Manhattan, Astoria, & Miami Beach: Our Final U.S. Travel Destinations

After spending a week in Poconos Pines, PA, for a family vacation, Tom, Aaron’s dad, dropped us off at the Greyhound bus station to start our public transit travels to Astoria, Queens, NY, and North Beach, Miami Beach, FL. This final part of our U.S. travel before flying abroad to Mexico City, MX, consisted of about a week.

I felt a mixture of emotions leaving Aaron’s side of the family to embark upon the next part of our journey alone again, mostly because of the fact that it was the first part of our trip where we wouldn’t have our car, which is a huge convenience and comfort. Relying on public transit is significantly cheaper, but also less is within our control as we surround ourselves with strangers and are not driving. I also don’t often take public transit in my everyday life and I don’t particularly love it. I am sure it is something I will soon get accustomed to as a part of my new everyday life while on the road. Another contributor to my feelings was the realization that it could be a very long time until we see another familiar face besides each other’s, which, don’t get me wrong, we enjoy looking at and being with each other, but we are removed from seeing and interacting with (in-person) our friends, family, acquaintances, coworkers, my students, etc. As time goes on, we will increasingly grow to miss them more and more, perhaps becoming homesick, and not knowing anyone else in most places we visit will add to the unfamiliarity of them. However, there are ways to make a place feel more familiar and comfortable over time, such as staying put for several days, a week, or more and getting oriented walking around, meeting and interacting with people, and experiencing a taste of living there, which we aim to do in most places we visit from here on out. Repeating walking through certain streets or returning to coffee shops, restaurants, and grocery stores we’ve already been to contributes to this as well for me (Aaron is more interested in seeking out new places as much as possible). And I think not being fluent in the local language, doing these things are even more important (though at least for Mexico, Central, and South America, we will be living in primarily Spanish-speaking countries, so in immersing ourselves, we will improve in our language skills and thus feel increasingly more comfortable and effective in speaking and understanding it over time).

The bus dropped us off in Manhattan, so Aaron navigated us to a subway station that would take us to Astoria. After arriving at the subway station in Astoria, we walked about 10 blocks with our backpacks on to the apartment we stayed in. I realized on this journey through public transit and walking that I had more weight in my backpack than I wanted to have, and I vowed to myself that over time, I would consolidate even a bit more than I already had. It’s also notable that it was a quite a warm, humid journey walking with all of our stuff on us. Our AirBnB accommodation was in an ideal location in Astoria, within short walking distance to Astoria Park, many restaurants, and a couple of nearby subway stations. It wasn’t the most clean (I did not feel comfortable walking around barefoot because I got particles on the bottom of my feet when stepping out of the shower onto the mat, and it smelled a bit like BO in some parts) or spacious (our room was small and we shared a bathroom with the couple who lives there), but it met our needs. For the location, in a safe, nice, walkable neighborhood, only paying $70 per night plus the $19 service fee, it was a budget choice, the hosts were nice people, and we had a great experience in both Astoria and Manhattan.

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I believe I got my 12+ bug bites, that I later noticed in Miami, from this open window with no screen. It was a warm humid and the air conditioning unit in the apartment was in the main room only (so we would have had to keep our bedroom door open to feel it a little bit and chose not to).

It was neat to finally experience New York in the Spring for my first time and for Aaron’s first time in a very long time. Our approach to the city is quite different from the one most visitors take: Instead of chasing constant sight-seeing extravaganzas in museums and at popular points of interest, we most enjoy exploring through walking for hours and stopping for food and drinks periodically. Part of it is likely because since Aaron’s side of the family lives in upstate New York, we often make a point to fly into the city for a couple of days before flying into Syracuse for the Christmas holidays, so we have seen and experienced several well-known, tourist sites together already, most in the first couple of times we were there together (e.g. Ellis Island, Times Square, Little Italy, the ice skating rinks decorated with Christmas and Hanukah displays, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building). We also know that we’ll be back to experience a little bit more the next time we’re there. There are plenty of sites we haven’t seen, I’m sure, but we don’t feel like we’re missing out on them and actively try to avoid “checking the box”, or doing or seeing something just so we can say we did. Also, we realize we can’t do everything, so it would be unnecessarily stressful trying. We’d rather have a more leisurely experience than feel a constant drive to go, go, go. Nonetheless, we have a great time every time we visit NYC! The main highlights from our couple of days there this time were walking and taking in our surroundings and dining at local restaurants, mostly consisting of Greek food, but also including sushi, pizza slices, and a bagel. We walked through Astoria Park and also Central Park, where Aaron proposed a few years ago, some of the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, and Harlem, and neighborhoods within Astoria. What I love most about Astoria is, of course, the Greek culture there, among many other cultures. I get an opportunity to practice my Greek language skills and soak up Greek dining experiences, as there are not many Greek restaurants where we live in Sacramento, and my interactions with Greek-speaking people are limited to the church environment. I love seeing all of the Greek bakeries, tavernas, and cafes in Astoria and being able to pick and choose what we feel like experiencing from them!

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Greek salad from Gregory’s Taverna
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Spicy feta dip from Gregory’s Taverna
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Grilled octopus from Gregory’s Taverna (slightly over-grilled, but still tasty)!
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Greek street art in Astoria
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Iced mocha from Astoria Coffee – Serving it in a mason jar may be a new, trendy thing, as this was also the case in Billings, MT
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Latte from Astoria Coffee

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Walking through Central Park – I love the classic lampposts
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Revisiting “the proposal spot” – At the time, we actually weren’t positive this was it, as there are many bridges throughout Central Park, but it was
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This was my view right before Aaron proposed, as I was stretching 🙂

Cardinal sighting
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Pepperoni and cheese slices from Vinnie’s Pizzeria on the Upper East Side of Manhattan
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I love the look of the fire escape ladders in New York, as this is definitely something unique to the East Coast that we don’t have in California, from what I’ve seen
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NYC skyline

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Sushi lunch special at Mido on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – Only $15 each and included a salad with a sweet and tangy carrot ginger dressing! Thank you, Sally Tice (we used part of the gift card you gave us for our travels on this meal)!
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I am LOVING my traditional, Greek frappe from The Coffee Pot in Astoria! It gave me my second wind to keep walking throughout Astoria Park to extend our epic day of walking (we got in just under 50k steps according to my FitBit, a record high in our travels)!
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View from one of our walks along the East River in Astoria Park
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Night view
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Horiatiki salad from E Taverna in Astoria
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Gigantes (giant beans in tomato sauce) from E Taverna – One of our favorite Greek dishes!
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Kotopoulo fournou (half oven-baked chicken with oven potatoes – the lemon and olive oil flavor is mouth-watering) from E Taverna!
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Lavraki (whole branzino fish) from E Taverna
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Steamed wild greens from E Taverna
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We enjoyed our 1/2 carafe of house red wine, our meal, and our dessert (baklava) on the house! We really felt like we were dining in Greece here, as we did also at Gregory’s!

We flew from New York City to Miami and took a Lyft to our private studio apartment rental for our 4 days and nights in North Beach, which seems to be a quiet, local area and is quite a contrast from the touristy, resort-heavy, ritzy, often heard of South Beach (which is also a cool area to see). Thank you, Marquis Matson, for giving us the advice to stay in North Beach, having been a local yourself! Our AirBnB accommodation in North Beach is within only a couple of blocks of the beach, so we enjoyed the convenience of a short walk to get there, which was really nice! It is also located within walking distance of a grocery store and convenience stores, a variety of cultural restaurants (e.g. Peruvian, Cuban, Argentinian), and shops (not that we went shopping really; my only novelty purchase was a selfie stick, which I had been debating about buying for our long-term travel adventure for awhile, but still haven’t actually used yet). We enjoyed these aspects about our place, but there were others that weren’t so pleasant: It wasn’t as clean as advertised (i.e. the dishes, the floor, the bedding, the furniture), it was VERY noisy (upstairs there were small children running around until the early hours of the morning, whom we thought were construction workers for awhile), and the water in the kitchen sink and shower went from scalding hot to freezing cold (I’ve learned since, however, that a finicky water temperature, often cold, is my new reality traveling abroad in Mexico, and this was only the beginning of what was to come)! We also had a frustrating experience checking in for a couple of reasons. First, the host didn’t provide us with the exact address to the apartment in advance, which is standard from AirBnB hosts once the accommodation is booked. Aaron found the street name from the public listing, so we had our Lyft driver drop us off at the location the link to the street name on the listing showed. When attempting to call and message the host at that point, she was unresponsive. So there we were, with our heavy backpacks, tired from our travel that day, standing on a random street corner in the humid heat on the brink of rain, and hungry to eat a meal (our “hangryness”, which is being hungry plus angry, was gradually approaching). When we heard back from the host about 20 minutes later, we were annoyed that we had to walk several long blocks to get to the apartment from where we were standing. Then, she forgot to leave our keys in the apartment for us; there was a code for the deadbolt to allow us entry at least. We let her know and left for lunch, and upon our return, we were locked out because the housekeeper had left the keys inside for us but locked the doorknob (so the code that allowed us to enter before through unlocking the deadbolt was useless). Our host insisted we try the code again, as if we were entering it incorrectly, before offering to come by. We decided to go grocery shopping and come back, hoping she or her housekeeper would take care of it in the meantime (which they did). At the end of the day, these check-in issues were resolved and we moved on. I am providing this amount of detail not so much to complain, but rather to share the realities of travel, that not everything goes smoothly, and there are experiences to be had that are not idyllic and can even be unpleasant.

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In news other than our apartment rental details, as Pitbull raps, there’s nothing like Miami heat, and I continued thinking that while we were there! It was warm and humid the whole time. The air felt thick, my skin felt sticky, and I got sweaty pretty much every time I stepped outside and walked around for several minutes, feeling like I needed a shower again. To put it into perspective, my cold, fresh-pressed juice from Athens Juice Bar, just under a mile from our place, got melty and warm on my walk back, and I drank it all before I got back out of thirst for something cold and to stay hydrated after a workout I just had at a local gym. Although dealing with the humidity was a rather unpleasant and undesirable experience for me, thus quite the personal challenge, on the bright side, I didn’t have any dry skin issues while we were there; in fact, my friend, Kathy Baker, who is an esthetician and regularly lives in a humid, southern U.S. climate, said it’s good for our skin, so I kept that in mind after she told me! This was just part of the Miami experience, the reality of what the climate is like this time of year. Interestingly, Miami also gets thunderstorms and rain in this climate, which is something I had never experienced prior to spending some time on the East Coast on this trip!

Highlights from Miami mostly involved its beautiful beaches; walking along the shoreline during the day and into the evening before and past sunset, putting my feet into the warm water and letting the waves wash up onto the shore over them, going into the water fully as a reprieve from the heat, looking out into the clear water, searching for unique seashells (I’ve never seen the types of shells we saw there), renting Citi bikes and riding mostly along North Beach, Miami Beach, and South Beach and going into the water to cool off at South Pointe Beach, etc. I will say I’ve realized I am not as much of a lay-out-on-the-beach person as I used to be, as it got hot quickly and I just wanted to be in the water, and being outdoors so much when traveling, we’d already been getting plenty (if not, too much) sun for our skin. Luckily, on the day we laid out together for a couple of hours, our time there started out sunny and transitioned into being overcast, and when I laid out again on my own the next day, it was in the late afternoon/early evening when the sun wasn’t as strong.

Another notable, shared experience Aaron and I had was exploring the Wynwood neighborhood, which features a plethora of outdoor artwork created by artists from all over the world, trendy shops, art galleries, coffee houses, and restaurants. We had never seen street art on this level of intricate, vibrant awesomeness before! It was a neat find that was actually completely random and spontaneous for us to visit, as we weren’t even aware of it until Aaron had heard about it in the news for being where Zika was first discovered in the U.S. through mosquito transmission, and it was featured on a local news program we were watching in our studio apartment rental due to it recently being announced as a “Zika free” neighborhood. On that note, there had been recent Zika cases found in Miami Beach, so it was a possible risk to encounter while we were there. As I mentioned above when sharing our experiences and photos from our time in New York City, I believe my dozen-plus mosquito bites were contracted in Astoria; however, even if they did happen in Miami, fortunately, I’m not pregnant, and the odds of me getting bit by a Zika-carrying mosquito did not seem high. Worst case scenario, I would have ended up getting flu-like symptoms as a result, which thankfully, didn’t happen. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t at all concerned, but I decided I still wanted to go to Miami in spite of my fear, which I think is perpetuated by the constant media coverage of it recently and misconceptions and misinformation out there, and that well-meaning, concerned people in our lives had brought it up repeatedly with us leading up to our trip there. A benefit we experienced due to the Zika scare was discounted accommodation rates!

Solo, highlight experiences of mine include taking a Zumba® class at Beach Body Health Club (read my separate blog post about this and other group fitness class experiences I had while on the road in the U.S. here) and going out for a sushi dinner at Katana Japanese Restaurant, which features a rotating mechanism that carries boats with plates of sushi around the bar, so they pass in front of you to choose from! For Aaron, his favorite solo experiences were going for a long run on the beach and getting his hair cut and facial hair trimmed at a Cuban barber shop.

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This photo is some of what came to mind when I had imagined what Miami would be like: Tropical, lush, and palm trees sprinkled everywhere.
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Also what came to mind when I imagined what Miami is like, which was reality: Beach and condos!
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Check out those cool, colorful shells!
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Our first up-close-and-personal North Beach experience during our first evening walk there around sunset
Aaron loved capturing these colorful lifeguard stations (which during the day, there were actually lifeguards on duty).

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Daytime beaching on North Beach

Aaron’s artistic photography skills

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Pineapple salad + chicken + avocado from Smart Bites in Wynwood
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Mediterranean bowl from Smart Bites

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One of the first of much, incredible Wynwood street art we captured

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Wandering within the Wynwood Walls
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One of my favorites
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U.S. political street art
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Word on the street says…

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The sushi bar at Katana
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Spicy scallop nigiri
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I ate a lot of nigiri! 🙂
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Citi bike rental station just outside of our studio apartment
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Part of our biking route (though, shhh… we weren’t supposed to ride on this)!
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We made it to South Pointe Beach!

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Selfie from the pier!

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South Pointe Beach, my favorite!

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Nutritious lunch break from biking at DIRT in South Beach
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Aaron’s sandwich at DIRT
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Glimpse into the fancy resort set-ups on South Beach and Miami Beach
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Biking back to North Beach

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Willard was on evening lifeguard duty after all the other lifeguards took off for the day!
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Awesome, natural sky art at sunset on the beach

Also notable about Miami is the strong Latin culture, which I knew was there, but didn’t realize the degree of it until experiencing it. Spanish is primarily spoken, and in fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I overheard conversations in English. While we were spoken to in English most of the time, we noticed that residents often spoke English as a second language. Reggaeton music blared from stereo speakers in cars passing by and through electronic devices people brought to the beach with them (which I LOVED)! I had never been exposed to Peruvian or Cuban food before, and we dined at both El Kero and Sazon nearby our place on Collins Ave, the main street that runs through North Beach and Mid-Beach.

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Seafood lunch special at El Kero, a Peruvian restaurant
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Parihuela (Peruvian seafood soup)
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Small, happy hour Peruvian ceviche
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My camarones enchilados lunch special at Sazon Cuban Cuisine
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Aaron’s favorite meal in Miami – The Cubano with Sazon fries and a Cuban coffee!

It was nice to have access to a kitchen in our apartment, thus being able to buy some groceries and cook a meal (with leftovers) for ourselves. Living our lives on the road for so long, we crave opportunities for home-cooked meals as a change from eating out pretty much exclusively, which probably sounds amazing and was at first, but gets old after awhile as it loses its novelty, as we knew it would for us. Cooking for ourselves, we get to control the ingredients and types of food we’re eating more, which is challenging to do most of the time when dining out (but is a fact of life for us in our travels). We make healthier choices when we can based on what is available, and sometimes, we just can’t and we go with it as a part of the experience. It’s a gem when we can find a specialty grocery store that sells similar products to what we used to have available and buy back at home, or an organic, vegetarian, or vegan restaurant, or somewhere that sells fresh juices without added sugar. In Miami, we chose to boil whole-wheat pasta, heat a tomato-based sauce and mix in sautéed zucchini and mushrooms to pour over the cooked pasta, and sprinkle parmesan cheese chunks over the top (we didn’t have a cheese grater available).

Miami Beach residents don’t seem super friendly (in fact, I talked to a young lady who works in a local frozen yogurt shop on Collins Ave about this, and living there for over 15 years, she confirmed this was the case), but the accessible beach environment appears to be a rewarding draw to living in Miami. Apparently the humidity suffices in October/November and the “Snow Birds”, or retired couples from cold, winter climates, retreat to Miami for getaways.

While in Miami, we took care of our final immunization, the Yellow Fever vaccine, of many to prepare for our long-term travel abroad. This one went into the tricep and really stung for several minutes afterwards, different from all the other shots we’ve experienced lately (we intend to put together a separate blog post about the immunization research process and the types we received to prepare for our travels). To get to the clinic, we took a public bus (with many stops along the way) and then an Uber. This experience, waiting for the bus in the humid morning heat, which was running a bit late, and trying to make our appointment on time, gave me perspective into what I imagine it’s like for people who don’t have a car and rely on public transit on a daily basis. I have more compassion for those who, let’s say, are trying to get to a job interview through public transit and may not have control of the bus’s arrival and transit times, though they may have gotten to the station on time. It is also worth mentioning that the type of travel we are engaging in from this point forward, as backpackers relying primarily on public transportation and walking to get places, provides us with a humbling and, at times, limiting experience. For example, we didn’t explore other parts of Miami mainly because of the lengthy amount of time it would take to get out there from where we were staying in Miami Beach, perhaps even requiring us to take multiple buses and walk to other stations in-between to make the transfers. It appeared to us that ideally, having a car in Miami would be the most convenient way to get around. Although, even then, traffic is pretty heavy, as getting from North Beach to just outside of the downtown area for our immunizations took an hour and a half (without traffic, it would probably take about 15 minutes).

I admittedly had one of very few “travel meltdowns” I’ve experienced in our long-term travels together thus far in Miami Beach toward the end of our stay. I don’t believe the incident was isolated from other contributing factors and feelings I was having at and around that time. I did a load of laundry at a local laundromat I had made note of when passing it on my way to my excellent sushi feast the evening prior. It was a muggy walk there while carrying my bag of dirty garments for about 3/4 of a mile, after I had just showered; I silently acknowledged my compassion for those who have to do this regularly and my gratefulness that I don’t in my “regular” life back at home. Aaron had caught up with me toward the end of my walk there, as he started with me but went back to our place because he had forgotten something he needed for his errands. I had trouble communicating with the woman working at the laundromat, both because she only spoke Spanish and their process is different than any other laundromat I’d be to before. There is a slot with instructions to pay with card on the machines, but apparently that slot is for a special card they use to start the machines and they take payment only after the washer and dryer loads are finished. They also don’t take credit cards (cash only) for payment, and I was confused when I didn’t see any coin machines. I misunderstood where to put liquid detergent into the washing machine after studying the four compartments carefully on my own (I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the woman because she had apparently told me), so I put it in the wrong place, and she had to come clean up the mess I made and thankfully gave me some other solid detergent to use for my load (I only had a travel-size, one-time use liquid detergent packet with me). I had my first true “travel meltdown” here, ending up in tears and upset with Aaron for laughing at me and thus making me feel even worse. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t figure out something as simple as doing my own laundry here, and I worried about this being only one of many future, frustrating experiences to come where I’m not able to communicate and comprehend fully in other languages. Aaron also has a tendency to find humor in my missteps, and not in an ill-meaning way, but it can really upset me, so that had likely built up over time. Aaron left to run other errands (I really wanted him to leave in this moment and be left alone), and I had time to myself to cool off while waiting for my washer load to finish. At the end of the day, my laundry got done just before our abroad travels in Mexico kicked off, and I got over my meltdown before leaving the place. Aaron would like it to be noted that he had already washed his own laundry by hand in the kitchen sink at our apartment (i.e. I did not do his laundry for him). 🙂

All things considered, we enjoyed our time in Miami and would return. We would be interested in exploring the downtown area, as we didn’t make it out there on this trip. I’d also be interested in visiting the Zumba Home Office, having been a Zumba Fitness Instructor for so many years (it didn’t work out on this trip, as they needed at least a 2-day advance notice, and our back-and-forth email correspondence took time to receive this information).

At the end of our stay in Miami, we took a Lyft to the airport to fly abroad into Mexico City, where we spent a full week of time. We plan to stay in Mexico for at least a month and a half, but we are flexible, so perhaps longer if we desire!

I was nervous and a bit scared, mixed in with my excitement, upon starting our abroad travel journey. I think it was mostly the realization that it would be longer than I’d ever been away from the U.S., and it would be a long, indefinite time before we return. Also, Miami was the first of many places where I’d feel like an outsider, standing out as different than most everyone else, which is an awkward, uncomfortable, humbling experience that I acknowledge is a part of our travel journey. I’m banking on that providing personal growth for me as I live with that feeling more over time, giving me more perspective. Check out my blog post I shared the night before we flew into Mexico City for more details.

Until next time, where we kick off our abroad travels together in Mexico City!

Elena 🙂

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