my eyes and felt the wind breeze over my body. Then it was over. I DID IT and it was fun. I was ready for the next one and even more excited for the bigger zip line straight across the ocean. The last time I let go of fear and enjoyed a thrill was last year on my cruise with my husband to Cuba. We jet-skiied in Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas. I’m beginning to see a pattern here. Anyway after the 3rd zip line, we did a sky course (obstacle course in the sky)- this was very fun too- then the last two zip lines were back over the ocean and over the trees to the beach. I had a stiff drink after that and enjoyed some time by the ocean. I’m still upset that we didn’t get a picture on the actual zip line but here are some pictures of the zip line itself and of D.R.
We met some lovely friends on this excursion and partied with them for the remainder of the cruise
After zip lining, I was feeling extra pumped so when we got back to the cruise, I decided to go all in and ride the skyride. I literally pedaled a bike on the edge of a cruise ship over the ocean. I chuckled just thinking about it. Then we conquered the ships sky course (obstacle course high above the cruise).
My son and I really enjoyed the cruise and did some bonding. We went clubbing together and I saw him intoxicated smh. We played some adult games together with a team and even won a small trophy at a trivia game. We weren’t ready to return home.
I’ve cruised before but this was my first time cruising with Carnival and here’s my observations. Carnival is a party cruise line. There is always something to do for everyone. However, their customer service does not even compare to Norwegian. I had several problems with my meals including waiting over an hour on several days in the main dining hall to eat and finding a bug in my food. Carnival nickel and dimes you. There were so many extra charges for this and that, it was kind of ridiculous. By the time the cruise was over, I had spend an additional 600+ for my son and I. My suggestions, if you plan on going on the Carnival Horizon: pay attention to the fine print, plan for additional fees including a service and tax fee at the end of the cruise for 120+ pp, don’t expect too much from the food service, get to know the managers on board, make friends early (for several reasons), indulge in the activities, and shows, wear knee length shorts or pants if you plan to zip line, be sure to participate in the Carnival Quest game (18 years old and up) and go to the lip sync battle. The Carnival Quest game is a must do! And by all means, have fun, try something new, YOLO!!
Here is some video footage of some of the shows we enjoyed..
Since I would be traveling alone back to Philly, I was looking for an in-between place to stop to break up that 12.5 hour straight flight. This was my first time traveling alone internationally and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. Is it safe? What if I got lost? Would it be fun? What if…? What if…? Then I remembered a quote:
So I started thinking about the positives that would come out of this. I could eat all the vegan food I wanted without compromise or hearing complaints. I could go where and when I wanted. If I felt like doing nothing, I could, because it was only me. Finally, when was the last time I was alone?
It was when I stumbled across a picture of the little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen that I decided this would be my stopover. The Little Mermaid is my favorite Disney movie of all time. My connection to the movie has a lot to do with my sheltered child hood and how I longed to be a part of ‘their world’. I felt everything Ariel did when she sang that song, Part of Your World.
My plan of what I would do there started by researching what the city is known for: World’s Oldest Amusement Park – Bakken, Cycling, Shopping Avenues and Beautiful Gardens. That’s nice but I wanted to see my statue (of course), some pretty scenery (overdue from Qatar), Christiania (something different) and whatever else I stumbled across. Oh, let me not forget, EAT! Before I went, I purchased a Hop On Hop Off Pass and a Copenhagen Card. With these two purchases, I could tour the city, have transportation to major areas and have free admissions to a variety of places. I booked my hotel room at Wakeup Copenhagen, a budget hotel in central Copenhagen close to popular sights. I made sure I had ‘The Happy Cow’ app downloaded (for vegan restaurants), as well as ‘google maps’, and ‘From Rome to Rio’ for getting around and ‘Unit Converter’ to check on my spending. I was ready.
The Hop on Hop off bus Pass was the best choice for Copenhagen. With it, I was able to basically travel all over and since they don’t have uber it was perfect. I found Copenhagen to be a great city for solo travelers. I felt very safe and there is a lot to see and do, even for vegans.
They have this thing called brunch for vegans. I enjoyed the brunch at each of these three vegan restaurants: 42º Raw, SimpleRaw and Souls. Their apple ginger shots are amazing.
There are several castles there. I even took a 40 minute train ride to see Hamlet’s castle. It’s the last castle in the pictures below and my favorite. It was worth it to take the train ride in the rain alone.
It’s a pretty city too and they are big on sustainability as evident in their green roofs and bikes. There are more bikes in Copenhagen than cars.
I put out a bat signal on Nomadness travel group to see if anyone was in Copenhagen and wanted to show me around. A fellow group member named Michael was kind enough to meet up with me. He even accompanied me to FreeTown Christiania before it was raided and pusher street got closed. In fact, the police showed up while we were there. It was a very interesting experience. I recommend you stop by there if you’re ever in Copenhagen.
Michael even took me to and shared the background on the ‘I Am Queen Mary‘ statue.
And during my travels all around Copenhagen I managed to find these gems, which made this trip dear to my heart and one of my favorite trips ever.
There were a few things that I didn’t get to do like Tivoli Gardens and shopping due to a flight delay that threw a monkey wrench in my plans, caused me to stay an additional day in Copenhagen some place else and cost me unexpected money. It also rained a lot but I didn’t mind that since I haven’t seen rain in almost a year. Besides these, I really enjoyed Copenhagen and solo travel.
Highlights: Kronberg and Rosenburg castles, The Lock Bridge Nyhavn, ginger shots, Ride a bike around town, vegan eating, Freetown, The Queen Mary statue and background, canal tour, People waiting for the traffic lights even when there are no cars in sight, Karlsberg beer, Mermaids