Hakuna Matata, or: how to do Zanzibar on a Peace Corps budget

Hakuna matata!

No problem!

Apparently this phrase is more than just a catchy song from The Lion King. I just got back from a much-needed vacation in Zanzibar with a couple friends, and we were surrounded by friendly Tanzanians unironically saying “Hakuna matata!” every time we turned around.

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The thing is that we actually had a lot of problems on that trip.

First off, have you ever tried to plan an international holiday while living without internet? We had to make expensive trips into town specifically to do things like researching things to do, booking a place to stay, and buying plane tickets.

Next, we spent several hours wandering the winding streets of Stone Town trying and failing to find our AirBnB, despite the best efforts of Google Maps and a lot of asking strangers for help. (Turns out there are a million places called some variation of “Stone Town Zanzibar Hotel” and ours didn’t have a sign.)

One of us immediately developed some kind of infection from a seemingly innocuous bug bite, which turned into a painfully swollen ankle and foot and orders from Peace Corps Tanzania’s doctor not to put it in the ocean—so much for our plans of spending a solid week at the beach!

The booking website for the boating outing we wanted to do had some internal glitches that resulted in several days of customer service emails to get our booking straight, and, on top of that, it turns out our phones got terrible (or no) reception everywhere in Stone Town, leaving us reliant on restaurants far out of our price range—the only places we could find good WiFi.

We were harassed everywhere we went—honestly, I have never before in my life experienced such constant, intense, intentional harassment in my life. (Shoutout to Rwandan culture for, it turns out, being much more respectful than anything we encountered in Zanzibar.) None of the tourist blogs prepared us for this (hey, anyone planning to go to Zanzibar—if you’re white and a woman, heads up for lots of catcalling).

But that constant phrase—hakuna matata—turned out to be pretty true, once we averaged all our experiences. For every problem we ran into, there was someone (or, often, multiple someones) helping us out of it. By the end of two days, we were so overwhelmed by the number of people who had put themselves out to make our lives a little easier that we began keeping a running list of daily shoutouts.

So here you go: here’s the summary, complete with what we hated (so you don’t go do that) and what we loved (so you can go do that), and daily shoutouts to the people who made our holiday great.

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Day 1:

A frenzy of picking up necessary documentation (passports, WHO cards) and changing money into Tanzanian shillings.

You might want to know: you will need to show your WHO card (proving you have a yellow-fever shot) when you get to Tanzania, and you need 100USD for a tourist visa. These things are important to remember especially if, like us, you’re going to be flying from one in the morning and landing after a mostly sleepless night.

Shoutout to: Sarah, another Peace Corps Rwanda volunteer, who was already calling a taxi for herself and did all the talking to arrange for the taxi to come back and pick us up and drive us to the airport in the middle of the night.

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Day 2:

Navigating customs through a fog of exhaustion, finding a taxi, buying SIM cards, finding the ferry, navigating more customs, walking for several hours without finding our hotel… We never did find our hotel, but we found a place to wait and we finally got hold of AirBnB customer service, who managed to get hold of the host, who sent the receptionist to find us and lead us to the correct place—it turns out the place is a block down and across the street from where Google thinks it should be based on GPS coordinates. After all that, we finally set down our bags, did some touristy wandering, and had dinner at Lukmaan’s, a place the internet had recommended and which, it turned out, was within a couple minute’s walk of our hotel.

You might want to know: waiting for the ferry felt a lot like a hellish daymare (possibly due in part to exhaustion?) and we decided the extra money required to buy VIP tickets and wait for the ferry in air conditioned comfort was definitely worth it; also you have to go through a second customs queue in Zanzibar.

Shoutout to: Adam, our taxi driver extraordinaire who not only charged us what we later discovered to be a fair rate (30USD, not the cheapest but definitely not the most expensive) from the airport to the ferry company and then, voluntarily and without asking for extra pay, walked us to the ferry office to help buy our tickets and then walked us to a phone store and did all the talking to help us get our SIM cards sorted out. (If you need a taxi in Dar es Salaam, give him a call at +255 713 671 642.)
Also shoutout to the waitresses in Zanzibar Coffee House, who taught us some Swahili, chatted with us, and let us move all our baggage from table to table for several hours while two of us at a time went out to try to find our hotel.

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Day 3:

We went back to Zanzibar Coffee for breakfast, since we liked them so much—something that became a habit during our week in Stone Town; we never found a breakfast place we liked better in terms of either the food or the prices. Then we spent hours wandering the streets, poking through art shops and curio shops. We also splashed our way down the beachfront and had drinks at the Travellers Cafe while watching the sunset—we went back to Travellers Cafe several times in the evening, despite their staff being fairly unfriendly, because the location and the cider were both nice. And, of course, we (I, anyway) spent lots of time pausing to look at/chirp at/coo at all the cats that secretly own the town.

You might want to know: the shops get cheaper and cheaper as you get farther from the fancy, touristy parts of town near the beachfront hotels. Most shopkeepers are willing to haggle over prices, and you should assume they’re quoting you half again or even double the real price when you ask how much something costs. Don’t be afraid to tell them you want to pay a very low amount and then work your way up to what feels like a comfortable price range—also, ask prices in different shops to get a feel for how much people in general are selling for. Lots of shops sell exactly the same products.

Shoutout to: the owner of a local art shop (whose name I did not get, unfortunately) who voluntarily walked us around his street and taught us interesting history about the local art and the fancy doorframes, despite our having told him we couldn’t buy anything from his shop.
Also to the guy at Shebby’s (near the Catholic church) who was the only one during our whole trip to give us the correct price for spices on our first asking him.

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Day 4:

We did more wandering, took the most unimpressive walking tour of our lives (note for next time: get a recommendation of a guide beforehand?), swam, walked the beaches, tried local street food that we don’t have in Rwanda, and had dinner at Forodhani Gardens. In the evening, it becomes a food market filled with vendors, fresh seafood, and tourists. This came highly recommended from every tourist blog we read, but we were extremely underwhelmed. We get enough brochette in Rwanda that we weren’t excited by the opportunity to try different kinds of brochette, and there wasn’t much else on offer besides shawarma—which was delicious, but didn’t make up for the lack of variety after the glowing blog reviews we’d read. In addition, we were sold a coconut that tasted rancid and were harassed and catcalled beyond our ability to handle diplomatically. Overall we came away with the impression that Forodhani caters to tourists who don’t know any better than to pay too much for street food and to accept harassment as a compliment.

You might want to know: Stone Town is by far the cheapest place to stay in Zanzibar. It’s possible to make day trips to other parts of the island from there by taxi or by public buses/dala-dala, but we mostly didn’t. While people talked up the pristine white beaches in the north and east, we were perfectly content with the beaches in Stone Town, which had the benefit of being nearly empty during the day. Shade is hard to come by after noon, since the beaches face west, but you can find shady nooks near hotel stairways. But find someone to watch your belongings, since “beach boys” often pass by looking to steal unattended stuff.

Shoutout to: the lady who sold us street food and patiently taught us the names and contents of unfamiliar foods without making us feel stupid.
Also to Samson, the security guard at Serena, who was super nice, offered to watch our stuff while we swam, and let us sit on the hotel veranda despite our being wet and clearly outclassed by all the actual hotel patrons.

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Day 5:

We got up early with the purpose of hitting the beaches while there was still some shade and spent hours swimming and reading on the sand. We all got much more sunburnt than we had hoped, but it was a successful morning nevertheless. In the afternoon, we toured the Old Dispensary, which the internet had told us was the most beautiful building in Stone Town. We decided we agreed with the internet. We also spent a long time admiring paintings in the Conservation Centre and walked along the walls of the Old Fort.

You might want to know: the Conservation Centre features art that is different from the touristy paintings that are the same in every shop. According to literature we saw there, it’s run by a group that works with local youth and artists to preserve culture. It also had signs suggesting they have live music every week (we meant to go to that and didn’t, so no review, but it looked hopeful).

Shoutout to: the white man carrying a baby on the beach who was walking by, saw some local men stopping to harass us, paused to watch pointedly until the local guys went away, and then moved on up the beach—thanks for using your position as a white male to make us feel safe.
Also shoutout to the guide at the Old Dispensary, who walked around with us, answered our questions, and took lots of photos of us when we asked him to.

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Day 6:

We had booked a trip through Safari Blue, so we got up early, had instant coffee in our room, and headed out to meet the shuttle, which took us to Fumba, where the tour began. We spent a wonderful day with a handful of other tourists (only a handful, which was great) out on a traditional boat, a dhow. We enjoyed snorkelling, lots of snacks, a delicious lunch on an island where we saw and climbed massive baobab trees, and dolphin watching.

You might want to know: I know I previously said we had trouble with booking, but the customer service was quick and friendly and extremely effective, and the shuttle was very cheap. We loved everything about the trip and thought it was a low price for great quality. Definitely do this.

Shoutout to: our hotel’s cleaning ladies, who cleaned our entire room in under ten minutes when we told them we needed to be somewhere soon and were taking the room key with us.
Also shoutout to the waiter at Lukmaan’s who initially gave us the wrong takeaway order but replaced it immediately without charging us for the (more expensive) correct order.

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Day 7:

We knew we all had specific souvenirs we wanted and also that we wanted to get the best prices possible for them, so we set out with a list and walked through just about every shop in Stone Town. After that, we had lunch at Sforno, a great place we went back to several times for their delicious pizza, ice cream, and shakes, and went swimming.

Shoutout to: the woodworker at Zanzibar Crafts Garden who happily taught us how to say teacher/teachers (walimu/mwalimu) in Swahili and was genuinely interested in our being teachers from Rwanda, despite our not buying anything from him.
Also shoutout to the salesman across from our hotel, who gave us an incredible opening price on trousers with no haggling
Also shoutout Amour Aziz at Zanzibar Souvenir Shop in Hamamni Street who quoted us a fair price from the outset, did not harass us, spoke great English, had a business card, and eventually gave us a discount on what we purchased (give him a call at +255 24 223 0930 or +255 777 432 612 if you’re looking for Zanzibar boxes).

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Day 8:

The internet told us to go to Jozani Forest and see the monkeys, so we did. This involved a bus to someplace and then a dala-dala to the forest. The bus was okay. The dala-dala was a once-in-a-lifetime experience in that we all hope never to experience it a second time. It was exactly the sort of colourful African experience we all thought we were signing up for when we moved here: a brightly-painted truck with a covered bed packed full of men and women and children and bags and, of course, us. We couldn’t so much as shift our feet or shoulders thanks to being packed in so tight. We moved down the road incredibly slowly, stopping for a solid ten or more minutes at one point to have a load of lumber put onto the top of the truck, and the ride lasted an aeon or more, in our estimation. Still, we’re glad to have tried it once. The forest was a much better experience. We had a great guide who walked us beneath creaking mahogany trees, and we saw lots and lots of red colobus monkeys. They’re used to people and at times came so close we could have touched them (we didn’t, because you’re not supposed to). We particularly liked watching the babies playing—mostly running, jumping, and knocking each other off branches.

You might want to know: the internet told us Jozani had no entrance fee and that the guides were paid on a tip basis. This, it turns out, is not true (anymore? Maybe it used to be?). We paid 10USD apiece to enter (which is cheap if you’re getting your paycheck in USD but fairly expensive when you’re being paid in RWF). We thought it was worth it, but we were not expecting it.

Shoutout to: our guide, who drove us back to Stone Town himself when we asked him to help us find a taxi.
Also to the ladies at Al Jabry restaurant, who were nice to us and served us really delicious food. Definitely go there and buy their rice.

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Day 9:

On our last full day in Stone Town, we decided to buy cheap street food and spend our money on expensive drinks. We went swimming and then bought overpriced (but delicious) coffee at Serena and drank it while reading books. We bought our last-minute souvenirs and had drinks on the rooftop at Africa House Hotel.

You might want to know: Africa House Hotel was our least favourite place in Zanzibar. We did not think the view made up for the atmosphere, which was boring, loud, and overpriced. We recommend you watch the sunset over the ocean from Travellers Cafe or one of the expensive beachfront hotels, which are at least quiet and comfortable.

Shoutout to: the woodworker at Zanzibar Craft Garden—yes, the same one—who gave us a key chain even though he said he couldn’t make the box we wanted.
Also to the woodworkers in Hamamni Street who, instead of harassing us, showed us how they make the brass decorations on the boxes.
Also to the Indian saleswoman near the touristy parts of town who gave us her personal incense and incense holder because we bought incense from her and she didn’t sell holders for it.
Also to the Indian antiques salesman who sold us a brass Aladdin lamp at half his original price (which was, honestly, a fair price to start with) and made a minimum profit off it and actually tried to convince his son, who had originally bought it, to sell it at cost, and also showed us how to polish it.
Also shoutout to the man we stopped in the street to ask directions, who was interrupted in his vague directions by a woman, who gave us very exact, precise directions—he let her interrupt him and then actually said, “Excellent,” and affirmed her, which is something we see as a rarity in general and especially in East Africa.

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Day 10:

We had to catch a noon ferry, so we didn’t do much in town besides have breakfast one last time at Zanzibar Coffee. Then we made our way through customs, took the ferry back to Dar es Salaam, had lunch at a little Indian place, and waited for our taxi at a great coffee shop called Impresso Espresso. Then it was back through customs, airplanes, airports, and taxis until we were back to familiar ground in Kigali.

Shoutout to: all the employees at our hotel who went out of their way to make our stay comfortable and help answer our questions about Stone Town.
Also to the lady running Impresso Espresso in Dar es Salaam, who did not judge us for trudging into her coffee shop laden with bags, crashing in a corner, and staying there for several hours.
Also, again, to our taxi driver, Adam, who came to pick us up, helped us decide what time we needed him to come in order to get to the airport on time, and actually got us there early despite massive traffic jams.

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So the tl;dr version: We loved Zanzibar. We had problems with it. Stuff went wrong. Stuff annoyed us. Stuff drove us crazy. But we got to take a break from being Peace Corps Volunteers, take a break from being teachers, take a break from having to try to speak a second language. We swam in the ocean and saw really cool fish and said hello to monkeys. We ate some great food and saw some cute cats and made some really nice, if very temporary, friends. And in the end, hakuna matata!

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A Journey

Urugendo

A journey

I want to share an entry from my journal. This happened about a month ago (of course, because I’m absolutely not on top of blogging, sorry). I was in Huye, a local regional town, for what turned out to be a long, tiring morning, and I headed home, wanting nothing more than to curl up in bed with a good book. Instead, when I got home, I had this to write:

I get to the gare (bus station) and do my usual thing where I tell the first bus employee who approaches me what town I want, let him put me on a bus, and give him money to buy me a ticket. The bus guy puts me on a bus, brings me my ticket and change, and assures me it is the correct bus. I put my change away, put my ticket somewhere, and realise my leftovers from Chinese are beginning to leak oil through the box and bag, so I scramble to get it out and into a second bag before it can make a mess in my backpack where my cardigan, laptop, and notebooks are.

I finish that and realise I have no idea where my ticket is.

I check all my pockets and every part of my backpack two or three times in a mounting, disbelieving panic. I never lose my ticket; I’m a very careful person, and yet I can’t even remember what I did with it. All I remember is seeing it in my lap while I put my change away. I check all the pockets again, stand up to check my seat, the floor under my seat, the aisle…

People near me ask what I’m looking for. I tell them, and they look, too, but we find nothing. A six-inch-long ticket has magically disappeared.

When the convoyer comes, I tell him I lost my ticket and offer to pay again. He says it’s no problem.

I’m so flustered about the ticket that I don’t pay attention to where the bus goes. Suddenly I look up and realise we’re on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. We should be on a paved road through towns and forests.

In Kinyarwanda, I ask the guy next to me, “This bus goes to Nyanza—is it true?”

He says, “No. Are you going to Nyanza?”

I say the bus employee told me this was a bus to Nyanza.

He and several other people shout to the driver that there’s a muzungu who wants to go to Nyanza and that, also, she doesn’t speak French, which is bad, because they all speak French and not English.

The bus driver says we will turn around.

We do not turn around.

Half an hour of dust and curves later, we reach a crossroads that has motos. I try to stop the bus to get off and take a moto back to the gare. They all say no, and tell me we’re going to a gare where there will be a bus to take me to Nyanza. I gesture forward and say, “There are buses that way?”

They all say yes. So I stay on the bus.

Fifteen minutes of dust later, they stop a private vehicle going the opposite direction, and I hear the bus driver explaining that there’s a muzungu trying to get to Nyanza. They tell me the car will take me back to the gare. I tell them I am not getting into a private vehicle with strangers.

I spend a while extremely frustrated that they wouldn’t let me get a moto much closer to Huye but now want me jumping into some car to essentially hitchhike back.

We are now in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road dusty and bumpy enough to rival the backroads of the desert I left behind in America. There are no people, no houses, certainly no gare. I regret not jumping off at the first chance I had and resent these people for stopping me.

Ten minutes later, they stop a bus coming the opposite direction and tell me it will take me back to Huye. But that bus’s driver refuses to take me unless I pay, which my driver thinks is robbery; he therefore refuses to let me off.

I begin to suspect the motos were my best option and that the people didn’t want me to have to pay extra money. I try to tell them I don’t mind paying extra. I don’t know how to convince them that all I want is to quit going the wrong direction and get home as fast as I can.

An hour down this forsaken road, rattling over potholes and past foliage coated brown with dust probably kicked up by the buses that rattled by before us, we finally meet a bus that will take me back for free. I trudge through thick red sand to the other bus.

I climb on and discover it’s already filled past capacity. Most rows have five people or more, and the doorway is clogged with luggage. The passengers stand and crowd and shove and herd me toward the back of the bus where, in the next-to-last row, a young man moves over to squeeze onto the jump seat with someone else, giving me the window seat.

I sit, grateful.

I don’t cry, but I consider for the millionth time that I could have just stayed in bed today.

We begin the journey back—dusty, bumpy, crowded, uncomfortable. I breathe in dirt despite the closed windows and balance my slowly leaking Chinese leftovers in my left hand, nearly tossing it with every rock and pothole.

The man beside me introduces himself as a university student and begins asking the normal questions about where I live and how long I’ve been in Rwanda and why I wound up on the wrong bus an hour from the nearest village. And then, when I expect him to begin with the questions I hate about whether I’m married or if I’m a spy, he asks, “Are you a Christian?”

He proceeds to explain that white people brought Christianity here, but now it’s difficult to find any who actually believe. He tells me he has a friend in Nyanza who is “very serious about God.” He asks if I know other PCVs who are believers and when I explain that there are some but we don’t meet often, he says he wants to put me in contact with this friend, because God made our souls to need fellowship, and it’s difficult to be alone, especially in a country where the culture and language make it difficult to form relationships.

If there’s no shared experience, he points out, it can be hard to form relationships, but when people believe the same thing, no matter their skin or culture, the spirit can be felt there, and there is a bond.

He asks about my favourite Bible verses for different situations, and we talk about Christ coming not to condemn but to save, about Paul’s assertion that “it is through grace you have been saved,” about God as the great provider who sees even the sparrows that fall.

He points out that compared to America, Rwanda is very undeveloped; I point out that while America was developing, Rwanda was struggling with colonialism and other difficult events, and that I see the people here as very strong, very optimistic, and very courageous, working to both maintain their culture and develop their country. He asks me, when I see this disparity, what it makes me think of God. I have to admit I still don’t know that answer.

He tells me he thinks God put me on the wrong bus so I could meet him, because God did not intend our spirits to be isolated.

I think he may be right.

My life often feels like a long, uncertain bus ride in the wrong direction. Especially lately, I find myself wondering if maybe I got on the wrong bus. Today I was reminded that God has guided me this far. I have never once doubted that I am where he wants me. I’m not on the wrong bus. I may not see it through the dust and confusion, but somehow there is something he wants to show me down this road.

(Oh—and I did eventually get home, and without having to buy a second ticket.)

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On Sightseeing: Lessons from New York City

“So what do you want to see while you’re in New York?”

I got this question from everyone my first week in the city—from my flatemates, my coworkers, my mother, the barista at the coffee shop… Okay, I’m lying about the barista; but he probably would’ve asked if he’d thought of it.

My answer was the same every time: “Well, uh, I don’t really know…what are you supposed to see in New York City?”

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So I googled “what to do in NYC” and, overwhelmed by so many suggestions, shut the whole thing down and drank a few cups of coffee. For a few weeks, I forced myself out of my flat every weekend. I dutifully visited the Museum of Natural History and got lost in Central Park. Then I stopped sightseeing, overwhelmed by the number of options, exhausted by the constant movement, depressed by seeing sights alone.

And then Emily came. I picked her up at the airport, escorted her onto the wrong bus, course corrected half an hour later, and helped carry her suitcase up four flights of stairs to my apartment.

I like to think we saw the entirety of New York City in one week of meandering down sidewalks and up subway station stairs. And I think our adventures translate into good sightseeing advice no matter where you’re visiting.

  1.  From the Statue of Liberty: Live beyond a lens.
    My camera phone is generally great, but skylines and statues aren’t really its thing. So I tucked the phone away and spent the ride to Staten Island and back leaning on the top railing of the ferry, breathing in salty air, and taking in the surprisingly diminutive Lady Liberty dwarfed by the city’s skyscrapers, marvelling at the waves and the seagulls and the glints of gold on sailboats. Instead a two- by five-inch screen, I saw the water and sunset stretching as far as I could see, the colours more vivid and real than my phone will ever show me. Don’t be so concerned about getting a photo that you miss an experience.
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  2. From the Museum of Natural History: Call it quits.
    Museums are fantastic, and New York City has more than its fair share. I’m thrilled that they’re here and that people enjoy them, but I don’t. Once I’ve seen one stuffed lion or unearthed pottery shard, I figure I’ve seen them all. And I refuse to feel guilty for that; I can always read a book or watch the history channel, and there are dozens of alternative things to do. I gain far more by doing something I actually care about than by trudging through a museum just to say I did it. Don’t visit a place out of obligation; spend your time on what matters to you.
  3. From Mezzrow and Smalls: Empty your pockets.
    I’m skint and stingy, so $60 for drinks and a show chokes me. But I spent the money, and I spent the evening listening to truly fantastic jazz piano and one of the best quartets I’ve ever heard. I packed in with people wearing evening formal and people wearing shorts and t-shirts, and we all had nothing in common except for the blue chords and smooth saxophone, and I’ve yet to regret it. A year from now, I’ll remember not the rent or the groceries but the memories. Shell out your money where it counts.
  4. From the Brooklyn Bridge: We came, we saw, we conquered left.
    We took the subway to Brooklyn and wandered through the park, along the pier, under the bridge. Then we got back on the subway and left. Most things besides museums don’t take as long to see as people seem to think. It’s important to pause and marvel; we all need a little wonder in our lives. But pausing and marvelling can be done quickly if that’s what you want. Don’t be afraid to stop, stare, snap a photo, and then leave.
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  5. From Piano in Bryant Park: Improvise.
    We put off our afternoon plans to walk the Highline in favour of sitting on rickety chairs in Bryant Park, eating sandwiches, and listening to a ragtime piano concert. A free concert in the park is nowhere in the “must do in NYC” blogs I skimmed, but to us, an hour or two of rag tops a half hour of walking along a repurposed train track any day. Yes, the Highline is more famous, but we prefer Scott Joplin to a different view of the same skyscrapers. Decide what matters most—not what will impress your friends, but what you’ll look back on with a smile. It might not be the most celebrated experience, but what matters is that you celebrate it.
    Bonus: From Gilmore Girls: Put your feet up.
    Don’t get so caught up in the tourist scene that you forget to rest. We spent two evenings lying on the couch eating ice cream and scones and shouting at watching The Gilmore Girls. If you need to bum it with smoothies and Netflix…that’s okay. Let’s face it: if you’re too tired to care, you’re not going to enjoy seeing the sights anyway.

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I know there’s a ton of New York City I still haven’t seen, but I’m satisfied, and that’s what matters. Seeing the world isn’t about crossing items off lists but about adding them—adding the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, that little street where I got lost and never did find the museum I were looking for or the tiny cafe where I had a cheap coffee because the famous restaurant was too expensive. In the end, any sight is worth seeing if I look for the novelty, the history, or the beauty in it.