Update #5 – Part 1: Bali, Baby! ... + Cairns & the Great Barrier Reef

 Bali

 So, I took myself to Bali.

 I flew there, and the overnight flight was beyond cold.

 I’ve been on many cold flights. This was an icebox. I was wearing two sweaters, jeans, and boots, and woke up to find my fingers number and the tip of my nose ice cold. There were more kids on this flight than I think I’ve ever seen on a flight; I kept wondering if they were as cold as I was.

 Thankfully, we’d all be at the beach soon, so that thought comforted me through my suffering.

 We finally landed in Denpasar, the capital city of Bali. I was thrilled to get a new stamp in my passport.

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 I was there a few days before Seclusion Day/Hindi New Year on March 7. It was a good thing I left before then, because there weren’t any flights out of Bali on Seclusion Day and you could not check in or out of hotels on this day. (I should’ve learned my lesson from being in Vietnam on Lunar New Year and most things being closed; I’ve really got to get better about checking if there’s a religious holiday going on before traveling to a locale.)

*

I’ve always wanted to go to Bali. (Well, “always,” since about 2008, when I read the book Eat Pray Love, in which Elizabeth Gilbert goes to Bali. She made it sound so lovely and beautiful there.) On the first half of this trip in Australia, I met a few people who’d recently visited Bali and kept raving about it. My friend Shannon mentioned over lunch in Melbourne that it’s a very easy flight to Bali from northern Australia, where I’d be, in Darwin. I thought: when again will I be that close to Indonesia?

So, I booked myself a flight and that was that.

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 Aussies kept telling me that Bali was comparable to, say, how Americans go to Mexico for vacations, in that it’s an accessible and relatively inexpensive and an easy vacation to take. My Outback tour guide, when I told him I was going, said: “Why would you want to go to Bali?” He explained that he’d been there half a dozen times with friends over the years. Well some of us haven’t, okay? 

*

I'd been staying at hostels since January 31, so I upgraded and splurged on a nice hotel in Bali.

Total oasis.

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There, I found myself saying things like:

“Which way to the sunrise yoga on the beach?” 

“Does the pancake bar have Nutella?”

“Can I please change my order of kale juice to fresh mango juice instead? Oh, and a side of fries. Thank you.”

Everyone who worked there was very nice, and I was treated like a Queen.

 80% of Bali’s economy comes from tourism. While taking a cab from the airport, it was hard not to notice the abject poverty of a few neighborhood we drove through. I realize that in going there, I am part of the problem, in that places like hotels continue to generate high profits, whereas people who more so need the money likely remain in hardship.

This all 100% anecdotal (minus the 80% figure, which I looked it up); it just strikes me whenever I go somewhere how great the economic disparity is almost everywhere (especially in the U.S., where the economic gap between the poor and wealthy continues to grow, and the existence of a middle class has been on a slow decline for decades).

*

 I did extremely little in Bali. No tours taken, no new friends made, no Outback desert flies enthusiastically killed.

 (Speaking of deaths, I was so sad to hear about Luke Perry. I learned of the news in Bali.)

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Mostly, I just hung out on Sanur Beach and enjoyed the hotel, and did cannon balls (okay, just one) into the hotel swimming pool.

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I also read my book and got some work done and worked on my non-existent tan / sun burn.

With me, I brought a book by an English comedienne I really like named Miranda Hart. The book’s called Is It Just Me?

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In Chapter 11, “Holidays,” she writes about taking vacations:

“So, here is the thing, My Dear Reader Chum – I love, love, love a holiday. Holidays are very important to me. Not because I’m some kind of pleasure-scoffing, layabout luxury-hound; I am quite the opposite, in fact. I am a fretter: a fretter and a fixer and a worrier – always have been.

If I wake up in the middle of the night I find it nigh-on impossible not to pop down to the kitchen for a quick peek at the laminated To Do list on the fridge (stuck firmly on the with a novelty magnet – currently a small plastic broccoli floret, thank you) which can then lead to my spending half the night cleaning out the downstairs cupboard, putting DVDs back in their right boxes, checking my insurance policies and doing a spreadsheet for the next eight months of work. In short, I find it very difficult to switch off. The only way to silence my inner fretter is to take it somewhere unarguably on holiday.”

 Save for the lamination, DVDs, and broccoli magnet, I identified with this bit above greatly. That’s not a humble brag about productivity, but rather, an admission of obsession.

I, too, find it very difficult to switch off. (I think this is a very common problem.)

In general, this trip – the trip on the whole, not just the one to Bali – has helped to quiet that obsession, and has helped me to try to be a bit more “present” and relaxed as well.

I have always had a fairly obnoxious attachment to my self-view as someone who is productive, on-the-go, and hard-working. I know these are all good traits in general; but when they tend to consume you, they ain’t so good.

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Viewing oneself as infallible when it comes to not working hard or not being on top of things leads to a lot of stress, crippling perfectionism, harsh self-judgment (which, of course, leads to judging others, usually), and inevitably, burnout.

Cognitively, I know that I’ll be more effective and focused towards things I’m trying for if I’m rested, relaxed, and prioritizing wellness. That said, I’ve often had difficulty putting those things in place.

(There was a great article written about millennial burnout by Helen Ann Peterson for Buzzfeed. My friend Chinwe sent it to me; highly recommend. Article is linked here. Warning: It is very long. Not unlike this update!)

I still remember how, as a kid, my brother and sister would be watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, and I’d decline, thinking of all the “work” I had to do. Man, I have gotta get going on these tasks today or they’ll never get done.

The work, of course, was nominal, amounting to maybe one vocabulary worksheet, a few math problems, and my self-imposed task of cleaning my room.

Sometimes, on Sundays after church, my friends would invite me to come over to their house to play or watch a movie. I can remember on more than one occasion declining because I’d rather get my homework done than play. And when I was in middle school, the old Blues hockey arena was being imploded and it was a big to-do and a bunch of people, including my extended family, went out to watch it. I stayed home to finish a poetry project for English class. 

St. Louis Arena, St. Louis, MO, U.S.A.

St. Louis Arena, St. Louis, MO, U.S.A.

Anyways, you get the picture.

For most of my growing up period, I tended to view doing well in school and having fun/enjoying myself as two mutually exclusive entities. It makes me a bit sad to think about that now; I wish I would’ve just lightened up and enjoyed things more. (All this said, any perceived lack of fun from my school days I've made up for heartily in the past 10 years. At times, too much so.)

This is all to say, I’m trying to do more of that now – relaxing on things a bit (while, of course, still getting my work done too – just obsessing over it a bit less). This trip has helped me to do that, and to put things into perspective.

In Bali, I was able to mostly do that (while still checking my email, because at this point, it is probably a clinical compulsion). Next vacation I take though, I’m going to challenge myself to do absolutely nothing, save for the occasional book read or film watched. I love challenges, so here’s hoping I’ll rise to that one.

 *

 The restaurants at the hotel were fantastic.

I ate most meals at the different restaurants with the Miranda Hart book in tow. It was great. I’ve never fully understood people’s aversion to, or discomfort about, eating alone in restaurants. Of course, I empathize with it; who wants to feel uncomfortable when they eat?

And, I realize I sound like a cyborg trying to understand human emotion is saying this…I’m told by my friends who have eaten alone in restaurants and hated it that they feel uncomfortable and stared at. (“Let ‘em stare!” I say to them. Just kidding, I don’t say that. Instead, I helpfully education them on a psychological term called “the Spotlight Effect” – just kidding, I don’t tell them about that either; that’d be annoying and obnoxious. I just nod and listen and say: “I’m sure it wasn’t THAT bad; eating out alone is fun! But I feel your pain and I am here for you always…” 

Anyways, the Spotlight Effect.

 From Psychology Today“The "spotlight effect" refers to the tendency to think that more people notice something about you than they do. Dozens of studies in social psychology have supported this phenomenon.”

So, if ever you want to go out to eat at a restaurant by yourself and feel hesitancy, just think of the Spotlight Effect, and think of the countless tables I’ve christened with my elbows and my book in hand while eating a giant bowl of pasta in silence. It’s honestly really great. Try it sometime. 

I don't have a picture of me eating alone, so here's one of Angelina Jolie reading at a table alone at a restaurant in Paris to inspire you:

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*

Have you ever seen the movie Daddy’s Home 2, starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg? Well, don’t.

NOPE.

NOPE.

I actually didn’t hate the first one, Daddy’s Home, so I decided to watch a bit of the second when it was on HBO at the hotel. It was so bad, and the sight of Mel Gibson (who played Mark Wahlberg’s father) was even worse. I had to switch to something else. I opted for the 2015 Disney live action film of Cinderella starring Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter, and Cate Blanchett. It was a critical and commercial success, and was nominated for an Oscar for costume design. I've seen it like 10 times.

I say all this to spare you from a possible future viewing of Daddy’s Home 2, and in hopes of you getting to see Cinderella.  

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*

 Leaving Bali, there was absolute pandemonium at the airport as the Jet Star computer system was down. I, along with hundreds of others, was meant to be on a Jet Star flight that evening.

 So, when the system was finally up and running again, it was a mad dash for everyone to check in and make their flights (which likely would’ve been held anyways).

One fellow passenger thought I’d asked where gate 6A was (but I asked about 6B), and when I was heading in – what he thought was the wrong direction, he grabbed the handle on the backpack I was wearing, pulled on it, and said with a panic:

“6A is this way! If we run, we can make it!”

Babe, that’s all you. Bon voyage!

I was grateful for the thoughtful help, but not so much for being grabbed and pulled.

Cairns

Having long ago shed any shred of self-consciousness about sleeping in public, I awoke dreamily, in the Cairns International Airport and looked at my watch:

6am.

 I was glad to have caught an hour's rest at the airport when I landed there at 5am. I found a random table by the luggage carousel and buried my head in my neck pillow and didn’t look back (because I was already asleep).

 It was too early to check into my hostel, and this being Australia and not New York City, likely nothing would be open at that hour except the coffee shop in the airport. So, I posted up at the airport for a while, and enjoyed a few lattes and the free wifi and knocked out some work from my growing queue. 

*

 Cairns is where the Great Barrier Reef is. If you have any desire to go, I recommend going soon. The GBR, as a result of climate change, is losing its luster at some spots, and suffering wide-ranging effects of climate change.

As a kid, I remember hearing about the GBR and so I put it on my travel list as a place I wanted to visit one day, not really understanding its appeal or knowing anything about it, just knowing that it was a place that was well-known, and perhaps for good reason.

It was stunning and didn’t disappoint.

As the poster in my hostel said of the GBR:

"They don't call it GREAT for nothin'!"

*

 At my hostel in Cairns, Giligan’s, I bunked with two women from Bristol, England. Margaret, age 50 and a mother of two, works as a nurse for the NHS. Chloe, who was traveling with her, age 25, is her co-worker at the NHS. They’re starting off in Cairns together then each traveling solo for 3 weeks and 2 months, respectively.

 Chloe asked me if I had heard of Brexit. 

I stifled any kind of flippant response (“of course I’ve heard of it; just because I’m American that doesn’t give you license to assume I’m some kind of clueless rube…”) and instead said:

“Yes, I have.”

We talked about it a bit.

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As you may know (and as the UK-based readers will certainly know), the day of reckoning – or, the official exit day – is fast approaching on March 29.

March 29 marks the two-year anniversary of when PM Theresa May triggered Article 50 to formally start the withdrawal promise of the UK from the EU.

The ongoing No Deal and trade and travel mess is “shambolic,” in the words of my friend Scott, who lives in London. It’ll be interesting (and probably quite depressing) to see how everything plays out.

At present, one of the biggest issues has to do with Ireland and Northern Ireland and their borders. (A good article from The Atlantic detailing this issue can be found here.) As most know, the Republic of Ireland is part of the EU, where as Northern Ireland is part of the UK, which is soon to be leaving the EU. (In French news media, it is being reported as a “divorce,” which I find kind of amusing. Those French, am I right? Side note to French readers: You know you are citizens of my favorite country, and I’d never genuinely besmirch your name!)

Back to Brexit:

 There is no hard border there – between Ireland and Northern Ireland – and it has been as such since the ending of the Troubles. A hard, enforced border – which is a potential outcome of Brexit – would mean an end to free trade, transit, and could lead to massive immigration problems.

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*

The next day, I woke up to find Chloe and Margaret gone, and in one of their beds was a woman from Canada. She was already awake and tapping and scrolling on her iPhone. She, I found, is one of those people who finds in necessary to basically scream while talking. (Though perhaps she’s hard of hearing and can’t control it, so I should be more sympathetic to that possibility.)

8am, minutes after I awoke, she said (very loudly):

“SO, I HEARD YOU’RE, LIKE, A FAMOUS WRITER.”

(Chloe and Margaret must’ve mentioned to her that I write, as I’d told them yesterday.)

Definitely not famous,” I said.

I gathered my toothbrush and toiletries for the bathroom. 

“I HEARD YOU’RE FROM THE U.S.?”

“Yes, I’m from Missouri.”

Anne, be polite.

So, I added:

“And…you?”

“CALGARY, CANADA.” 

“Nice, I like Canada.”

Polite, silent exit.

End scene. (Thankfully)

The Great Barrier Reef

 The Great Barrier Reef is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It is also valued by the Australian government at 58 billion dollars (AUD).

To me, these two things seem contradictory: How can one commoditize and assign a numerical value to a “natural” wonder?

Anyways, the government assigned this value to it based on the wildlife there and the tourism dollars the GBR draws.

The day of my scheduled snorkeling tour, thunderstorms were forecasted. Great!

When I awoke for my 9am shuttle pick-up, there was nary a cloud in the sky. “Irish eyes were smiling, sure 'tis like a morn in spring…” as the song goes. It remained clear and sunny all day. For that I was grateful.

The night before the tour, I received an email saying our tour would be provided by a different tour operator than the one I originally booked. Turned out, the new operator’s tour cost was DOUBLE of what I paid, yet there was no upcharge, having previously booked the other one. What a win, right? Steak lunch, baby! Literally – we were served a steak lunch. And morning tea and afternoon wine.

While riding on the shuttle, the realization dawned on me, as I thought of how happy I’d be at the END of the day that I would’ve then have swam in the Great Barrier Reef, I thought: Oh no. I actually have to, like, do it.

 I’ve never been much one for ocean swimming. (Jaws, and all.)

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*

When the shuttle driver dropped us off at the harbor, he asked me:

  “Do you know where you’re going?”

“Yes, thank you,” I said.

 “I wish I knew where I was going,” he said with a sigh and a smile. Oh, how we laughed! (ß Katie M., that one’s for you.)

*

 I was lucky to meet new friends on this tour. I sat at a table with a woman named Jen during morning tea, seeing she was by herself, looked to be my age, and looked like a nice person (yes, you really can tell just by looking at a person sometimes!). 

Jen is from Vancouver and works for a fancy Canadian department store. Last year, her sales numbered 1 million dollars!! What a star. And she works on commission, too – not too shabby. She owns her own home and has a very cute niece who she dutifully spoils, like a good aunt. She has traveled across the Globe and is next going to Japan, I believe. She aims to go one new place every year.

In the a.m., we watched a presentation from a marine biologist, who told us about the reef and the creatures in it.

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 “Don’t worry about sharks out here,” the biologist said. “You won’t see any. Because they’ll always come up from behind you! Hahaha!”

She told us: “The movie Finding Nemo was surprisingly very accurate except for one big thing: When Nemo’s mom got eaten at the beginning, Nemo’s dad would’ve become a female, or would’ve eaten Nemo. And that would’ve made for a very different movie!”

We learned about various types of coral. We learned that it’s often named for how it looks, so if you don’t know what kind it is, you can just assign a name to it and you’re likely right. For instance, what would you call this type of coral? Looks like a brain, right? Answer: It’s brain coral.

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*

The wetsuits we wore to protect ourselves from stingrays and jelly fish (sharks – no deterrent, you’re on your own!) were still wet and smelled like 10-day old mold. Sound appealing? They weren’t! Here’s me in mine:

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I jumped off the ship, fully gear-ed up, and began to swim, with a low level of – but still very prominent amount of – anxiety about swimming in the ocean. 

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As I swam through the uneventful salty waters, I thought:

I can’t believe I paid all this money to come out here and to swim in some murky water in a stinky wetsuit and I haven’t even seen a da–“

Suddenly, below me, a huge reef of coral popped up and there were vibrant purples and blues and greens, and all the colors looked brilliant. Like, they weren’t just your regular old purples or blues or greens, they had like a glowy shine to them, and were as bright as if they’d been colored over with highlighter markers. 

It looked a bit like this:

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 I saw a huge school of big fish – 26, I counted. I swam slowly through them; it was so creepy, and also wonderful, to be so close. Here's what those ones looked like:

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 I saw tiny minnow-sized fish; there must’ve been hundreds. I saw tons of gorgeously colored fishes; I never knew fishes could look so beautiful.

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 A woman nearby popped her head up after free diving to tell me: “I found some ‘Finding Nemo’ fish [aka “clown fish] in that amoeba down below if you want to see!”

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I did not follow her, as our guides recommended we not free dive. And, when it comes to matters of safety, I am an ardent follower of rules. (In other areas of life…not so much.)

I saw lots of “Dory fish” like in Finding Nemo. (The oddly shaped blue ones.)

I was sad to not see any turtles, my favorite animal. But who’s to stop me from lying about it to other people? Well, if it weren’t for my crushing Catholic guilt and how vomitous I feel whenever I tell a lie, I’d just tell everybody up top:

“Oh, yeah, I saw a BOATLOAD of sea turtles swimming together! I know, I couldn’t believe it either! (How, in fact, are you? Believing it, that is. As I gather that, out here, one generally see them by the one’s…)

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One of the turtles even took me for a ride on their back! Then a bunch of mermaids* came up and started chatting with me; we started singing songs from Dear Evan Hansen together… I know. What a story! One might even say a tale tale, as a matter of fact..

Sorry, I think I need to go to the toilet. I might be sick.”

-

*When I moved to NYC in 2015, I was happily roped into attending – and marching in – the famous Coney Island Mermaid Parade by my friend Gabe. My friend Alex makes incredible themed group costumes for us every year. We were even featured in Cosmo magazine one year for our costume! Here’s my favorite one we’ve done; it was from 2017 and the theme was The Wizard of Oz. I was the rainbow: 

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Here’s last year’s (which I also loved). The theme was Tim Burton movies. I was a pink-hair Willy-Wonka:

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*

Pink-be-wigged Willy Wonka – aka me – heard the whistle from ship deck, and I knew that was the signal to return. So, I headed back to the boat. En route, navigating the best way to go, I thought to self:

Let’s see, if I turn left at the piece of purple coral, then hang a sharp right at that rock shaped like Hulk Hogan, then I just…

*

I arrived back on ship. Jen and I recounted to each other what we’d seen as I began to, again, feel seasick. I put my head on the table and raised it when I heard: “Sorry to be annoying, but do you mind if I join you guys?”

A fellow solo traveler, Robert, sat down.

“What’s your name?” he asked us.  

“I’m Anne. And you’re Robert Taylor!”

He was taken aback.

“I remember because they called your name on the microphone this morning when you lost your credit card and went up to get it. Are you impressed I remembered your name?” Prompted compliments – often effective! 

“Yes!” he laughed.

Robert had recently landed in Cairns from Calcutta, where he’d been working for three months doing financial consulting. Next, he’s headed to Capetown. He’s based in LA and originally from Boston. Robert has no social media accounts. It’s like meeting someone from another planet; absolutely fascinating. 

On traveling in India, he said: “I learned to stop questioning everything I saw, because if I did, it’d drive me crazy. So I just took it all in.”

 Great travel ethos.

Robert, who is a third (his father and grandfather are both Robert), is trying to cultivate a nickname for himself of “Third.”

When he told me this, I deadpanned: “I’m not calling you Third. 

We agreed that trying to make your own preferred nickname is an uphill battle. Like when Ross on Friends tried to get people to call him “The Rossatron.”

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*Here we all are are – Robert, Jen, and I – looking like a United Colors of Benetton ad, or the front page of a college brochure.

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(BTW, speaking of college brochures, how about that college admissions scandal, eh? I’m so disappointed about Felicity Huffman. I’ve always liked her.)

 It was before that picture was taken that I felt really seasick. But as they say in the theater, THE SHOW MUST GO ON! Or: Let’s take a picture to show how much fun we’re having to project a desired (and in this case, somewhat falsified, as I felt ill) image to our social media followers! (Minus Robert’s, as he has none.)

 So, I put on a happy face.

In the evening, the three of us ate dinner together at a very shi-shi seafood restaurant at the harbor called Salt. The service was terrible, the food was tremendous. I ordered the salmon.

*

While waiting for a bus to take me from Cairns to Townsville, I was fiddling with my 80-gallon backpacking backpack, looking at all the straps and adjusting them.

I figured out an adjustment which radically improved the comfort level of the backpack; and I was like:

I’VE BEEN GOING 6 WEEKS WITHOUT KNOWING THIS FIX EXISTED?

Then I was like: What other minor adjustments throughout life am I completely oblivious to that would radically improve my life?

Suggestions welcome! (Unless your suggestion is don’t send 20 page emails to your friends, because I really enjoy sending them. No joke, these email updates literally take me hours, roughly 2 – 3 to write and compile and edit, and that’s before the cumulative 2-ish hours of research / noting observations / taking photos. That’s all to say you better appreciate them!! I’m just kidding; thank you so much for reading and for taking time from your busy schedule to do so. I love having the digital company, and I hope these stories and anecdotes entertain you and make you smile.)

As a health and wellness improvement fix, probably drinking less Diet Coke, for one. (Though, I’m not oblivious to that one. And the improvement would not be “radical” in the short term.) 

On the note of Diet Coke… 

For the concerned: you’ll be very happy to know I did eventually find Diet Coke in Australia! The point of discovery was along the east coast of Australia, somewhere between Townsville and Airlie Beach, at a gas station convenience store. There, I found a row of cans of Diet Coke. The heavens opened and a choir of angels sang. I bought three cans.

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I also found this very unique version of a Starbursts candy called “Starburst babies.” The candies are shaped like little babies. They were actually quite good, despite the strange concept. They tasted like Starburst with a gummy bear consistency. 

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Townsville

I took the bus to Townsville. 

The bus ride was quite rainy. I just read a bit, then started to feel sick, then listened to a couple Sam Smith albums. #voiceofanangle

I’ve also been listening to, on repeat, “Slow Hands” by Nial Horan lately. I had mixed feeling about the band One Direction's breakup, but I'm really happy with all the directions in which they've taken their respective solo careers, especially Harry Styles & Zayne. (Niall was a member of that group.) And, as mentioned above, I've also been burning through Sam Smith's entire song catalogue. I've never been much into podcasts, but give me a male British singer with a voice of velvet and I'm all ears for hours. 

 Days. 

Years. 

Then, on the bus, I took a few pics. I call this photo series:

“Boring but beautiful bus ride through eastern Australia, punctuated by accidental picture of chips at gas station”'

You’ve seen it here first, folks. Next stop, the Guggenheim!

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To Be Continued! …